I have always found something intensely haunting and upsetting about the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti. Whether working in clay, plaster or bronze, his archetypal busts and figures are imperfect and unattractive. Their faces evoke the smouldered and charred remains of Pompeii frozen in time by Vesuvius in AD 79. His distinctive technique and inimitable practice is the focus of this Tate Modern retrospective. Giacometti’s constant revisiting of his sculptures means that some of his figures look overworked while some look unfinished, yet they are all incredibly striking.
Tate emphasises in this exhibition the Swiss artist’s affinity with Tate as an institution. The final room in the show, for example, exhibits three sculptures he made for a retrospective in their London gallery shortly before he died. This pathos is emphasised by Giacometti’s unwavering loyalty to the emaciated effigies he made from the very beginning to the very end of his career. Their strange ability to metamorphose from three dimensions (when seen from the side) to two (when seen from the front) is somehow simultaneously compelling and disturbing; towards the end of his life, Giacometti’s sculptures seem to use this as a comment on the frailty of old age.
Earlier in the show, Giacometti’s abstract forms and his interest in the surrealist movement are exhibited with a distinct joy in the act of making. It is interesting to see the artist playing with fauvism and primitivism, especially since he is not known for working in these genres. This is, however, the only ‘light’ in a show characterised by dark symbolism. Woman with her Throat Cut (1932) is particularly disturbing. Most sculptors use their medium to celebrate the human form, it seems that Giacometti is contrasting this intention with the human capability for violence and our obsession with death.
This might be the best show I’ve seen at Tate Modern for a long time, though I do have one criticism. I couldn’t help but think Tate might have overstretched themselves a little in the sheer scale of the show. Bringing together over 250 works is an immense achievement, but the overpopulation of each room does take away from the individual power of Giacometti’s sculptures. There are many sculptures in the show that would have been more effective if they were to have been isolated on their own podium (perhaps even their own room) rather than huddled together like a crowd waiting for a bus on a rainy day. In these congregations, certain sculptures take on different meanings that I’m sure were not in Giacometti’s intentions.
Aside from his sculptural work, Giacometti was a master draughtsman and painter too. In carrying his signature style over from three dimensions to two, his rapid brushstrokes convey the same unnerving disorder as his sculptural work. Some of his oil paintings remind me of the harrowing studies of the English painter Francis Bacon. Giacometti’s Jean Genet (1954/5) could easily have been inspired by Bacon’s infamous studies of the human head like Head VI (1949), for example. Although the intensity is a few notches higher in Bacon’s painting and the intentions were clearly different, there is not much that separates their methods of portraiture in terms of practice.
Whereas any other sculptor’s work adapts with time and fashion, Giacometti consistently showed us the same starved bodies, the same worn faces and the same upsetting forms. His scale may have differed but the motifs he employed stayed the same. Tate can pat themselves on the back for staging this ambitious yet informative show. Everyone can recognise a Giacometti but I’d imagine few are aware of the sheer extent of the artist’s oeuvre. I had no idea that Giacometti invested so much time into making decorative objects like lamps, vases and jewellery. Nor had I any clue that he was a founding inspiration for the surrealist movement. There is a lot to learn here, and I doubt that an exhibition of Giacometti’s work will be staged again on this scale for some time. To miss this show would be to starve yourself of one of the best sculptors modern art has ever seen.
Giacometti continues at Tate Modern until 10th September.