Giacometti at the Tate Modern, London
Exhibition Review

Giacometti at the Tate Modern, London
Exhibition Review

Giacometti at the Tate Modern, London
Exhibition Review

Giacometti at the Tate Modern, London
Exhibition Review

Giacometti at the Tate Modern, London
Exhibition Review

Giacometti at the Tate Modern, London
Exhibition Review

'I am very interested in art but I am instinctively more interested in truth [...] The more I work, the more I see differently' - Alberto Giacometti.

The Tate Modern's Giacometti exhibition (on until 10 September 2017) marks the first large-scale retrospective for the artist in the UK for 20 years and presents the visitor with over 250 works, whilst yet offering an intimate insight into Alberto Giacometti's unique vision and working method.

The exhibition opens with a sea of faces, as more than twenty busts lined in ranks confront us. We walk from the more classical sculptures at the front through to primitive, abstract busts and more recognisably Giacometti blade-like faces at the rear. This grouping neatly shows the evolution of the artist's style from 1917 to 1960, and the range of media from bronze, plaster and terracotta.

The following gallery shows the boldness of the young artist's pre-war experimentation and affiliation with the Surrealists – sculptures lined against the left-hand wall are shockingly modern and reduced to the most essential of forms, such as Gazing Head (1929) and Woman (flat V) of circa 1929, whilst the phallic Disagreeable Object of 1931 is aggressively sexual. Breaking up the space are more Duchamp-like sculptures such as the barbarous looking Caught Hand of 1932 (a reference to his brother's childhood accident in which Diego's fingers were caught in an agricultural machine) and Cage of 1930-1, which introduce both a sense of dynamism and that of an uneasy, precarious balance, as if a trip-wire could be triggered.

The subsequent room serves to provide a context for Giacometti's work in the 1930s, filled with wall reliefs, drawings and a large cabinet display of tiny notebooks, sketches on letters, miniature bronzes and fashion magazines. Journals further support his alliance with the Surrealist movement, an affiliation compounded by the next room in which the tension really ramps up with five striking, larger scale sculptures grouped together on a low plinth. Most powerful of these is arguably Woman with her Throat Cut of 1932, which is devastatingly arresting in its violence. Low to the ground, the Max Ernst-like hybrid of woman and insect or plant-like form writhes in pain.

Following the death of his father in 1933 and the outbreak of World War Two, the artist returned to a more figurative style of sculpting and painting, which was considered a treacherous move by Breton and his Surrealist cohorts, and resulted in Giacometti leaving the group. The adjacent display gives an insight into the smaller-scale figures that the artist created during the war whilst holed up in a hotel in Geneva. More delicate and realistic than the monumental works next door, they nevertheless pack a punch, and captivating gems such as the tiny Very Small Figurine of circa 1937-9 succeed in pulling our attention away from the large and beautifully tactile Woman with Chariot. Giacometti attributed his inspiration for these small figures to a memory from his time in Paris: 'I wanted to make a sculpture of this woman as I had once seen her some distance away on the street'. The story goes that the artist returned from Switzerland to Paris with all the sculptures he had created during the Second World War contained in just six matchboxes.

Walking into the next space we are now firmly in recognisable territory, presented with characteristically skeletal, heavily worked figures hailing from Giacometti's return to his Paris studio in the immediate post-war years. Interpreted as embodying contemporary anxieties, these works capture a generation's trauma. Falling Man (1950) shows us the truly unimaginable terror of the moment just before the fall: the work is rendered with heart-breaking fragility, yet with a perverse balletic elegance. The pace is now relentless, as a following room exploring his paintings from this era is overpowered by the dramatic Head on a Rod and The Nose, both from 1947 and nightmarish exaggerations of the human visage.

The penultimate room brings the focus back to the domestic sphere, hung with oil portraits of the artist's brother Diego and wife Annette, complemented by drawings and bronzes. Giacometti's focus becomes more insular as he struggled to capture what he considered the true essence of his companions in paint and clay. A film by Ernst Scheidegger plays to one side and offers a fascinating insight into Giacometti's nervous, intense working method, as he remodels a clay figure whilst being interviewed, constantly pinching, adjusting and cutting with a knife. He emphasises the importance of the eyes - once caught, 'all the rest is hazy and uncertain'. Giacometti describes becoming lost in the process of creating, and his frustration in feeling that he never truly caught the subject, hence needing only a few models - 'Diego has posed ten thousand times for me. When he poses I don't recognise him... When my wife poses for me, after three days she doesn't look like herself. I simply don't recognise her'.

Exiting the gallery past monumental figures such as Standing Woman I and Walking Man I of 1960, we are reminded of the opening display of the exhibition which set out to illustrate the surprising variety of Giacometti's examination of the human form, and leave with the realisation that his elongated stick figures carry a haunting presence beyond their mass.

by Ruth Woodbridge, Specialist, Impressionist & Modern Art, London