Meeting Giacometti in a narrow lane

Coming face-to-face with life in the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, on display at the Tate Modern, London

Meeting Giacometti in a narrow lane

"I wanted to see that sculpture again, but I was so frightened of its power and in awe of its presence that I couldn’t pull myself to go to the museum again." A painter friend once shared his experience of seeing King Khafre, the Egyptian Pharaoh in Diorite stone displayed at the Cairo Museum. "It felt as if it would just stand up and walk towards me!"

There are a number of sculptures that defy their material and era and appear incredibly alive, moving. The essence of life in those otherwise static statues has nothing to do with the resemblance with the model or the maker’s skill. Often the case is otherwise. For instance, looking at Auguste Rodin’s sculpture, the textured surfaces that do not follow the strict outline of a human body/posture are rather life-like. They have contours that convey a sense of movement, hence life.

The same sense or segment of life is visible in the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, currently on display at the Tate Modern, London (May10-Sept 10, 2017). Spread in 10 rooms of the gallery, the exhibition presents his sculptures (portraits, figures, abstract constructions), drawings, paintings and a substantial section of his archives. The exhibition brings forth the work of an artist who pursued the essence of humans or human suffering.

In a way, it is difficult to differentiate humans from their suffering or art from the element of despair. In the sculptures of Giacometti, one can sense that. Battered features, elongated but stick-like torsos, to some extent communicate human defeat and increasing alienation in the European society.

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) who witnessed the two world wars must have encountered violence, death and destruction of an unprecedented scale. His figures are like survivors of a calamity. Yet these hold a great grip on the viewers and appear not just as replicas of actual people but a residue of their thoughts, dreams, drama of life and stories of their dejection.

The exhibition brings forth the work of an artist who pursued the essence of humans or human suffering.

In the first room of the exhibition, a viewer is captivated by the accumulation of portrait heads placed on pedestals and collected in a large group. The interesting plan of display did not follow the usual definition of sculpture that it needs to be looked at from all sides. Instead, the pieces in the group made in a variety of materials were seen from certain angles.

This intelligent scheme of arrangement reinforced the reading of these sculptures as passport photographs which are usually viewed from the front. Yet, in this group of works, Giacometti using an open method of constructing his form, in an uncanny way, has managed infusing a kind of resemblance with his models. Amid this group one finds portraits of his mother and father, his wife, his friends (including Simone de Beauvoir). Each has such a strong aura, despite the treatment of face and scale (some of them really small), that one recalls the magic of Egyptian carvers. One is bewitched by these ‘people’ who are there like living beings.

This may have been managed through Giacometti’s interest in Egyptian sculptures. According to him "Egyptian statues have grandeur, harmony in their lines and forms, perfect technique……And how animated their heads, as though they really were looking or talking."

In Room 7, a number of his drawings are the copies of Egyptian stones, which indicate the artist ‘had an enduring fascination with Egyptian sculpture and used it as a source for his own art’. Paradoxically, the impact of his sculptures does not lie in their scale, massiveness or material, but in their appeal that touches and connects with a person from modern and contemporary times.

The making of most of these sculptures encompasses a sense of reluctance, because the wiry, patchy and raw treatment of faces and bodies connote the phenomenon of being perpetually incomplete. The same is evident in his paintings, in which the artist applies layers of paint, lines and marks, but the final image offers the process of painting more than the subject of his art.

One of his models, James Lord, the author of a comprehensive biography of Giacometti also wrote a small book A Giacometti Portrait in which the American writer recounts his experience of being a model for a painting. Lord recalls that Giacometti came to his studio but instead of starting on his portrait right away used to spend time in airing, watering and examining his clay pieces which he had shaped a day before. Only after a considerable time had passed that he picked a brush and added more patches on the portrait.

In a way, he was negotiating with that emptiness/reluctance that Jean Paul Sartre defines as void. Commenting on his painting, Sartre observes: "Giacometti becomes objective when he paints. He tries to capture the features of Annette or of Diego just as they appear in an empty room or in his deserted studio…. he approaches sculpture as a painter since he treats a plaster figurine as it were a person in painting".

What one reads in Lord’s description and finds in paintings through the words of Sartre, one understands in his sculptures. Contrary to a canvas with its inbuilt issues of depiction of a space/background, sculpture (human figure) is not required to provide that backdrop. Yet, when we see sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, with their elongated forms, thin limbs, wire-like bodies and heavy feet, one conjures up the background of these large, standing, moving, walking, arrow-like figures. These backdrops are not physical but psychological, cultural and societal. When a person sets his eyes on these standing or walking figures, almost like armatures for modelling sculptures in art schools, one realises the artist’s intent in representing the solitary being, without the marks of identity, nationality or period. As when we see his compressed bodies, we are aware of existential issues of a man, the one who is a sufferer, survivor and subservient.

Even though at the Tate Modern, the figures exist in groups, in essence these are solitary beings who, in the turmoil of this age, have to bear their sufferings on their own. A fate echoing the situation that Tahar Ben Jelloun recognises while reminiscing the streets of his hometown in Morocco; some so narrow that only one person can pass at one time. "Ben Jelloun feels that Giacometti was able to capture the ‘wound’ of ‘solitude, metaphysical and physical’." Not only in the distant lands of Morocco, Switzerland or France, but a person walking through a narrow lane of a small village in Pakistan can comprehend the existential angst of Giacometti because it is not the street where one has to push through, but the world.

Meeting Giacometti in a narrow lane