The Egyptian influence on Alberto Giacometti’s work featured prominently in this exhibition. Looking through books on Egyptology, Giacometti would copy the photographs, often sketching directly over the printed text. I found these drawings appealing – the mix of photograph, text, and sketch is very aesthetically pleasing. It might seem like Giacometti isn’t treating these books with their due deference – you shouldn’t draw on books amirite – but for me his additions liven up otherwise pretty dead-looking academic tomes. 

Across from the display of books are several of Giacometti’s tall, thin human forms with Egyptian-style heavy bases. This is visually different to the influence apparent in The Head of Isabel (the Egyptian), 1936, a white bust of a woman with heavy, structured hair. The visual link to ancient Egyptian statuary lends a serenity and nobility to the figure of Isabel, but the texture of the sculpture is completely different from his tall thin figures. It’s interesting to see how the Egyptian influence carries into Giacometti’s different styles.

This show is curated and interpreted in a way that opened my eyes to Giacometti’s practice; I now understand the work better and like it more as a result. I guess that’s one of the things that good curation can do. Three Men Walking, 1948, Four Women on a Base, 1950, and other groups of tall, elongated figures, are clustered together like a forest of silver birches. From far away they’re almost indistinguishable from one another, they’re melancholy, they somehow feel like they’re standing in the rain. The interpretation points out that these works reflect the post war melancholia of Europe, and his stretched, sad figures, and paintings in muted greys and browns, make sense to me for the first time. There are some visual links between his work and that of Francis Bacon – there’s a similarity in the brush strokes – but Giacometti’s paintings in subdued tones of grey and brown are much calmer, much sadder than Bacon’s red angry monsters.

A video shows Giacometti in action, making a portrait in paint and a sculpture in clay. This was a beautiful insight into the process of his practice, emphasising the time taken in his process. Many of Giacometti’s sculptures feel very energetic, with figures like Walking Man, 1947, striding purposefully forward, so it’s a surprise to see how slow his sculptural process was. His work is not an immediate creation, there’s a huge amount of labour involved. It’s very unpretentious.  

My favourite piece is Tall Thin Head, 1954, a bronze bust that face on is ridiculously slender, but see it side on and it’s a full, bigger than life-size profile. I saw this, or a similar piece, at Gagosian last summer and I loved it then too. I love the way this uses space and perspective – it becomes a different sculpture from every angle.

The Nose, 1947-9, is another highlight. I like a little bit of gruesome and this is very grim. A tortured looking head with a pointed, Pinocchio nose hangs suspended within an oblong box. The nose is superficially funny, poking out of the confines of the box, but when you notice the twisted, downturned mouth, and the cage-like structure within which the head hangs, it becomes more sinister, like a Grimm punishment for lying. Compared to the melancholy drudgery of his standing groups, The Nose is more harrowing, conveying a pain not present in his other figures. 

This show readjusted my view of Giacometti. I now get why he’s so revered, thanks in part to the curation and interpretation (props to Francis Morris and Catherine Grenier), but thanks mostly to seeing so much of his work in one space. God bless the retrospective.

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