Al­berto Gi­a­cometti’s divine touch

On the eve of a new Tate show, Colm Tóibín cel­e­brates the artist who brought bronze to life

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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

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