In the current retrospective at Tate Modern of the painter-sculptor Alberto Giacometti it is space that is the overarching theme that drives and shapes the development of his work. Space is at once his muse and nemesis.(This was from a man who was a known acrophobic.) We learn from the excellent video that he sits only two metres away from his subject yet despite this closeness he speaks of how the more he looks, the features of his sitter slip away. This is the reason he gives for having so few models, principally his brother Diego and his wife Annette. Yet despite this struggle his draughtsmanship is breath-taking to the point of magical. In the video we watch as he starts a portrait, no measuring or comparing just swift, deft strokes with the final flick of the brush that transforms the portrait like a conjurer pulling a rabbit out of a hat. We observe too how he is continually scanning his work to see how the objects around his sitter fit in, in terms of space. With complete exactitude he knows just how much definition to give the surrounding objects so as not to detract from the sitter. He uses every trick in the book to give his paintings depth and subtlety from contrasts in light, over lapping and varying line definition. In some of his portraits he surrounds his sitter with a cage like structure, a device that he employs with some of his sculptures. He employs the same method of scanning when working at his sculpture( as seen in the video) he make adjustments on the head and then moves down to the neck, continually going back and forth.
In room one of the exhibition we are presented with a series of portrait heads. They are all turned in the same direction and in this position one is very aware of the variation of styles, planes, textures and the development of his work. As one moves through the exhibition we learn about his interest in the surrealist movement and Egyptian art. There are personal effects including sketch books and sculptures from the tiny to the several meters tall. I wondered too if the curator, Francis Morris (whether intentionally or not) had defined our viewing in terms of space as there were very few works that gave you the opportunity to view them from every angle.
Much has been said of Giacometti’s presentation of women, how the women always seem bound and the men on the move. In fairness to Giacometti I don’t think it’s that straight forward. Prewar those gender definitions were very clearly defined in terms of expectations and behaviour; post-war those gender definitions were being re-written. Giacometti’s best known piece Walking Man gives an air of restlessness, a figure on a perpetual quest, facing an unknown future.
By contrast the women may be bound but they have a calmness, in particular the last three figures of the exhibition they stand like silent totems an embodiment of womanhood and wisdom. From Giacometti I get the sense of awe and envy of these representations for he aligns himself with the Walking Man forever on his quest for his vision of reality.
“The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.”