A tempestuous tribute to a perplexing artist

Anoushka Kavanagh is confronted by an ouevre permeated by emotional and creative conflict in Giacometti’s retrospective at the Tate Modern

A spiny woman lies splayed, horrifically contorted, with her elongated neck severed
just below her gasping head, in what has become the most conspicuous piece of Giacometti’s haunting new retrospective at the Tate Modern. This surreal insectile being, writhing in pain, that is ‘Woman with her Throat Cut’ (1932) is a far cry from the near impalpable spindly spectres, that are more associable with the French artist. Yet it has been singled out for
a reason: it sets the tone for the rest of this show that accentuates a more perplexing side of the master. Full of torment and turmoil, the Tate’s retrospective presents an oeuvre permeated by the artist’s own inner conflict and frustration, not just the embodiment of European inter-and post-war anguish that is most often read into the Frenchman’s work.

Throughout his life, Giacometti was obsessed with the human form, something demonstrated
by the army of heads that greet us in the first room. Whether it be in oil, plaster, ink, or bronze, the artist returned again and again to the figure, chipping away at his portraits in frustrated attempt to find a likeness. These ten rooms portray this with surprising proficiency, doing well to dispel the often unavoidable repetitiveness of his work.

Yet the figure was something that also evaded Giacometti constantly. It provided the source of much dissatisfaction with his work throughout his life, and was responsible for many an ‘artistic crisis’. For instance, in 1959 Giacometti became disheartened by the ‘lack of likeness’ in his oil portraits of the Japanese philosopher Yanaihara, then sitting for him. These grey, smudgy paintings on display here reflect this grievance in their frantic, multi-layered brushstrokes. In ‘Bust of Yanaihara’ (1959), the philosopher’s head is crowned by a smudged white halo—these rough marks appear to prove repeated reworkings of the facial features, and along with the multitude of scratches that define his face, highlight Giacometti’s frustration.

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Similar frenzied marks pervade most of the artist’s portraiture hanging here, especially pictures of his loved ones. ‘Diego Seated’ (1948) reads like a compilation of vertical brushstrokes, blurring his brother into unrecognition, whilst multiple paintings of the artist’s wife, Annette, show her shrouded in darkness with unruly lines absorbing her being. Giacometti did not conceal the challenge his creations posed and often confessed to difficulties: “Diego has posed ten thousand times for me. When he poses I don’t recognise him…When my wife poses for me, after three days she doesn’t look like herself”.

It is not just from these paintings that dissatisfaction emanates. Up close and personal, the infamous stick people show Giacometti’s inner conflict over artistic expression to be a recurring theme. Tate’s acquirement of less familiar plaster and clay figures—displayed alongside their bronze counterparts—aids this impression, for it becomes evident that the production process itself facilitated constant readjustment.

One of the show’s highlights is ‘Women of Venice’ (1956), eight plaster sculptures of the
female form produced for the Venice Biennale of that year. Each woman was moulded by hand—so that they are all slightly different—in an attempt to highlight variation of the female figure (perhaps a seminal moment in the representation of women). Giacometti chipped away at the plaster once it had semi-dried, reworking the forms with sharp knives, before reapplying liquid plaster to achieve a product with which he was eventually satisfied.

Alongside this creative conflict, some sentiment of post-war anguish undeniably also permeates Giacometti’s slender, distorted figures. A sense of the ‘existential despair’ adrift on the continent radiates from the starved figures, scarred faces, and distorted limbs. His brushstrokes are emotionally charged, and there is striking violence in the hacking away of the bodies outlined above. Works like ‘The Glade’ (1950) invoke both aggression and isolation in composition alone—lean, cutting figurines pierce from their bronze base like arrowheads at various distinct intervals. Indeed, his first show of the harrowing bronze casts at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1948, incorporated an essay by Jean-Paul Sartre—‘The Search for Absolute Truth’—into the catalogue that established this anxious, despairing tone.

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Such torment makes itself clear again in earlier inter-war surrealistic pieces, which are adorned with sharp spikes, or formed from disconcerting shapes. Violent eroticism surfaces here in ‘Man and Woman’ (1928-9), whereby a spike painfully pierces a concave dish within the abstract assortment of cast bronze shapes. Whilst ‘Limping Figure’ (1931-2) evokes a distorted being, the wooden sculpture penetrated by three legs awkwardly
mismatched in length. A continual line of turmoil is observable in Giacometti’s oeuvre
throughout this retrospective then. This theme is not surprising when noted that he witnessed the excruciating death of his travel companion Pieter van Meurs in 1921, which haunted the artist since. We are left with the suspicion that he was deeply conflicted both emotionally and artistically.

There is more depth to Giacometti than these haunting human shapes, as Tate’s retrospective masterfully exposes. Throughout the course of ten rooms, we are captivated by more benign cubist creations and abstractions of African art, enthralled by his own fascination with Egyptian mythology, and treated to glimpses into the artist’s mind in an extraordinary selection of sketches and notebooks—before arriving at the more macabre output.

Simultaneously we are alerted to his wider philosophical musings via portraits and connections with figures like Yanaihara, Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, and Jean-Paul Sartre. These links heighten the sense of existentialism and frustration radiating from the tormented art, and bind together beautifully this tempestuous tribute to a highly complex man.