Giacometti: Pure Presence, National Portrait Gallery, London, until 10th January 2016

Giacometti lived a peculiarly double life, despite his lifelong quest for a ‘real’, as he put it. From the age of 21 he mixed in the dizzying artistic milieu of Montmartre, experimenting and eventually coming to terms with his own perception, pulling his art towards the ascetic spindly bronze figures, the Pure Presence of the exhibition’s title, that would bring him acclaim. But for the summer he went home to Switzerland to paint quiet little conventional still lifes and portraits of his family. Which was the real Alberto?

What the curator Paul Moorhouse does with this account is trace Giacometti’s development from the very beginning through his portraits. That way he attempts to grasp the unique reality of perception Giacometti strove for after turning away from the straightforward Impressionism he began with. In Paris, Giacometti lived in what became a rather famous squalor, eventually kept in some sort of order after the Second World War by a devoted wife, but he came from a well-to-do middle-class Swiss family.

His father was the successful Post-Impressionist painter Giovanni Giacometti who saw his eldest child’s promise with a pencil very early. At 13 he was given some Plasticene and made a head of his younger brother which pleased Giovanni so much he cast a bronze of it, and at 17 he was sent to art school in Geneva. His father took him to Italy where he discovered Tintoretto and Giotto who opened his eyes to the audacity that was possible in capturing the human form. In 1922 Giovanni decided to send him to Paris and the best artist/teacher there, Antoine Bourdelle at the Swiss-founded Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where the stifling academic rules of the Ecole Des Beaux Arts were eschewed and life drawing was the key discipline.

Head of the Father II ( at and engraved) © Alberto Giacometti Estate, 1962, ACS/DACS, 2015
Head of the Father II ( at and engraved) © Alberto Giacometti Estate, 1962, ACS/DACS, 2015

Alberto was 21 and for the next decade or so in Paris he experimented with Abstractism, Primitivism, Cubism, and most intriguingly Surrealism. His friends were André Breton, the leader of the Surrealists, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Man Ray, and later Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. At the opening of his first solo exhibition at the Galérie Pierre Colle in 1932 the first through the door was Picasso.

We see nothing from this Parisian maelstrom of activity when Giacometti was looking for his own reality, in the only city in the world where he had every new thought on the matter immediately to hand. Instead we see the other side of his creativity, the gentle portraits of family done during his annual returns to the cosy tranquility of Stampa, the family home village near Switzerland’s Italian border. He was looking for his metier, and in 1921 he made a marble relief portrait of his mother from a chalk drawing by his father of more than a decade before. In Post-Impressionist patch-work oils we have his sister Ottilia, his brother Boris sleeping, his other brother Diego, who was to be Giacometti’s principal model for the rest of his life, standing in the living room, tall, handsome, neatly dressed and aggressive, quickly painted and apparently looking for a fight. But what was Alberto looking for?

Annette IV (1962) © Alberto Giacometti Estate, 1962, ACS/DACS, 2015
Annette IV (1962) © Alberto Giacometti Estate, 1962, ACS/DACS, 2015

We see him grappling with structure in pencil, oil and bronze. In his sculptures from the early 1920s Giacometti is even scribbling on his forms to get his structures, and he struggles particularly with his father’s likeness – he has bronzed a head of Giovanni and scratched on it the facial features that are effectively graffiti. Another head of his father looks naïve, until on closer looking you see the detail he’s worked up, every hair of the salt and pepper beard in place. It’s as if by returning to the domus he goes back to his creative nursery to remind him of the basic tools before he plunges back into the crucible of Paris and the struggle for his real.

But he abandoned many pieces, dissatisfied with his attempts to create a completely accurate head and continually starting again: his hand was not conveying to the clay what was in his mind’s eye – while his painted portraits, and there’s one of himself in the act of painting, are resolutions his father would have approved of.

Bust of Annette (1954) © Clive Alberto Giacometti Estate, 1954 ACS/DACS, 2015
Bust of Annette (1954) © Clive Alberto Giacometti Estate, 1954 ACS/DACS, 2015

At the Académie, although he had praise of his drawing, he had difficulty with the nude form, finding it impossibly complex. He stuck to heads, going back to Cubist basics to find structure. Then for a while he abandoned working from the life completely as being too distracting from the essence, using only memory to try to capture his wanted image.

Then in 1933 Giovanni died and Giacometti had a complete re-evaluation of his work, almost as if released from the need to conform with the values his father espoused. He broke with the Surrealists and worked with a new independence, renewing his efforts to resolve the problem that each time he looked at his model he saw something different.

He began to model to the size he saw in perspective, rather than actual size, and there is a drawing of his mother Annetta from 1937 in which he has abandoned all signifiers of identity to leave a solitary presence, as Moorhouse describes it, and she was a regular model until her death. From this point his Swiss and Parisian selves seem to be reconciled. A resolution began to form when that year he saw his model Isabel Nicholas at a distance in the Boulevard St-Michael, her features unseeable but her presence unmistakeable, surrounded by and commanding space.

The war was an impasse in Giacometti’s Parisian quest and he went back to Switzerland in 1941 when he met his future wife, Annette, his other main muse from then on. He stayed in Geneva where he made tiny sculptures of anonymous human forms. In 1945 he brought them back to Paris in match- boxes, and they were the start of the tall, thin figures that are the Giacometti the world knows, the Pure Presence.

We don’t think of Giacometti, who died in 1966 aged 64, as a portraitist, but by being in the National Portrait Gallery this exhibition makes clear that, in the simplest terms, that is what he is. But this exhibition sets out to show that to say he is a portraitist is as inadequate as to say he is a sculptor.

By Simon Tait

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