‘One always thinks of Alberto Giacometti as an artist in bronze, but it was the final outcome of a process involving other materials,’ says Frances Morris, Director of Tate Modern. Opening on 10 May, the institution’s forthcoming retrospective, Alberto Giacometti (until 10 September) is to be the first of its kind in the UK for 20 years, and aims to ‘reposition’ Giacometti as an artist with ‘a far wider interest in materials and textures, especially plaster, clay and paint’.
Reunited for the first time in 60 years, Giacometti’s six plaster Women of Venice — last exhibited at the 1956 Venice Biennale — are among the show’s highlights. They are joined by plaster figures loaned by the Kunsthalle Bern — the entire ensemble meticulously restored by the artist’s Paris-based foundation.
This has included the reinstatement of paintwork and marks from Giacometti’s penknife, a feat which Morris describes as ‘ambitious’. Much of this restored detail was lost when Giacometti sent his plaster originals to the foundry, to be used in the production of bronze editions. The latter, Morris is keen to impress, were made in response to commercial interest rather than artistic intent.
‘His works were finished in plaster and paint,’ she explains, noting the malleability of each material in liquid form — a quality that allowed the sculptor to ‘scratch and shape’ figures as they dried. The resulting texture was, memorably, compared to spit by artist Barnett Newman.
Rich in surface detail once more, the Women of Venice are presented by Tate as ‘a culmination of the artist’s lifelong experimentations to depict the reality of the human form’. Each is modelled on the artist’s wife, Annette Giacometti — one of the artist’s most frequently depicted models. A room at Tate Modern will be dedicated to Giacometti’s ‘intensely observed’ portraits of Annette and his brother Diego, while later works depict ‘Caroline’, the French prostitute who became his mistress.
This chance to see the works is not only rare, but also likely to be the last in the UK — following restoration, Giacometti’s Women are now deemed so fragile that the London show is likely to be one of the only opportunities to see them outside of France.
The loan is, says Morris, testimony to Tate’s ‘historic’ relationship with Alberto Giacometti. Sir John Rothenstein, the institution’s director from 1938-64, took the ‘courageous’ decision to buy Man Pointing (1947) just two years after it was made. The purchase was followed by Giacometti’s first major UK exhibition, held at Tate Britain in 1965. Giacometti himself presided over installation, constantly reworking — and, in some cases, entirely remaking — sculptures with a restless energy that became notorious.
If the exhibition aims to ‘recast’ Giacometti, it also seeks to prove that Giacometti was an artist who defied categorisation — prefiguring, says Morris, the ‘pick and mix’ approach with which contemporary artists draw on references today. He moved to Paris in 1920, engaging with the Cubists before joining the Surrealists in 1931. Their influence is evident in works such as Woman with Her Throat Cut (1932) — a striking contrast to Giacometti’s famous figures, and an example of his little-acknowledged explorations of brutality and sadism.
Also promoted is Giacometti’s engagement with the ‘primitive’ art that flourished in Paris in the 1920s, and the influence of what Morris describes as ‘the era of archaeological digs’. In 1922, the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun brought ‘Egypt mania’ to Paris — indeed, Morris notes, even Giacometti’s preferred brothel called itself The Sphinx.
‘The way he depicts movement is very Egyptian in style, combining a face, depicted in profile, with a frontal eye,’ she explains. ‘What he saw in Egyptian art was this ability to represent an inner life — something that he sought to represent throughout his career.’
Key to this exhibition has been the study of Giacometti’s library — a huge collection of almost 15,000 objects that he returned to every day, and which reveal the artist’s engagement with art history. Despite this private study and a reputation as a studio artist, Morris is keen to show Giacometti in a new light. ‘He was vivacious and gregarious; as inspired by things glimpsed on the street as he was by objects studied in the studio.’ Ambitiously reassessing the artist’s personal relationships, materials and influences, Alberto Giacometti is, says Morris ‘an exhibition that I have dreamt about realising’.
Alberto Giacometti is at Tate Modern from 10 May to 10 September