ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Alberto Giacometti - 2015 - On the Other Side of Annette [EN, review], 2015
On the other side of Annette
Giacometti at the National Portrait Gallery
An exceptional exhibition of portraits by Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) runs until January at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Sixty magnificent works are on display: drawings, paintings and sculptures from every period of the artist’s career.
The seventies and flat illustrations
What should one write about? About the artworks, of course, although it is also worth discussing the way in which they are presented and interpreted. As is so often the case, there are the usual and seemingly unavoidable shortcomings. Firstly, and rather predictably, the exhibition is staged in semi-darkness. As a result, it is almost impossible to make out the true colours of the artworks. Furthermore, they are illuminated by ‘spotlights’ that emit a yellow light and which, I would hazard an informed guess, were manufactured in the seventies. In addition, the sculptures are invariably positioned against the walls and cannot be viewed in the round. This, in turn, means that the light hits them from above, or face on, leaving the viewer to mentally erase the shadows. An exception to the rule is Woman of Venice VIII (1956), which also happens to be backlit, thereby forcing us to contend with yet another light source. Would this disagreeable and annoying lighting design have pleased Giacometti? I doubt it. I put it down to sheer negligence and the sort of blindness that I always associate with booklovers (possibly because they are afraid of this fleeting life and the dust it creates), people for whom everything is the raw material for a book. In their eyes, a sculpture is something that they only tend to encounter in two dimensions, namely within their publications. And as a result, they can only exhibit them likewise: as though flat illustrations.
In addition to the display, however, one must also mention the explanatory labels. I must confess that I only read two or three, but they instantly hit the spot. In the first place, there is the label that accompanies a portrait of Giacometti’s wife, Annette. To help the viewer look at this work, it quotes from a letter written by someone who knew Annette, in which she is described as being both articulate and reserved. “And that is exactly what you can see in this portrait”, says the label (I’m paraphrasing), “because it seems as though Annette is simultaneously appearing and disappearing”. I discovered a similar kind of nonsense in another explanatory text, which states that Giacometti strove to capture “the fleeting appearance” of his models. Not only do the two labels contradict each other (what does the representation of a personality have to do with the transience of an apparition?), but they are also at variance with Giacometti’s own writings and statements about his work, which communicate the complete opposite.
Fortunately, Giacometti’s interviews and writings are published in a useful volume that is within everyone’s reach: Alberto Giacometti. Écrits, published by Hermann. In this book, Giacometti tells Georges Charbonnier that rendering “an inner and emotional vision proved to be a boring and uninteresting experience to him.” What he wants to portray, he continues, is “une chose qui m’est extérieure” (something outside of me). But what could this be? His wife’s personality? Or her fleeting appearance? No, it is neither of these things. What he endeavours to portray is the texture of the human body, which is typically concealed beneath the image that we drape over it. What Giacometti tries to depict, in other words, is what he actually sees when he is able to detach himself from the conventional and blinkered way of looking. The result of these endeavours, he said, is that after spending two hours trying to depict his wife, she became unrecognisable. What Giacometti strives to represent, in other words, is not the transient aspect of his wife, or her personality, but her material existence as perceived when he manages to outwit the lazy projections of his brain.
We see something similar today in the drawings of Elly Strik (currently on view at S.M.A.K. ) or in the work Aquarium by Ann Veronica Janssens. The latter piece was Janssens’ favourite work in 2003 because, as she herself said, “the lens slowly bobs around and appears to present a slide show of reality”. As a result of our continued conversations, I began to suspect that the reason she was so enamoured of the work was because it reflected her own way of seeing things, which is probably much less ‘continuous’ than that of most other people. I found a degree of affirmation for this idea in the book Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001) by Oliver Sacks, in which the neurologist describes how, as a child, he sometimes saw reality in a ‘stroboscopic’ way. In his biography, which appeared earlier this year, he also pinpoints the precise year in which he and Crick – it was 2003 – pondered the way in which the brain ‘formulates hypotheses’ and manages to produce ‘continuous’ images or the illusion of movement.
In the cinema
Giacometti’ often reiterated that the origins of his most famous works (the angelfish-shaped heads and the elongated figures) could be traced back to an incident that occurred during a film screening in 1945. All of a sudden, the artist only saw black-and-white spots on the screen, which rendered the images ‘meaningless’. When he turned to look at the other cinemagoers, they formed a “completely unknown spectacle”. Upon exiting, he saw reality as a ‘photographic image’, as a projection. Everything seemed unfamiliar and miraculous to him. At the same time, there was an “incredible silence”. The experience that he describes resembles a migraine attack (in the broadest sense of the word) but also evokes the pivotal and repeating moments of stasis and silence in the books of W.G. Sebald, who presumably also suffered similar episodes. What makes Giacometti’s gaze so unique, however, is that he never stopped looking at the world like this, even when he wasn’t working.
The objects themselves
Having read all of this, you may wish to take another look at Giacometti’s work, with a view to assessing whether his intentions correspond with the objects themselves. And on this level, the exhibition is outstanding. One of the first works we encounter is a bronze cast of a modelled portrait of Giacometti’s brother, Diego, made when the artist was just thirteen years old. According to Giacometti, his beloved father, also a painter, had given him the plasticine for that very purpose. It is a breathtaking portrait on account of its asymmetry, which reveals that Giacometti already knew how to look.
A second early work, one that is as instructive as it is astonishing, can also be found at the beginning of the exhibition. Painted when Giacometti was twenty, it takes the form of a self-portrait that he has modelled without any shadows. The countenance is composed, instead, of simple juxtapositions of colours, with the lightest hues being the white of the eyeball and the pink on the tip of the nose, and the darkest a deep carmine that is used to accentuate the hair. You immediately recognize the influence of Cézanne, the painter of ‘perception’ (La sensation est la base de tout), who felt that every artist should develop his own unique ‘way of seeing’. (“Il faut se faire une vision, une optique.”) As the painter Emile Bernard rightly pointed out, however, this ‘way of seeing’ was more mental than visual in the case of Cézanne. It was more a way of looking, one that is analogous to what Zola and Rodin called ‘the temperament’: a way of thinking and making, rather than of looking. The crucial difference with Giacometti, however, and what sets him apart, is that he assiduously avoided every kind of mental code in order to truly look and, in turn, represent what he saw. Several years ago, I was contemplating Giacometti’s angelfish-shaped heads in the Pompidou Centre with my son, Cyriel, when he remarked that they might suddenly inflate like pufferfish and assume ‘normal’ proportions. Exactly right: I saw it too. When I entered the metro afterwards, I glanced around at the passengers, including a man with glasses, and saw nothing but narrow, angelfish-heads.
Never before, however, have I seen so many paintings by Giacometti in which he strives to depict the same sunken or animate construction, the one over which we drape the image of our beloved. How fascinating to witness such a phenomenon, and in such a unique way! Like Rubens, the artist uses a distempered background as a mid-tone, but cheats by always painting a different, slightly paler shade on the figure, probably after making a quick outline sketch. Moreover, there are the incredibly graceful and fine brushstrokes, fluid but resolutely opaque, that seem to float in front of the background, thereby creating the idea of volume. A new kind of modelé and a continuation of Cézanne’s thinking, albeit in a different technique. Marvellous! This is all new to me, I reflected. Just a couple of hours later, however, I encountered an oil sketch by Rubens in Tate Britain. Out of the brown distemper, and through nothing more than a handful of delicate and elegant brushstrokes, he had conjured up horses. Fabulous. Breathtaking. A brother of Giacometti.
Montagne de Miel, 10 November 2015
Translated by Helen Simpson