In the first large-scale retrospective of his work in the UK in 20 years, Tate Modern exhibition of Giacometti charts his creative development throughout his turbulent lifetime. Alberto Giacometti is one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century, with virtuoso command on different mediums ranging from plaster, wood and bronze sculptures to paintings. Tate’s exhibition, divided into ten spacious rooms depicting his works chronologically provided an insightful journey for its visitors as they retrace the steps of Giacometti’s journey as an artist.
The first room featured Giacometti’s early face sculptures, arranged so that an army of sculpted faces were pointed towards the visitors. Some were minimalistic blocks of plasters with human features etched on, while others were carefully moulded visages. Others were skewed, sliced, elongated or flattened, and all of them like arrows freshly fired were pointed at us as we entered the exhibition. The shower of dead, immortalized gazes greeted us.
The rooms that followed showed Giacometti’s early flirtations with cubism and surrealism. We see vaguely humanoid statues- The 1927 ‘Head (Self-Portrait)’ is a squiggly line scrawled on a rectangular plaster- as well as shapes that touch, suspend, and interact with awkward whimsicality. These experimental works feature statues human-like in innovatively disturbing ways, depicting the human body and relationships reduced to the most rudimentary shapes of triangles, quadrangles and cylinders. They suggest Giacometti’s tenacious interest in human forms and his progressive attempts to discover ways of articulating them differently yet truthfully.
These experimental works feature statues human-like in innovatively disturbing ways, depicting the human body and relationships reduced to the most rudimentary shapes of triangles, quadrangles and cylinders.
As we inched towards the heart of the exhibition, the fourth room featured his more well-known works created in late 1920s to 30s. The experiments with human shapes were now bolder, departing from Giacometti’s earlier influences from the European vogue of cubism towards his fascination with African and Egyptian sculptures. The ‘Spoon Woman’ (1927), inspired by a ceremonial spoon from the Dan culture in West Africa, depicts a standing woman with a concave, spoonlike midriff. The expectant hollowness of her belly is ironically fertile in its very ample capacity. The ‘Walking Woman (1)’, sculpted in 1932, is headless and armless. Her torso is supported by her eerily elongated legs, accentuated through the absence of her other limbs. Her character is that of a ‘walking’ nature due to the complete amputation of her other faculties. The abstract sculpture ‘Cube’ (1933-34), argued to be impacted by his father’s death, is hardly a cube. It is a bronze polygon, large, heavy and finely formed with smooth, irregular sides tinged with blue-green. Its calm completeness eludes definition; its smoothly defined edges fail to give a story, no identifiable characteristic is hinted, while its heavy form claims bewildered attention. Perhaps the very essence of a human being, individually complete yet undefinable. Perhaps the very shape of death, sharp and heavy without handles or openings or even a face, disquietingly existent. The abstractions invite speculations.
However, the greatest creative turning-point for Giacometti was arguably the World War II. This is when his signature shapes of humans faceless, dark, and precariously elongated, begin to appear with alarming significance. In the artist’s own words, ‘It all happened in spite of me, even when I fought against it. And I fought against it, I tried to make them broad. The more I wanted to make them broad, the narrower they became.’ These shapes are ashen, skeletal figures with brittle limbs, like the Pompeii bodies preserved in volcanic ash, with impossibly thin and long bodies. His busts boast precariously long and thin necks that separate the head and the shoulders, suggesting men’s alienation from themselves. His elongated statues have throats too strangled for screams, eyes too sunken for tears, alone, featureless, and absolutely breakable.
His elongated statues have throats too strangled for screams, eyes too sunken for tears, alone, featureless, and absolutely breakable.
Particularly touching were sculptures of these stick-like figures walking, the thinning wisps of bodies trailing like syrupy, thin smoke oozed into existence. They are the bare monuments to the failing postwar humanity. These bronze figures are complemented by female figures cast in plaster, flesh-colored, yet with the same sickly skeletal figures. The plaster breasts are stuck on like a pair of flimsy wings, mere ghosts of the spoon-like voluptuousness. The last room depicted tall, emaciated figures of women, their feet glued to the earth like winter-trees.
Giacometti’s post-war humans are cast in naked forms as the citizens of the prelapsarian world. Bared, devastated, and often mouthless, they are the totems of the humanity in tatters. Some read in these wandering figures glimmers of hope, in the congealed strength of their brutally reduced bodies. Others read black despair in the featureless faces. Nevertheless, Giacometti’s human form is the scarred pillar of the body, the ultimate worldly temple charred but standing. This journey through the gallery is an intensely personal one for each viewer as much as it was for the artist. The exhibition is open at Tate modern until 10th September, 2017.