Saturday 15 December 2018


Tate Modern, London
(The first in a mini-series of exhibition catch-up posts which focus on the wacky world of Surrealism)

“I executed only sculptures that were complete in my mind’s eye. I limited myself to constructing them in space without stopping to ask myself what that might mean.”
- Giacometti

”Mystical and Violent”

The Italian Swiss sculptor Giacometti is most associated with Surrealism.Indeed his ’The Couple’ (1927, above) has much in common with its brethren, for example Max Ernst’s ‘Capricorn’ (1947). It’s not just the heraldic and rather regal views of male and female figures. The visual shorthand is similar, the wedge-shape of the male figure versus the curves of the female.Of course there’s also differences. Giacometti pulls a gag where they’re simultaneously heads and bodies. The mouths in particular clearly double asgenitals.

But let’s focus on the similarities, as they reveal something interesting. Surrealism prided itself on its inexplicability, an all-out assault on a society which pretended things made sense. Giacometti himself often claimed to have no interest in analysing his work. Yet there’s not just a system at work, it’s quite a simple one. ’Man And Woman’ (1928/9, above) initially looks more abstract but even without the similar title we’d spot the same reduction of genders to codes. Reduction in fact to the same codes, lines and spikes versus curves and squiggles. It’s not far off being ’The Couple’ with the two figures turned to face one another, and the phallically elongated mouth of the male revealed to be a still longer spike.

And the use of ‘versus’ does seem deserved, these gendered essences are set in quite an aggressive antagonism. The show describes this era as “mystical and violent”, the sculptures both a snapshot of a moment of sexual violence and a description of an eternal state. This violence is at it’s most overt with ‘Woman With Her Throat Cut’ 
(1932, above) - a twisted, splayed form, a reduction from human that (particularly with those bent legs) is perhaps nearer insect. The arm lying across it could suggest suicide. While Disagreeable Object’ (1931)… well, you can probably guess.

Surrealism and Freud makes for a remarkably similar story to Hollywood and Freud. One claimed to venerate him, the other just stole whatever caught its eye. But they both acted in the same way. And just like you wouldn’t gain a complete picture of a man’s life from his burglar’s swag bag, both built up a debased and reductive Freud. And so Surrealism became convinced, more than any other art movement, that we are reducible to our genitalia. And Giacometti, in his Surrealist phase, is a prime exponent.

However, let’s not be as reductive to Giacometti as he was to Freud. He didn’t just go in for gender essentialism, even if he mostly did. More interesting is ‘Caught Hand’ (1932, above). The hand looks trapped inside a mechanism, hopelessly stretching for an out-of-reach handle. Yet like the hand the base and parts of the pulley are made from wood, suggesting a more permanent relationship. The work’s perhaps more Dada than Surreal. Surrealism was usually unquestioning of art’s ability to capture, even when dealing with the intangible. Here the artist’s hand inevitably becomes trapped within his own work. And this questioning focus on art itself is more typical of Giacometti’s later years.

Also he’d often make assemblage sculptures or, in works such as ‘Hour of the Traces’ (1932, below), combine discrete elements held in combination by wire, like nodes in a network. These works can look remarkably akin to his sketchbook doodles of ideas, like mental maps which didn’t need realising so much as scaling up.

”Stretched On a Rack of Anxiety”

Andre Breton gained his nickname the Pope of Surrealism partly from his fondness for excommunications. However, when in 1934 he excluded Giacometti for returning to work from models, he was more exercising his artistic judgement than his power of banishment. In truth Giacometti’s Surrealist era was confined to one brief and well-defined period. After which he simply picks up from where he was before. You could cut the rooms from this show devoted to Surrealism, and the neophyte attendee would not notice the gap.

Though there’s two twists. He’s known for being a Surrealist when it’s the non-Surrealist figurative work everyone recognises. And some of the gender essentialism remains. His male figures tend to be in motion, while his females stand still. Comparefor example ’Man Pointing’ (1947) with ’Women of Venice’ (1956, both below.)

His interest in the human face or figure became all-consuming, disregarding context or adornment. He’d work and rework, continuing even after the plaster had hardened, scraping away and adding, resulting in rough and abraded surfaces.

Jean-Paul Sartre knew Giacometti and in the essay ‘The Search For the Absolute’ portrays him as the Modernist artist par excellence, seeing tradition and art history not as a set of guidelines but an oppressive weight that must be discarded:

“The fact is that for three thousand years sculptors have been carving only corpses…. The rigid people found in museums, these white-eyed figures are deceiving us. The arms pretend to move but are held up by iron rods...”

“One does not have to look long on the antediluvian face of Giacometti to sense this artist’s pride and will to place himself at the beginning of the world. He does not recognize such a thing as Progress in the fine arts… one must begin again from scratch. After three thousand years, the task of Giacometti and of contemporary sculptors, is not to enrich the galleries with new works, but to prove that sculpture itself is possible… Giacometti himself perpetually starts afresh.”

It’s true Surrealism was fixated with recovering primal instincts and often venerated primitive art. But it was too driven to get itself into a brawl with bourgeois culture to fully embrace the universal. It bloodied its knuckles with the blood of its foes, and so became tainted by them. Like much Modernist art it was enmeshed in its own era, to the point it is challenging for us to recapture how it seemed at the time. And, with few exceptions, Surrealism soon withered outside it’s incubating environment. Dali’s post-war career, for example, was little more than celebrity masquerading as notoriety.

Giacometti’s figures look more universal, nothing tied to a time. Yet there’s a paradox at work. Just as he restricted himself not just to the figure but the same few poses, he restricted himself with his models. Many were family members, including his brother Diego. You see their features recur again and again. Yet at the same time as they’re recognisable personal portraits they take on the impassive, far-seeing expressions often seen in primitive and hieratic art.

Also, compare them to Henry Moore, another post-war sculptor who dealt in universality. Moore’s figures look timeless and monumental, against them Giacometti’s are frail and inchoate. Yet the answer here is to point out there’s more than one kind of universality, and that artworks are always specific to their time.

Sartre considers they’re post-Holocaust images, then rebounds from the notion. While Alistair Sooke writes in the Telegraph of “Skeletal figures seemingly stretched on a rack of anxiety… once considered disturbing avatars of the nuclear age.”

And why do such a thing? There are after all photographs of Holocaust and Hiroshima victims, hard evidence of human depravity. They’re not images which need any embellishment to tell us what they’re saying, and besides to aestheticise them does not exactly smack of good taste.

But if the theory’s way too literal-minded, it’s not entirely inaccurate. The works are existential, informed by the horrors of war or the spectre of nuclear Armageddon if not intending to directly reflect either. The show suggests “a generation traumatised by the war could recognise itself.” The Tate’s more recent exhibition of post-war figurative art, ’All Too Human’ (coming up, honest) includes a Giacometti as a herald of their generation. 

If Dadaism was art’s response to the First World War, this renewed existentialism came from the Second. And the human body often became its canvas. As the dark folk band Cinder Well sang “My body holds the gas chambers/ The train, the killing mound”. History is effectively inscribed upon us, in the fragility of our bodies.

As said over the Tate’s Francis Bacon show, now nearly a decade ago: “Its ambiguous whether we are looking at a frame or a cage... Crucially, these figures are not so much at war with themselves as with their very existence. If you were to distill Bacon down to a simple phrase it would be ‘flesh is a trap’.”

And Giacometti uses frames-within-frames in a similar way. Except his elongated figures areoftennot just within but becomepart of the cage themselves, perhaps emphasising the prison of being still further.See for example the tellingly titled ’The Cage’ (1950, below).

But the comparisons and contrasts are most obvious in Giacometti’s paintings. (Which, to be honest, I’d not seen before this show.) His figures don’t rage or morph like Bacon’s, they’re as stoically impassiveas the sculptures. And if Bacon’s Fifties worksweren’t as lurid as later, Giacometti is more monochrome still. They often look asthough they’vebeenpainted in ash, and areas roughly sketched as his figures are encrusted. Yet almost all have the frame-within-a-frame device, for example ’Diego Seated’ (1946, below) with it’s remarkable accumulation of down strokes. (Bacon isn’t mentioned once in the show. Yet the exit-via-gift-shop has books on him.)

The Figure As a Foreign Language

But there’s an extra dimension to Giacometti. And in the quote above Sartre is still setting us up for his real point...

”So we must start again from scratch. After three thousand years the task of Giacometti and contemporary sculptors is not to add new works to the galleries but to prove that sculpture is possible. To prove it by sculpting the way Diogenes, by walking, proved there was movement...”

“Giacometti himself is forever beginning anew… While the problem remains unsolved, there are no statues at all, but just rough hewings that interest Giacometti only insofar as they bring him closer to his goal. He smashes everything and begins again.”

The particular problem with Classical sculpture is that it feigns to portray the figure as it is, but actually offers an idealisation as a stand-in. To get Giacometti’s commitment to beginnings you need to recognise how we associate three standard notions. First there’s the requirement from the artist for accuracy. The angle by which the shoulder meets the neck must be captured precisely, the way a map maker must capture precisely the angle by which two roads join. Sculpture in particular medium we associate with such precision. We indulge the trope of the sculpture made so perfectly it actually came to life.

Then on top of that comes the notion the artist also captures something of the self of their subject. Through anatomical accuracy they come to convey a sense of a person – a likeness without and within. Third, there’s the notion that all portraits are ultimately self-portraits, that what the artist is telling us about is him or her self.

Each of these steps is assumed, yet tenuous. And adding them together just multiplies the risk of failure. So it’s best just to assume, to not look down when crossing those bridges. Maurice Merlau-Ponty wrote a famous essay on Cezanne’s sense of doubt. Similarly, what sparks Giacometti’s sculpture is not just an open acceptance of the risk of failure but a negotiation with, perhaps even an expression of, that failure.

He claimed he first hired a model in 1935 to reacquaint himself with the figure, a process he thought might take a week or two. Butthe longer he looked at his models the less he felt he knew them, andstarted to feel that a thousand years might not be long enough to capture a single face.Of course artists have been depicting the human facefor thousands of years already. But does it actually work? Could we have just been kidding ourselves?

But cruicially what must be got back to is not the human figure but the look. By contrast to Classicism Giacometti’s elongated figures, with their corrugated surfaces look strangely unfinished. They inhabit an uncanny valley between classical and Modernist sculpture. (Including his own Modernist sculpture.) But a better term for them would be semi-discerned. The ‘problem’ lies all in the eye of the beholder. To go back to Sartre, “these figures are already seen as the foreign language we try to learn is already spoken.”

’Man Pointing’ is not just near human size, as the title suggests it gesturesout at you. Conversely, but in a kind of parallel, he made small sculptures whose size reflected the model’s actual distance from him as he worked.And this seems key. We see Giacometti’s figuresas we would spy another person, perhapsat a distance, perhaps in poorlight, before they come close enough to resolve. Except with Giacometti’s sculpture this distance is not physical, there’s no coming closer. The other person is all there, in every detail. The limitation is in our perception, our ability to know them. The other is always afar.

There’s something monastic about Giacometti’s dedication to this path. Uninterested in his own fame he continued working on the same models in the same ramshackle studio, adhering to a strict working routine. He owned no suits not splattered with plaster. He’s an artist where individual works are only meaningful as examples of his general approach. And, perhaps, inevitably, there’s both an upside and downside to his monomanical nature. There’s great works on show here, but points where things look so identical they could have come from a production line. There’s a dose with Giacometti, where you need just enough to get the point. After which you don’t overdone so much as become inured. After which more becomes less.

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