LONDON — In April 2016, following the announcement of Tate Modern’s monumental new retrospective devoted to the Swiss sculptor, Alistair Sooke mused in the Telegraph: “What is it about Alberto Giacometti?” The National Portrait Gallery had recently closed its major Giacometti show, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich had opened its Alberto Giacometti: A Line Through Time, and it was only in 2015 that the Swiss sculptor’s “Pointing Man” (1947) became the most valuable sculpture to sell at auction, for $141 million. Though art historians and curators have in recent years sought to diversify the traditional canon of Great 20th Century Artists — i.e. predominantly white, male, and European or American — it is fair to say that Giacometti remains firmly categorized as one of those artists in the popular imagination. For many, his slender bronze figures are a shorthand for the wrought emotion and desolation caused by the horrors of war.
Granted unparalleled access to the Giacometti Foundation in Paris, curators Frances Morris and Catherine Grenier have assembled a staggering 250 works, including ample material with which to explore Giacometti beyond the bronzes. To immediately dispel the artist’s restrictive associations with bronze, the co-curators take as a starting point the Giacometti Foundation’s recent efforts to restore his plaster works, many of which had been damaged by their usage in creating bronze versions. Giacometti actually favored bronze and plaster equally and, as becomes clear here, explored various media, styles, and influences, often simultaneously in a methodical and inquisitive manner. Unlike his contemporary Pablo Picasso, there are no definitive periods in Giacometti’s oeuvre, and as such the show’s chronological progression underlines his consistently exploratory approach. It is as expansively comprehensive as you could wish, with room for some creative display techniques that, for the most part, enhance the viewing experience.
The exhibition’s first room precedes the chronological sequence with a display juxtaposing bust portrait sculptures in varying media and styles in neat, uniformly regulated rows on plinths of equal height, generally progressing from early to late from front to back. The installation acts as a synopsis for what is to come; Giacometti appears not to have progressed from one style and medium to another in a conventionally linear fashion, but produced at any one time naturalistic (though lightly stylized) portraits in the round as well as deliberately primitivist pieces, their features incised crudely into flattened surfaces. The familiarly mangled, elongated bronze figures emerge toward the back of this prologue display. The group appears like a theater of faces looking forward in unison; we are invited to walk all around and compare the styles and media, observing closely the physical marks and qualities of the differing materials. It is a bold curatorial decision that cleverly introduces what will become an overarching theme: the significance to Giacometti of the process of making and constant exploration as intrinsic to the artworks’ raison d’être.
The display technique allowing groups of works to be seen all at once, and then one after the other, continues in the exhibition’s early rooms with similar effect. During the mid 1920s, Giacometti moved away from traditional representation, exploring abstraction methods like his contemporary Constantin Brancusi, or drawing inspiration from African and Oceanic art. In a sequence of works all titled “Woman (Flat),” each piece presents an upright, loosely oblong form with only minimal undulations hinting at the figures’ intended anatomy. The different versions span many media: bronze, marble, plaster, terracotta. In the same room are examples of Giacometti’s forays into surrealist thinking, similarly in search of modes of abstraction. “Cage” (1930–31) is a cube containing suspended spokes and crudely geometric forms constructed in untreated wood. You can see its joins and pins and the marks of its making, offering an altogether rawer impact than the smooth, polished bronze seen elsewhere in the show.
As the exhibition’s chronology progresses to the familiar, stick-like figures, a sequence of small pieces is presented evenly spaced behind glass and very dimly lit, befitting work that emits such a sense of stark solitude and desolation. “Very Small Figurine,” from around 1937, is barely the size of a matchstick on a tiny plinth, with minute traces of pigment, but it packs the most intensity of the more than a dozen pieces in in its case. The display is minimalistic, sombre, and evidently conceived to enhance the intensity of viewing, but this uncluttered design comes at the expense of clear wall text. All the labels are crushed into a tiny space at the entrance to the room. No visitor is going to be walking back and forth between each sculpture and its distant wall text 15 times — I like to read what it is I’m looking at without the extra exercise. This is not such a problem in most of the other early rooms in the show, which similarly place sequences of sculptures together on one plinth with captions elsewhere. One room contained a single plinth with only four works on it, and reading all the scattered wall texts necessitated walking all the way around, thus accentuating the startling physical contrast between, for example, the violent “Woman with her Throat Cut” (1932) and the distinctly non-rectilinear mound of “Cube” (1933–34). Some exhibitions opt for pamphlets instead of wall captions to avoid this issue, which may have been a better idea here if the curators were so concerned for the uncluttered display of these works.
The eight surviving works from the Woman of Venice series — which Giacometti created when he represented France at the 1956 Venice Biennale and are reunited for the first time here — boldly introduce visitors to the iconic elongated figures, firmly asserting the significance of plaster alongside bronze. Five of the original works have been restored specially for the show by the Giacometti Foundation, and the immediacy of the medium is evident in the surfaces he savagely worked with his hands. Giacometti often returned to the work to cut away at the dried plaster, reapplying liquid plaster, sometimes finishing with fine lines in dark red and black. The figures are at once solemn and still, and full of feverish working.
The exhibition’s return to a more conventional mode of display here, with sculptures dotted around the room instead of sharing a central plinth as in the earlier rooms, is probably a gesture of mercy, lest we be faced with a forest of indistinguishable stick legs. It is perhaps a minor and unfortunate consequence of this show’s impressive number of loans — some utterly breathtaking to behold, like “Head on a Rod” and “The Nose” (both 1947), which are as distressing as they are awesome — that they detract from the powerful sense of loneliness and distinctness that comes from seeing a solitary Giacometti.
Aside from their diluted emotional impact, in numbers the sculptures nonetheless invite comparison of their differences in size, surface texture, and finish (or lack thereof), bringing the focus back to the centrality of the process of making. The presence of Giacometti’s portrait paintings enhances this idea. A work like “Bust of Yanaihara” (1959), for example, is an unhappy, thick pool of grey sludge, and Giacometti himself lamented that it is “lacking in likeness,” according to its wall text. The exhibition concludes with a late group of paintings he made of his mistress Caroline between 1960 and 1965, all identical in pose and composition. The painting method employed here bears less of the differentiation of mark-making and physical emotion that Giacometti achieved with his sculpture sequences. Like his sculptures, the paintings appear many in a sequence, all similarly searching and experimenting. Yet somehow the canvases fall short of the essential and unique visual language present in the physical marks of his bronzes and plasters, which by comparison feel alive and urgent.
The show is colossal and comprehensive, even including forays into design from the period in the 1930s when Giacometti made a living producing decorative objects. Throughout, his methodical practice is clearly demonstrated across styles and media, presenting an essential dichotomy between the process of making art as crucial to its very being, and the idea that art is the end product as a vessel for an idea, emotion, or ideology.
Giacometti continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London, UK) through September 10.