Alberto Giacometti’s divine touch
On the eve of a new Tate show, Colm Tóibín celebrates the artist who brought bronze to life
Slowly, as the twentieth century began, writers and painters became almost brazenly aware that writing is made with language and painting made with paint and sculpture with material. Artists also became deeply alert to ideas about consciousness, symbols and will, ideas that made their way into popular thought courtesy of Freud, Jung, Nietzche and their followers.
A movement of the hand could thus be both absolutely pure and oddly uncertain. It could be done for its own sake, and also carry a symbolic or resonant force. A sentence or a brush-stroke or a way of moulding plaster was an act of will, but it was also an act of guile. In work made, the nervous system and the hidden self emerged as much as did the decisive image or the deliberate form.
What more could painting and sculpture mean, or do, as Alberto Giacometti, who was born in the far south of Switzerland in 1901, began to work? What could the statue, the bust, the pictorial surface, or indeed the lithograph, look like if it had to seem pure and yet also knowing, refracted in the viscous, complex and uneasy waters of the symbol and the self? These problems preoccupied Giacometti as he tried to work out a personal iconography.
Giacometti arrived in Paris to study in 1922; he got to know, over the next decades, a great number of the leading artists and writers in the city, including many Surrealists. Some of his early sculpture, such as Suspended Sphere from 1930 or Woman with her Throat Cut from 1932, is as good as Surrealism gets. He had his first show in Paris in 1932 and was, three years later, officially expelled by the Surrealists – a badge of honour – for betraying the cause of the deep unconscious by working from life, although a decade later he began once more to work from imagination.
He cleansed his work of so much that it is important to remember that it has also been cleansed of the easy Surrealist release of meaning. He sought, instead, to move closer to form itself, to the face, the head, the space around them, the material, in all their austere imperfections and strange, coiled energy.
Although Giacometti was interested in the deepest and most precise contours of the face, he had no interest in making mere representations of those who sat for him. He was an artist both rooted in the exact and transported by the visionary. His drawings, which are exquisite, do not read like preparations for his sculpture or his paintings; it was as though everything he touched he sought to perfect, knowing all the time that he would fall short. His sculpture, too, bears all the signs of being shaped and lovingly worked on, then sent to the foundry with a sigh of resignation. He managed to make images that seem strangely perfect, alive and organic, but also filled with a sense that much unease and uncertainty went into their making.
Giacometti’s sculpture was created using what seemed like the minimum of means. The raw will is subtly apparent: what he made was all process, all released energy, quick decision and sleight-of-hand. And he was alert to the power of the signs of his untidiness, the moments of random decision that went into the making of the plaster models. He was interested in the rawness of reality rather than in offering some smooth interpretation of the visible world.
He was also concerned to create, as he worked, illusions of monumentality. Even if the scale was, or seemed to be, small, he was not a minimalist, he did not seek to lower the tension or the ambition in the work he made out of humility. He was aware of the power of the image against the living light all around it, as the solidity of the bronze both filled the air and resisted it.
He found a style in sculpture and stuck to it; he made skinny and elongated, attenuated figures, working a great deal with his wife Annette as a model, as well as his mother and Diego, his brother, who was also an artist. He was a great modern artist partly because he created a strange and self-conscious iconography of the body.
His figures are filled with dignity, a stillness, a solitariness that suggests a dense inner life. They have a presence that is almost philosophical; there is something in their aura that represents the human dilemma, human frailty, human pride. In them, with great tactile care, Giacometti managed to capture a sense that the human fate in the world is not only tragic, but maybe wondrous, too.
They also have their own stoical descent towards nothingness written into their shape, their stance. Giacometti suggested that our presence in the world is a set of fluent, fluid gestures, but he took care to imply, as Beckett did, that these gestures took place in the small time between the cradle and the grave.
To create this aura, Giacometti managed to make the space around the thin piece of bronze appear to circle it and enclose it, the air becoming unsettled by the mass that had been created. He set about disturbing the context, the gathered light, around his work, all the more to make it seem a place where something significant had occurred or been dramatised, where something had been deeply felt, and then painstakingly realized by an exquisite shaping.
This is obvious in his drawings and prints, too. He knew when to leave space alone; he was conscious of the moment when a single line or mark could do enough to evoke both itself and the emptiness around it. He knew how to draw a face while making the viewer utterly alert both to the space around the head and to the lines and marks in that space; he had enough skill to make you believe that the face he made was alive and real, and he had enough irony to
make you see that he was merely manipulating his material. Thus the dance between light and mass, or between hard presence and impalpable absence, could hit the the viewer like an echo that has more force than the original sound.
Giacometti did not arrive quickly or easily at the style that became his signature. Even when he found it, each object he made still has a real sense of newness and struggle about it. All his life he was fascinated and repelled by the ambiguity of space, how something large, for example, could seem small if you looked at it, or thought about it, for long enough. In the early 1940s, many of his figures were tiny, but in the 1950s, after much effort on his part, they became taller. He needed very little to inspire him. “One tree,” he said, “is enough for me; the thought of seeing two is frightening.”
David Sylvester, in his book Looking at Giacometti, reported on how the artist worked when he made sculptures from memory. He would build up and then cut back to scratch, build again, working fast, demolishing completely, then go at it again. But there would be no enormous change in the image created each time. He just wanted to be able to get the image right in an instant, in a flash.
Most of the time, he needed many such flashes before he would let the piece go. As an artist, he fought against and distrusted his natural facility, seeing what he could do to make it harder for himself, as he made it more fascinating for the viewer, filled with the mystery of that great gap between what the hands of the sculptor can do and what the material will yield.
Giacometti’s figures have dignity – and the sense of an inner life
Taking a stance: Falling Man, 1950, and Walking Man,right, from 1960, in the loose, elongated style that Giacometti made his own
‘ He was alert to the power of the signs of his untidiness’: Giacometti in his Paris studio in 1958. Below: Woman with her Throat Cut, 1932
O, brother: Diego Seated, 1948, is one of the artist’s many portraits of his younger sibling