In a clever move, the announcement of the opening of this exhibition was made on May 12th 2015, a few hours after Giacometti’s ‘L’Homme au Doigt (Pointing Man),’ (which was in a private collection for 45 years) sold for $141.3 million dollars at Christie’s Looking Forward to the Past auction in New York City. This made Giacometti the world’s most highly prized modern sculptor. According to artinfo.com, Christie’s anonymous seller has been identified as the New York real estate magnate Sheldon Solow. Giacometti became one of the art market’s ultimate trophy names in February 2010 after the billionaire Lily Safra paid 65 million pounds (then $103.4 million) for the 1961 bronze, ‘Walking Man I,’ at a Sotheby’s auction in London. Giacometti now appears three times in the top ten list of the most expensive pieces of art ever sold: at number three, with ‘L’Homme au doigt,’ (sold for $141 million at Christie’s New York on May 11th 2015); at number eight, with ‘L’homme qui marche I,’ (sold for $103 million at Sotheby’s London on February 3rd 2010); and at number nine with ‘Chariot,’ (sold for $100 million at Sotheby’s New York on November 4th 2014).
The title of the exhibition derives from the existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre, who referred to Giacometti’s endeavour to give ‘sensible expression’ to ‘pure presence.’ Many know of Giacometti’s life and work in Paris, but few know about another part of his life, his double life and portraiture work in Switzerland. Giacometti: Pure Presence is the first to focus on the lesser-known double-life of the Swiss 20th century artist. It covers the period 1914 to 1966, revealing Giacometti’s life-long preoccupation with portraiture and ‘copying appearance.’ The artist claimed that, starting in 1925, and for ten years ‘it was necessary to abandon the real.’ However, the exhibition attempts to prove that this is a lie to his own claim.
Giacometti does in fact engage with the human figure and the creation of the image of an individual human presence, based on particular real models. Visitors to the exhibit will be able to experience the artist’s original representation of the human figure. The exhibition will display portraits of all his main models, including his wife Annette and his brother Diego, as well as his friends: the writer Louis Aragon and Jean Genet, the philanthropist Lord Sainsbury, the art writer James Lord, and his friend Caroline. His development from post-impressionist influences through cubism to expressionist portraits of figures in highly charged spaces is reminiscent of the ‘caged’ compositions of Francis Bacon.
Giacometti led a double life while he created portraits in both Paris and Switzerland; both were vital to him, and are brought together in this exhibition. He was not interested in the psychology and biography of his sitters, and therefore these are not psychological portraits. In 1945 Giacometti went through an eye-opening incident at the cinema in Paris, where he said that the screen had dropped away before his eyes and when he left he saw the world with fresh eyes. The screen he refers to is one that separates us from the outside world. The screen filters through what we think we know, and therefore allows us to see the world based on our reinterpretations of previous memories, judgments, and the image bank we have collected over the years. He, instead, saw the world raw, for what it was, shapes and colours, like a child does before growing up. He saw the world as a sensation. He then applied this experience to his portraits. He took his sitters and he subjected them to the human process of looking and seeing and interrogating through his visual experience. He wanted to ‘copy’ this visual experience in relation to the human presence. The direct relationship with his sitters was both intimate and confrontational.
Born in 1901, Giacometti was a gifted child from the beginning, following in the footsteps of his post-impressionist father. He made his first portrait, a sculpture of his brother Diego, at the age of 13, and went on to life drawings and models. He then continued onto portraits of his family members, the early ones done with bright glaring colours, reminiscent of the Fauves. This can be seen in the first few rooms of the exhibition. Some of the models have rather small heads, because this was Giacometti’s attempt to be faithful to his visual experience of seeing them from far away.
The second room displays Giacometti’s attempts at solving the problem of how to ‘copy reality exactly,’ with his attempt at the cubist portrait of his sister ‘Ottilia (1934),’ where he reduces form to essential lines. In a room of paintings dedicated solely to his mother, which look like painted drawings, she is defined by masses of lines, endlessly moving and redefining her form. This draws a kind of sculptural essence from her features; rigid symmetry, exaggerated oviform eye-sockets, and the narrow small head sitting atop a large body, her immobile and distant expression reminiscent of Egyptian sculpture, which is also visible in ‘Head of Isabel (1936).’ In these first few rooms the viewer can see all the techniques and stylistic features that Giacometti will carry through to his last portraits, the scratch-like impressions, the shape of the eyes, the symmetry and the haunted quality of his models.
The exhibition is broken up in the middle with photographs of Giacometti’s life and a film of him working in his studio in Paris. The following rooms cover his post-war period, and try to recreate the ‘feeling’ of his studio: they’re not meant to be a facsimile, but rather an evocation and abstraction of it. The first room is dedicated to the portraits of his wife Annette whom he met while in exile due to the war in Switzerland. Here is where the interrogation really begins: she’s the perfect sitter, as they see each other every day. You can see his pursuit for that raw sensation. Most portraiture is fictitious, presenting a static version of an otherwise mobile and living human being. He constantly renewed and reworked his portraits, trying to capture his sensations, and therefore allowing the viewer to see a lot of overlay in his work, as well as the process behind his visual experience. He often said that his pursuit of trying to capture something that is constantly moving was hopeless but inevitable.
Giacometti works in several mediums which are on display in this exhibit: painting, sculpture and drawing. The most obvious in his portraits is the dialogue between the two mediums of painting and sculpture, which is evident in both the titles and the treatment of his painted portraits, which allude to sculpture like in ‘Bust of Annette (1954).’ You can see Giacometti struggle to model the sitter’s facial topography. An accent of colour on the forehead is an expressive addition within the surrounding context of calibrated marks.
Drawings, on the other hand, were an immediate way of capturing the flux of changing appearances and allowed for fast-penetrating observation. Drawing also allows the artist to imprint the sitter’s features in his mind, enabling him to resort to memory when the situation required it. You can see this extend into painting, where Giacometti retrieves images from his memory in paintings such as ‘Figure grise (Tête en gris) (Grey Figure – Grey Head), 1957.’ This portrait does not depict a specific individual, but is abstracted from his memories of observed sitters. In his drawings, Giacometti subjected his sitter’s face to a process of close analysis. In some of the drawings, the relation of the different parts of the face is the main preoccupation, and a web of lines connects the features. In others, the focus of Giacometti’s attention shrinks, concentrating on the eyes in particular. Those observations underpinned the creation of the busts, which proceeded beyond specific details to expressing, more generally, ‘all the strength there is in a head.’
Just as with his wife, Giacometti frequently used his brother Diego as a model and said, ‘Diego’s head is the one I know best.’ He later added: ‘the most difficult thing to do is what’s most familiar.’ Giacometti’s images of Diego moved between sculpture and painting, and from observation to memory, in a mutually enriching way. ‘Diego in a Sweater, (1953),’ has a distinctive material presence. The unusual relation of the head and body is a defining characteristic. Here, the head is diminished in size relative to the massive, textured treatment of the torso, arms and hands. This echoes Giacometti’s earlier tendency to reduce the proportions of the subject as an effect of distance, thus asserting the nature of the artist’s perception. During the 1950s, Giacometti reduced the size of the heads he modelled, and also their physical mass as is seen in ‘Bust of Diego (1955),’ with its blade-like thinness. These developments are partly related to his creation, from the late 1940s of tall, thin, elongated figures. This tendency towards attenuated forms expressed his vision of a figure in space: the body apparently eroded by the surrounding void. It also resulted from Giacometti’s sense that a sculpture’s internal inert matter was at odds with the vitality he wished to convey. His solution was to eliminate that superfluous filing, thus reducing the figure’s mass.
Giacometti wasn’t the recluse that a lot of biographies claim, he had a lot of friends and one can see that in the many portraits on display. Among some of the sitters were Jean Genet, Isaku Yanaihara, Louis Aragon, James Lord and the art collector and millionaire David Thompson. When portraying these sitters, Giacometti generally positioned each figure at the centre of the image. This maximised the sense of ‘pure presence.’ The ‘Portrait of G. David Thompson (1957)’ is an particularly special: Thompson was an avid collector of 20th-century art and collected Giacometti’s work, however the two didn’t even speak the same language and their communication was almost entirely visual. This is one of three portraits of Thompson made between 1955 and 1957. Given that Giacometti made portraits mainly of his close friends, this portrait is quite unusual. It’s interesting to note how large and dominating the size of the body is in relation to his head, unlike the others in this room.
The last room is dedicated to Caroline (real name Yvonne Poiraudeau), one of his sitters and final female model, who also happened to be a prostitute in Paris. The room is meant to give the feeling of Giacometti’s studio at night, which is when he usually painted her, after he would finish with Annette around 9 p.m. Caroline was a creature of the night and the room is meant to reflect that, his nickname for her was la grisaille (the grey one), which related to the grey appearance she conveyed during their nocturnal modelling sessions. He painted 30 portraits of her, and the exhibition brings together six of the best ones.
The viewer can follow the visual path of Giacometti’s attempt to capture the pure presence of the whole sitter in the beginning, and then progressively focus his attention on her head and, finally, on her eyes. Giacometti described Caroline’s gaze as that of a bird’s cry. The background eventually falls away and only her gaze remains. You can see the quick adding and changing the background in each portrait. Although Caroline was petite, Giacometti’s portraits of her present a charged, hieratic presence and an intense stillness. Giacometti’s preoccupation with trying to hone in and capture the gaze of his sitters stemmed from his belief that if you look at a person for long enough, the only thing that will remain is the gaze, the rest of the head appears as a skull and becomes the equivalent of a ‘death’s head.’ For the artist, the intimation of life in the sitter’s eyes animated the whole, and therefore became his focus. In his last portraits, including the sculptures of Diego and Eli Lotar, ‘Diego Seated (1964-1965)’ and ‘Bust of Lotar II (1964-1965),’ there is a raw apparent unfinished character that preserves the artist’s ongoing attempt to capture a fleeting impression. Of that struggle, which he continued to the end, he commented: ‘Sometimes I think I can catch an appearance, then I lose it and so I have to start all over again.’
Alberto Giacometti is the most commercially successful Swiss artist of all time. His famous spindly bronze figures, selling for millions of dollars, are usually the ones that receive the most attention; however there is a new resurgence of interest in his haunted and hollow-eyed portraits. These beautifully dark, almost monochrome images make up a significant portion of the artist’s oeuvre. Apart from the layout of the exhibition, which seems to slightly convolute the earlier portraits by somewhat disjoining them physically from the rest of the flow of the exhibition and the obscure use of a light box in one of the rooms to show what the light in Giacometti’s studio may have looked like, Giacometti: Pure Presence does create a beautifully curated show full of his portrait masterpieces. It immerses the viewer in Giacometti’s world and his struggle to constantly attempt to ‘copy exactly’ and capture the pure presence of the sitter. You’ll find yourself not only looking through the painter’s eyes but through the haunted eyes of his subjects.
Giacometti: Pure Presence is on at the National Portrait Gallery from October 15th, 2015 until January 10th, 2016.
National Portrait Gallery, St. Martin’s Pl, London WC2H 0HE, +44 020 7306 0055
By Kaja Kozak