It’s still all wrong but I’m getting a little nearer
Giacometti is one of art’s Big Names. With a distinctive style, a Paris address and an Italian name art historians have decreed that he swings where others merely crawl, rides a Harley where all-but-forgotten contemporaries unicycle. You probably have an idea of his stuff – starving figures with big feet may spring to mind – but as the new exhibition at Tate Modern shows there’s more to him than that. A lot more. Room after room more. Which is great for these big museums with huge rooms to fill but brings about the ponderation: Do large retrospectives work for the viewer? The curators may love getting this from there and that from a little-known collection that never lends, and the the accountants might think that sheer quantity helps justify a £18.50 entry fee, but for the fellow on the Tate Waterbus, doesn’t a fatigue set in? With such big shows it should be possible to come back and have another look without having to buy another ticket. There are 250 works. If you spend just one minute looking at each you would have to be there over four hours.
Like many artists Giacometti was a magpie. He pinched from all over the artistic shop, taking a little bit of surrealism here, a bit of kinetics there, a soupçon of cubism when the Cubists weren’t looking. It’s a diverse output, but totally understandable given the length of his career.
One constant though was a focus on the head. This is acknowledged in Room One which is full of the things. All sorts of styles, all kinds of materials. If he’d been at art school a tutor would have told him he had to settle down and chose a style, but luckily Giacometti did nothing of the sort. With his life-long interest in the head the room is theoretically a good introduction to the show. But the heads are badly displayed in a central phalanx, which makes an art object of the whole ensemble rather than allowing each to be viewed individually. And as for working out which label on the wall refers to which head – very good luck to you! But galleries have long regarded labels that are obvious and helpful to be unnecessary. In one room the wall-screed mentions several of the works in the room, yet makes no indication which is which. To discover this you have to walk around and peer at the labels, which is tediously unhelpful at the best of times and probably impossible when the gallery’s busy.
Giacometti is best known for his bronze sculptures, one of which is used to advertise the show. I rate the paintings highest, followed closely by the plaster sculptures. When cast in bronze the sculptures are too solid, too uniform and lose the fragility that they have in the plaster form. The paintings are dark and unnerving, to the extent that it’s not hard to see why he concentrated on painting people he knew. You can imagine many conversations might have gone like this…
Giacometti (to a stranger he’d like to paint): Hello, may I paint you?
Stranger: Yes, of course. Can I just see one of your paintings?
Giacometti: Certainly. Here.
The stranger looks at the painting.
Giacometti: So what about tomorrow?
Stranger: I’m sorry I’m busy.
Giacometti: The day after?
Stranger: Sorry, I have to leave town and am never coming back.
They have a serious, anxiously over-worked focus but they don’t sing out the sitter’s beauty and character, Giaco has impressed his own feelings of death and uncertainty onto them all. One in particular of Annette is positively skeletal, making explicit her future death. It’s a subject that most of us try and avoid thinking about by drinking and laughing and going to art exhibitions. Good on him for giving it some brain-space.
A projected video is worth catching a glimpse of, showing Giacometti’s working procedure, pinching at the clay as he talks. Something similar, if not precisely the same film was shown at the 2016 NPG show of Giacometti’s work. That was a self-contained exhibition that worked well. This is bigger and somehow more look-but-don’t-touch, even though you couldn’t of course touch anything at the NPG show either. Here there’s a lot of work that’s safely behind barriers, backs to the walls, with the implicit curatorial admonition: look at it from the angle we’ve chosen or not at all.
This exhibition brings together many aspects of Giacometti’s work and gives a rounded view of his artistic output with a chance to see his earlier work in context. The curators say that it reconfigures ‘history of art into a number of narratives,’ which I think means that he was a busy man with several styles and they’ve got lots of his stuff. It’s a serious survey and though you may go in a Giacometti amateur you’ll exit an expert. I fear though that some visitors will be so Giacometti-ed out that they won’t want to see his work again for years.