Giacometti, A Retrospective

Alberto Giacometti’s first retrospective in 20 years lands Tate Modern in good stead, but exposes flaws in the curatorial process.

Rejoice! Nicholas Serota has done it again! In the wake of the opening of the new £260m Blavatnik wing and the flurry of hubristic articles celebrating all that the Tate has come to embody in 2017, it’s hard not to see the successes of the art space situated on the southern bank of the Thames. Certainly, Tate Modern has had its run of successful shows in the past year or so – Rauschenberg, O’Keeffe and Calder certainly come to mind – so next in line’s Giacometti, celebrated 20th century sculptor, painter and draughtsman, was surely going to be just as interesting a visit. In many ways, this was absolutely the case, and I spent much of the exhibition entranced by the way the skeletal sculptures conveyed such power from those brittle and unyielding shapes. It was a shame then, that the work was overshadowed at times by the problematic sense that you simply weren’t getting the full picture.

The retrospective opened with a room dedicated some of Giacometti’s busts. Some 20 pieces cluttered in the centre, lined up in plinthed rows like a modernist’s terracotta army. This was a useful overview of the artist’s work, where I could examine the progression from early sculptor to surrealist and then into his later output. I enjoyed how self-referential the exhibition was being, taking the multi-roomed format of a retrospective and condensing it into one space, like a sampler for the rest of the show. Whilst this was not the first time I had seen an exhibition curated in such a manner, I felt like the method gained more tract in context of Giacometti’s work, as if my role as the viewer was being shrunk down to size to observe these beguiling faces like I was the Very Small Figurine Giacometti had in mind.

On top of this, the works were so marvellous! Early pieces like Head of a Child showed this duality of appreciation for classical sculpture with a touch of that genius that requires an artist to keep redefining the parameters in which they work. Conventional approaches to structuring the anatomy of the head were subverted and as I progressed further into the room the guises became more gnarled and less recognisable. With works like The Artist’s Father (1927), I could begin to see the same tribal influences that informed much of Picasso and the Primitivists and the busts took on a more totemic form, becoming analogues of themselves.

The following rooms provided a more in-depth study of these periods of Giacometti’s work; how each informed the next and why they came to be. His pre-war material in Paris was particularly interesting, exploring the descent into surrealism and abstraction – renegotiating the dimensionality of shape. I was surprised at the breadth of Giacometti’s work in this period, knowing him more for the razor-thin figures that populated his post-war years than anything else. Those works had created an impression of a sober (and perhaps self-involved) modernist, so I was surprised to find myself chuckling at the tongue-in-cheek names of works such as Disagreeable Object to be Thrown Away (1931).

Of course, there was the work Giacometti became remembered for. A friend of his once said that if Giacometti decided to sculpt you, "he would make your head look like the blade of a knife", and as I moved to the later rooms I was introduced to the emaciated figures of his post-war years. One noticeable detail was the imprints of his fingers spattered all over the figures, imprints that reminded me of a child thumbing a piece of Play-Doh™©®. When I studied the faces of these thin figures I could still see the playfulness characteristic of his earlier works, faces so dignified in spite of their warped complexions. This feeling contrasted with the content of the work however, which, in their dark metal-cast tones and static poses, reminded me of ill-fated Vesuvius victims or the oft-proposed starving war survivors. The way Giacometti tapped into post-war sentiment was clearly a factor contributing to the success of his work and I could see why – these sculptures were often in the most mundane of pedestrian poses – not pondering like Rodin’s The Thinker but standing or walking, as if crossing an intersection. But moreover these figures ignored the apparitions they were cast in, seemingly unaware of their unearthly proportions. I wondered if this was how people felt going back to the routine of their lives after the close of the war, pretending that nothing had ever happened to them or anyone else.

These works were the greatest success of the exhibition, for their size meant that they were often placed with the potential for multiple viewing angles. In this matter I felt the exhibition stored its greatest failure: the positioning of the works. Functionally, it seems to me, unless explicitly or implicitly obvious from the artist’s intentions, sculptural works differ from painting in that they are supposed to be viewed in three-dimensional space. This means from all angles! How frustrating it was then to be confronted with works set against walls, only viewable from the front. This technique pervaded the entire exhibition, to the point where I didn’t bother looking at some of the works for more than a few moments. Understandably, these works bear great historical (and monetary) significance so I can understand the hesitance to place some of them where they are more prone to being touched or knocked, but I couldn’t help but feel that the Tate’s solution was simply second best. Next time a rethink might be in order.

All in all, however, I enjoyed the exhibition. Much of the work had profound depth that attracted my curiosity and the stuff I was less keen on kept me interested simply because it linked to the other stuff. I would advise anyone in the area to go see the show in spite of a few minor curatorial stumbles – a fun game I suggest you try is to guess the names of some of his surrealist pieces before you look. You might have more luck than I did.

'Giacometti' is on display at Tate Modern until 10 September 2017.

Christian Jackson

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