Saturday, 5 August 2017

A haunting sense of the ancient and the apocalyptic

With the clock ticking, Friday evening proved the perfect time to catch the Giacometti at Tate Modern.

Much shorter than some of the gallery’s recent blockbusters, this includes sculpture and painting from the Swiss artist most famous for his elongated, highly textured figures.

The opening room is perhaps the most effective though, populated with a series of heads and busts on plinths that provide a perfect illustration of the breadth of Giacometti’s stylistic experimentation.

There are some wonderful, very naturalistic pieces here, including two of his brother, Diego, who was one of his most regular models. 

The second room takes us away from the naturalistic and into the realms of the abstract: Cubism and African art are obvious influences; the artist was almost an engineer at various points, creating constructions with moveable elements, while some of his ‘woman and man’ works do feel a tad obvious in the use of convex and concave.

The next room introduces us to the sorts of small works that Giacometti produced in order to make a living – and his links with Surrealism – and then we move into the realms of the familiar with his elongated human forms.

One reviewer raved about this exhibition as illustrating that Giacometti was every bit as great as “Degas, Picasso and Matisse”.

That is hyperbolic nonsense. First, why on Earth would you tag Degas to the other two? And then why would you tag Giacometti to them – the two superstars of 20th century Western art?

Make no mistake: it is a very, very good exhibition that illustrates how good Giacometti was. But while there is variety here, there is nothing like the variety of style and experimentation within a lifetime of work that marks out both Picasso and Matisse.

What the exhibition gives you, by the end, is something rather haunting: the half-painted plaster works seem to echo the ancient Classical past; there is something about the texture of his stick figures that, for me, evoked a sense of apocalypse; even of Pompeii’s charred dead.

Briefly, as one walks around, there is music. It comes from a film of Giacometti working and talking to interviewer between drags on a cigarette. The music complimented the works perfectly and this is an occasion where it would have been beneficial to have more.

The artist’s stick figures are iconic – including his dog, from 1951 (pictured above). And by the time you exit the final room, you have a sense of the power that they possess: at once primitive and yet strangely futuristic. The paintings are certainly interesting, but they are in an incredibly muted palette and seem more like preparatory works than finished ones.

Giacometti deserves his place in the upper reaches of the artistic pantheon and this is very much an exhibition that is worth seeing: but don’t let anyone kid you – he is not the equal of Picasso or Matisse.

• Giacometti is on until 10 September. Find out more at Tate Modern.

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