Walking around the Giacometti exhibition at the Tate Modern there is an unmistakeable intensity in the air. It’s always been there since our first encounter in the sculpture garden of The Maeght Foundation, Saint-Paul de Vence in the South of France. Giacometti achieves something in his creations many other sculptors can only dream of; he imbues them with the fiction of life. The sensation of presence lasting only a split second, a first glance, emanates from the work in front of you.
APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
The Waste Land, T.S Eliot
The prewar early surrealist period are by far my favourite of all the surrealist artworks. The evocation of dreamlike ambiance; an unlocking of feeling and desire. I was disappointed not to see ‘The Palace at 4am’ in the Tate Modern show but his work from the 1930s is well represented. Giacometti claims they arrived fully formed in his mind, despite an absence of meaning. The encounter with each one is about experience as opposed to seeing or defining.
“At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman.”
― Albert Camus
As Giacometti returns to Paris after the war, he is irrevocably affected by the atrocities that were born out in the backyard of Europe. His work turns to something quite abysmal and dark. The figures are thin, elongated and often fixed with an expression of dull pain or a squealing stare. I stand before a row of his plaster figures letting their eyes fix me in reply. There’s a moment of discomfort, of confrontation. The words of Eliot, of Shakespeare, of Camus start to ring through the mind.
"O, that this too too solid flesh would melt / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!”
Giacometti: Jean Genet (source Tate)
Giacometti’s painted portraits have the same power and intensity of his sculptures. he repeatedly depicts his wife Anette and his brother Diego as timeless figures in space. They look listless, perhaps petrified in some way. There is a portrait of the French existential author, Jean Genet, a criminal and adventurer whose work and life seem intertwined in a strange interplay between danger, life and death. Genet is captured by Giacometti, fixed into the picture frame facing the world, a world that for him was full both of demons and dreams.
The alter undulated on a foul mud into which it sank: the murderer.”
― Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers
Giacometti: Head on a rod
In one of the last rooms of the exhibition, a work titled ‘Head on a rod’ is in a case. This slender, pallid face, gapes upward with mouth wide open. I imagine a gentle exhalation of breath; perhaps that of a dying man.
Giacometti responded to the murder and loss of the second world war from the bottom up. His figures are scorched and demented, starving and full of pain. It’s easy to think of them as dated, or of a period but the truth is, they are relevant reminders of how Europe fought, lost and then rethought and forged its peace. These are themes that are working their way back into our psyche as rightwing populist politics have been edging back into the mainstream. I can’t help looking at these sculptures and thinking, “never again!”
It’s great to see one of the highest ranking artists of the 20th century so well represented by the Tate Modern. Definitely worth a visit!