Think you know Giacometti?

Alberto Giacometti had a revelation as he was leaving a cinema in Montparnasse in December 1945. As the ‘screen’ between him and the world fell away, raw sensations could again be experienced. So explained National Portrait Gallery’s (NPG) Pure Presence curator, Paul Moorhouse. Visiting the NPG exhibition, I came to understand that the screen was the barrier between Giacometti and the real subject; it was the source of his frustration. 

Giacometti (1901-1966) started sculpture from an early age – his first portrait bust was of his brother Diego, created in 1914 aged 13 (and part of the NPG exhibition). His painting began in a post-impressionist style, following in the steps of his father, and later took a Surrealist turn. He painted people close to him, starting with his immediate family. His brother Diego, his wife Annette, and his lover Caroline were his main sitters.  


Bust of Annette, 1954

After his post-impressionist period, Giacometti drew and painted with a sculptor’s approach, using many touches. He also sculpted faces mostly in a similar way with flat cheeks and a prominent nose, I noted. His elongated sculptures, for which he is most famous for, came from his memory of seeing his model and lover Isabel from a distance in Paris, standing in the Boulevard Saint Michel. In other words, his tall lengthened figures from his mature style (~ 1946) were a rendering of his sensation at sight of a subject.


Woman of Venice VIII, 1956

Giacometti’ works stemmed from Existentialism, looking at man’s significance in a meaningless universe. Pure Presence made it all make sense to me: Giacometti focused on (his sitters’) presence rather than psychology. For instance, looking at portraits of Caroline, we have no clue she was a thief, and maybe a prostitute, but we sense her strong presence, particularly from her steely gaze.


To Moorhouse, Giacometti should be as well known as Picasso. The NPG addresses our incomplete understanding of him, in my view. 


I have seen many “Giacomettis” in Paris and beyond, including recently in Milan. But found there was much to learn about an artist I thought I knew well. Don’t miss Giacometti Pure Presence. The exhibition runs at the National Portrait Gallery until 10 January 2016.

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