Giacometti Exhibition (Tate Modern)

Giacometti Catalogue - Tate ModernLena Fristsch et al (ed.), Exh. Cat, London: Tate Modern: Tate Publishing, 2017. 304pp. 230 colour ills., Paperback £24.99, Hardback £40.00

Exhibition schedule:

Tate Modern, London, May 10 – September 10, 2017. £16.80 Entry, Under 12’s Free


The Giacometti retrospective is a collaboration between Tate Modern and the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris. This is a unique and exciting opportunity to see rare and previously unseen works by the celebrated Giacometti, an artist who has been extensively written about, linked to the Surrealist movement, and yet still somehow overshadowed. Depending on your relationship with art and how closely you follow the national exhibitions, this may be your only opportunity to view Giacometti’s plaster works, which rarely travel due to the delicacy of the medium, although it is these works which are most prominently documented in photographs of the artist and his studio. The volume and scope of works in this collection, over 250, invite you into the mind of the artist, viewing through his eyes, those who he was most close to, his inspirations and battles, as well as his haunting view of mortality. All ten rooms were occupied by a multicultural audience of all ages, including children being guided by their parents, and all were clearly aware and excited by the exhibition.

Alberto Giacometti in his Paris studio, 1954. Photo by Ernst Scheidegger
Alberto Giacometti in his Paris studio, 1954. Photo by Ernst Scheidegger

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) is the subject of many international exhibitions, but this is the first major retrospective in the past 20 years, exhibiting work from his five-decade career. Giacometti was a Swiss sculptor and artist, who adopted the Parisian lifestyle as many modern artists of that time did. In 1927, he moved into a small and temporary studio in the Rue Hippolyte-Maindron in Montparnasse. ‘“I planned on moving as soon as I could,” he said, “because it was too small – just a hole.”’ (qtd. in Lord: 1996, 102). But the longer he stayed in that tiny hole, and the more artworks he produced, the tiny hole appeared to grow, and there he remained until his death in 1966. The studio, in and of itself, a symbolic and incidental installation, filled with brushes, paints, plaster and clay, finished and unfinished sculptures, sketches on the walls of ideas – some of which were fully executed, some were not – as well as failed pieces.

I don’t mind whether the exhibition presents success or failures. … I have no requests, merely to proceed feverishly.

At Tate Modern, the exhibition is situated in the Eyal Ofer Galleries, a lovey exhibition space which allows you to appreciate all the sculptures in their full beauty. The walls white and brightly lit, this space was utilised successfully to the most. Giacometti is perhaps known mostly for his sculpted busts and elongated figures. The first room of the exhibition celebrated the many busts or ‘heads’ but were collated together in a tight arrangement, all facing forward, making it difficult to truly appreciate the detail or the heads beyond the outer edges. If you know of Giacometti’s work, it is possible to spot those of his brother Diego Giacometti (1902-1985) and his wife, Annette (1923-1993). In line with this bemusing layout, the labels which held the information for each bust were pasted on the walls, in a similarly confusing way.

Giacometti, Alberto. Caught Hand. 1932
Giacometti, Alberto. Caught Hand. 1932

Another group of works on display were Giacometti’s ‘objects,’ which he began to produce in the late 20s and early 30s, such as Caught Hand, (1932). These curious objects leaned towards the surreal, and they caught the attention of the Surrealists. In 1930, these progressed with a view to creating objects which ‘Salvador Dalí recommended as “the construction of objects with an erotic significance, in other words, of objects designed to produce a particular sexual emotion by indirect means.”’ (Jean: 1960, 227), though it is unknown if it was Giacometti’s intention to evoke sexual emotions from his objects. Other Surrealist artists began to experiment, and similar works began to appear by Gala Eluard (1894-1982), Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), and André Breton (1896-1966), however they ‘lacked the essential quality of Giacometti’s invention, the sense of unity of a true object’ (Jean: 1860, 227).

Harper’s Bazaar September 1937 edition. Photograph by Man Ray
Harper’s Bazaar September 1937 edition. Photograph by Man Ray

The exhibition touches on some of the lesser-known facts and links with Giacometti, such as his relationship with Harper’s Bazaar. Between 1934 and 1958, Carmel Snow (1887-1961) was the editor of the American edition of Harper’s Bazaar. In a conversation with French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), she said ‘I’d like a cover photo of that man who has cheeks like escalopes, whose name finished in ‘i’ and who is your friend’ (qtd. in Chéroux: 2008, 57). In the cabinet room (Room Three), alongside some of Giacometti’s decorative pieces from the 30s, sketch books, and an exploration of his publishing connections such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, the untitled piece known only as ‘decorative seagull object’ (c. 1935-7) was hanging high, one four seagulls decorating the backdrop of a photograph by Man Ray (1890-1976) of two beautiful models wearing Chanel taken for Harper’s Bazaar September 1937 edition

When you look at the human face, you always look at the eyes. An eye has something special about it, it’s made of different matter than the rest of the face.

Giacometti’s surreal sculptures continued to develop, some becoming increasingly popular, disturbing and brilliant all at the same time, such as the violent Woman with her throat cut (1932), and the undeniably emotional Invisible Object (1934-5), which was completed in the wake of Giacometti’s father’s death – a haunting reflection of the loss Giacometti felt. This period reignited his love for ‘faces’ and once again produced busts of those he was most close to – some from live sittings and others from memory. This renewed love saw Giacometti moving away from the values of Surrealism, committing treason to the movement, which resulted in Giacometti’s exit from the group.

Giacometti, Alberto. Woman with her Throat Cut, 1932
Giacometti, Alberto. Woman with her Throat Cut, 1932

The exhilarating exhibition also brings together a collection of Giacometti’s paintings, which he managed to execute with the same haunting approach as many of his busts and sculptures. These were installed in a large room surrounded by his new surge of ‘heads’. It was around this time a young Englishwoman by the name of Isabel Rawsthorne (1912-1992) was capturing the attention of many of the artists in Paris after she moved from London in 1934. With ‘exotic looks (her high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes hint at a dash of oriental blood), her lithe physique and her exuberant appetite for life, Isabel made countless conquests, with men and women, throughout her dissipated, bohemian youth’ (Peppiatt: 2010, 88), she attracted the attention of both André Derain (1880-1954) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), and became a subject for their paintings in 1936. It was after a date with Derain at the Café du Dome that Rawsthorne first became aware of Giacometti, later recalling that: ‘shortly after the encounter with Derain, I had become aware of a curious sensation when being observed with remarkable intensity by a man with singular features. This continued for many days until one evening, as I rose from the table, he rose at the same time. Advancing he said, “Est-ce-que on peut parler?”, from then on we met daily at five p.m. It was many months before he asked me to his studio and pose. By which time I knew that had changed my life definitely’ (qtd. in Winner: 2016, 57). This love affair produced many pieces of art, including Head of Isobel (c. 1937-8). The platonic relationship lasted for quite some time, with regular visits, but due to Giacometti’s ‘inability to perform’, and Rawsthorne’s expectancy of a performance, their relationship came to an end.

Diego has posed ten thousand times for me. When he poses I don’t recognize him. […] When my wife poses for me, after three days she doesn’t look like herself. I simply don’t recognize her.

Alberto Giacometti, Press View, Tate Modern, May 2017
Alberto Giacometti, Press View, Tate Modern, May 2017. Copyright

The War was underway and, on returning from visiting his mother in Geneva, Giacometti was denied re-entry into Paris. It was now he met a beautiful young woman by the name of Annette Arm (1923-1993), who had trained at a secretary school but had gone to work for the Red Cross, coincidently in the same office as a young Paulo Picasso (1921-1975), son of Pablo. Annette’s dark eyes left a lasting impression on Giacometti, and the two married on July 19, 1949 with what would have been a French version of a pre-nup. Giacometti was not best pleased with French marital law which stipulated that all property will be jointly held upon the union of marriage. Over the years, Annette had become an important model for Giacometti’s work, modelling for his sculptures and paintings, and was perhaps, along with his brother Diego, the most frequently used model in his works. The installation at the Tate Britain demonstrates the level of perfection Giacometti worked to, displaying multiple versions of the same figures  bust of Annette, Bust of Annette IV (1962); Bust of Annette VI (1962); and Bust of Annette VIII, (1962), which are accompanied by one of his evocative paintings also called Bust of Annette (1964). The repetitiveness of Giacometti’s thought process is also demonstrated in a collection of rare figures referred to as Women of Venice, 1956.

I have the feeling, or the hope, that I am making progress each day. That is what makes me work, compelled to understand the core of life.

Giacometti, Alberto. Caroline, 1965
Giacometti, Alberto. Caroline, 1965

The exhibition closes with the looming presence of Standing Woman I (1960) and Walking Man I (1960), both of whom put mortality into perspective as they look down as you look up. The room also gives a nod to his mistress, a prostitute only known as ‘Caroline’. ‘Caroline’ was the one woman who Giacometti did not feel sexually inhibited by; a woman whom he spent a great deal of his fortune on, to the dismay of Annette, and when his offerings to her became insufficient ‘heavies from Caroline’s milieu moved in, threatening Giacometti with violence if he did not pay up’ (Peppiatt: 2010, 28). Annette would often sit for Giacometti in the sunlight hours, and ‘Caroline’ would sit for him in the moonlight. However, the two women did at times, cross paths as the hours changed, and a violent fight would pursue, reminiscent of the fights that would occur in Picasso’s own studio between Marie-Thérèse Walter (1909-1977) and Dora Maar (1907-1997). ‘Caroline’ was not only the cause of chaos for Giacometti and Annette, but Diego would not stand for their relationship, and it proceeded to control any other relationships Giacometti wandered into. Seven years before Giacometti’s death, an unlikely friendship developed between Giacometti and Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992). Giacometti was an avid visitor to the local cinema and knew of Dietrich, and Dietrich became intrigued by Giacometti upon visiting an exhibition in America. Dietrich visited Paris and met with Giacometti in a little run-down café, and what followed was a developing affection and several evenings spent together. Peppiatt notes that Dietrich ‘refers coquettishly to the fact that she “didn’t turn away his love”’ (Peppiatt: 2010, 170). However, ‘Caroline’ soon put a stop to this affair, and that was the last time Giacometti saw Dietrich.

I wanted to hold on to a certain height, and they became narrow […] The more I wanted to make them broader, the narrower they got.

Giacometti, Alberto. Diego Seated, 1948
Giacometti, Alberto. Diego Seated, 1948

The conclusion of the exhibition came suddenly. It was not that the ten rooms were not sufficient in the works they offered, but more because I would have been content to continue for another ten rooms. As with the unexpected end of the exhibition, Giacometti’s physical condition declined rapidly and was immediately hospitalised. On January 11, 1966, Giacometti passed away from chronic bronchitis and heart disease, and as we closed the large doors behind us and walked slowly into the exhibition store, it was hard to let go of the incredible emotions that had imprinted on you for the last hour and a half.

Whether you know of Giacometti or not, his works are compelling, with a narrative that is so distinctly personal to the artist that you can almost feel his presence walking with you in a silent manner, almost like a shadow, as you consider his life. Many of the exhibits were protected by an alarmed wire which frequently sounded as people leaned as far forward to experience these pieces as closely as possible. Never have I heard the tune of an alarm call out so frequently, but it does demonstrate the appeal of these works, which made the viewers want to get up close. I feel that the significance of Giacometti’s studio is a missed opportunity which the curator could have used to give that one last but significant insight into the artist, otherwise the only real disappointment for me is the fact I don’t live close enough to London to visit this unique exhibition again.

Works Cited

Chéroux, Clement. (2008). Henri Cartier-Bresson. London: Thames & Hudson.

Fritsch, L., & Morris, F. (eds.) (2017). Giacometti. London: Tate Publishing.

Jean, Marcel. (1960). The History of Surrealist Painting. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Lord, James. (1996). Giacometti: A Biography. London: Orion Books.

Milburn, C., & Winner, C. (2016). Alberto Giacometti: A Line Through Time. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts.

Peppiatt, Michael. (2010). In Giacometti’s Studio. London: Yale University Press.


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