Giacometti, Pure Presence at the National Portrait Gallery

Diego Seated, 1948 Albert's brother Diego was perhaps his most persistent model over the course of the artists life.
Diego Seated, 1948
Albert’s brother Diego was perhaps his most persistent model over the course of the artists life.

Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) was Swiss born, but lived and worked primarily in Paris. He was one of the most distinctive painters and sculptors of the twentieth century, known for his elongated sculptures of the human form. Lauded by Jean-Paul Sartre from early in his career he is sometimes known as the existentialist artist; certainly he was very much at the forefront of the modern movement in European art. The current exhibition does not purport to be a comprehensive retrospective of Giacometti’s art, rather it is more narrowly focused on Giacometti as a creator of portraits. It is an interesting though ultimately unfulfilling exhibition.

Although the focus of the exhibition is very specifically on portraits this is hardly marginal to Giacometti’s work. As Paul Moorhouse, the curator, says in his introductory essay “the depth, intensity and extent of Giacometti’s engagement with the depiction of people have few parallels in twentieth century art”. He was in fact obsessed with the process of observation and seeking to record exactly what he saw. He demonstrates that obsession by working with the same small cadre of models, mostly family or close friends, over and over again, subjecting them to long repeated sittings as he sought to capture what was in front of him. He demonstrates it also in his portraits with a remarkable intensity of closely worked and repeated lines as he seeks to capture what he sees, starting with the face which is always most closely work and then fading out from there so the background is loosely sketched or non-existent. All his pictures have an unfinished look, as if the task of properly recording what was in front of the artist could never be properly completed.

Portrait of Nelda, 1964
Portrait of Nelda, 1964

And yet despite the obsessive observation, you leave the exhibition with this curious sense that in some way the more he looked at what was in front of him, the less he saw. The portraits are intriguing not for the penetrating insights into the man or woman in front of him but for the way in which he reduces every subject to a standard form where details of individual appearance are obscured and everyone is reduced to a Giacometti portrait where there distinctiveness, sometimes even their gender, is largely obliterated. The message that Giacometti delivers from his extended process of observation and representation is not that we are all distinctive but that we are all the same.

And as Moorhouse goes on to say, there is no effort at all to look inside the person being portrayed. “One of the paradoxes of Giacometti’s art is that, although intimately involved with people as its subject, characterisation, psychology and individual identity are unusually absent”. Or as Giacometti himself said “I have enough trouble with the outside without bothering with the inside”.

Portrait of James Lord, 1964
Portrait of James Lord, 1964

Giacometti first met Jean-Paul Sartre in 1939 and they formed a close intellectual relationship. Sartre wrote the introduction to Giacometti’s first exhibition in New York and was highly influential in shaping how Giacometti was perceived and his work understood. He positioned Giacometti as a man who had broken free from historic models of image making so that it was “necessary to start again from zero”. Giacometti he said “is forever beginning anew”. As another commentator said “Whoever sees Giacometti’s sculpture finds an eloquent illustration of Sartrian thought; whoever reads Sartre finds an exhaustive exegesis of Giacometti”.

The problem for this exhibition is that no-one does read Sartre and the philosophies which drove Modernism seem dated and lacking relevance today. Giacometti is clearly a fascinating artist which a singular vision. But it is perhaps too singular a vision which reduces every man, and woman, to any man. Every portrait tells us about Giacometti, but tells us remarkably little about his subjects. The exhibition is intriguing, but not compelling.