Tate Modern is billing this exhibition as the first major retrospective of the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) in Britain for 20 years. That’s a bit rich, given that in the past year alone there have been substantial shows devoted to his work at the National Portrait Gallery and at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. Neither of those institutions, though, has Tate’s clout when it comes to dealing with the key collection and archive, the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti in Paris, and there are certainly some eye-popping loans here, including previously unseen or recently restored works, even a chunk of wall from Giacometti’s Swiss studio.
Early rooms cover Giacometti’s involvement with Cubism, and later Surrealism, after his arrival in Paris in 1922. The pivotal work is ‘Suspended Ball’, which caused a sensation when it was exhibited at Galerie Pierre in 1930: Dali wrote an article extolling it as the prototype Surrealist object. Five years later Giacometti was summoned before the group for making ‘realist’ work; he walked out in the middle of the interrogation.
By the end of the 1930s Giacometti had began to produce his famous elongated figures, which seem to epitomize post-war alienation and despair, although their main inspiration was in fact Egyptian art. The centrepiece of the show is the series of six plaster sculptures, ‘Women of Venice’, created for the 1956 Venice Biennale and reunited here for the first time in 60 years.
Nowadays Giacometti is considered the archetypal existentialist artist, his work situated ‘halfway between nothingness and being’, as Sartre put it. With his wild hair and rugged good looks, together with a cigarette permanently dangling from his lips, he certainly looked the part. Seldom getting up before midday, he would spend long hours trawling the cafés of Montparnasse before returning to his near-derelict studio, usually with only his devoted brother Diego for company.
James Lord’s 1985 memoir gives a vivid description of Giacometti’s working methods, which would involve intense scrutiny and endless re-working. Before resuming work on Lord’s portrait he would announce: ‘It’s hopeless!’ or ‘I don’t know why I’m even trying!’ or ‘It’s impossible! I can’t make portraits, no one can’.
One aspect of Giacometti’s art which emerges very clearly from this show is his preoccupation with scale. One of the most arresting exhibits is a huge, stand-alone plaster leg, which reminded me a bit of the giant foot of Constantine on the Capitoline Hill. At the other extreme are tiny figurines, some only a few millimetres high, said to have been inspired by a sighting from afar of the artist Isabel Rawsthorne on the Boulevard Saint-Michel in 1937.
Giacometti’s life, like his art, was a gradual paring-down process. In his later years he mostly used just two models, his wife Annette and Diego, although from 1958 he did employ a third, the young prostitute known only as ‘Caroline’, who would become his mistress and muse. Stanley Tucci has just made a film about their relationship, yet to be released in the UK, with Clémence Poésy as the enigmatic Caroline alongside Geoffrey Rush as Giacometti. (I only mention this because I spotted Tucci at the press view).
I have a couple of reservations about this otherwise exemplary show. First, it felt rather cramped. How the organisers managed to fit 250 works into just 10 rooms I can’t imagine. By contrast, the 2013 Paul Klee show at the Tate had only 132 works – and Klee worked small – in 17 rooms.
I would also have liked to have seen a bit more art historical context. There are no works here by other artists, for example, unless you count copies of André Breton’s books. In particular, I think something could have been made of Giacometti’s connection with Francis Bacon. The two artists met in the early ’60s and shared models, although because of Giacometti’s early death they never became close friends. Both worked in filthy, confined spaces and were fond of containing their figures in cage-like structures. I suppose somebody has already written a PhD thesis about the Existentialists and their boxes. Rothko too, of course, was very fond of squares and oblongs.
Giacometti at Tate Modern until 10 September 2017