23 June 2016
The study visit took place at the Sainsbury’s Centre for the Visual Arts in Norwich. The tutor was Hayley Lock.
The exhibition, entitled “Giacometti: A Line through time”, explores the impact of Giacometti on his own generation, especially British artists, and coincides with the 50th anniversary of his death.
Giacometti was born in Switzerland in 1901 into a family of artists. When he moved to Paris in 1912, he quickly settled into the arts scene and cafe culture. He became one of the most important and distinctive artists of the 20th century, whose work includes drawing, painting, printing, and of course sculpture.
For the pieces which I would like to discuss from the visit, I have chosen once piece by Giacometti, and two inspired by Giacometti.
Man crossing a square (1949)
This piece is a sculpture made by Giacometti, and owned by the Alberto Giacometti Foundation, Zurich. It was made in 1949, in Giacometti’s studio in Paris, shortly after the end of WWII. The period is significant, because there were still economic difficulties and a sense of anxiety, pessimism and nihilism due to post-war trauma, which led to a fundamental re-evaluation of the depiction of the human figure, meaning and representation (1). Cast in bronze, this three-dimensional figurative sculpture is one of an edition of 6 (2).
In “Man crossing a square” there is an air of man’s fragile existence in the almost painfully thin, elongated limbs and the fragility of the casting, which appears barely thick enough to hold together in places. In common with almost all Giacometti’s male sculpture figures, the man is engaged in activity (walking). However, there is an feeling of the figure being frozen in space and time and is a sense of determination which can be gleaned by the figure’s posture, because the head is upright and he is looking straight ahead. In common with other similar works, it is believed that the walking man is the artist’s self portrait (2).
The sculpture was inspired by the elongated figures of Etruscan art created between the 9th and 2nd century BC, which affected Giacometti both stylistically and emotionally (1). Perhaps relating to the emaciated figures emerging from the concentration camps, both physically and psychologically, the sculpture suggests isolation and reflection. Whilst the limbs and torso appear thin and vulnerable, the hands and feet are disproportionately large, which draws attention to them. Perhaps intentionally, this gives the figure a distorted perspective suggestive of a shadow-like appearance, again indicative of fragility and vulnerability.
The relationship between the figure and the plinth on which it stands is also important. The space that the figure occupies is not central, and he is walking diagonally, which gives a feeling of tension. The size of the plinth relative to the figure is overwhelming, again emphasising it’s fragility. Because the limbs are so thin, the negative space between the legs and arms and torso take on a special significance. In contrast with the body, which is loosely defined, the face shows minute and precise detail, which enables the facial features to be discerned. What I love about this sculpture is that in common with Henry Moore’s bronzes it looks completely different depending from what direction and angle it is viewed.
In common with Giacometti’s bronze sculptures of this period, the surface is rough and textured. Giacometti was known to work intensely for many hours, fashioning clay models from which moulds would be made. He used his fingers and thumbs to remove material, so there is a feeling of intimacy and connection with the artist.
In the exhibition, the sculpture was placed inside a glass case (probably for protection and security reasons. Whilst this detracted somewhat from appreciation of the surface texture, it contained and constrained the sculpture in a way not dissimilar to the open cast bronze cage in one of Giacometti’s other sculptures, “The cage” (first version), 1950, also in the exhibition.
Study of a nude (1952-3)
“Study of a nude” is an oil on canvas painting (59.7×49.5cm) by Francis Bacon, and is housed in the permanent collection of Sainsbury’s Centre for the Visual Arts.
The painting shows a solitary male figure, viewed from behind and appearing to stand on the edge of an open-sided box, or space frame. Although attributed as “a device of Bacon’s own invention” (3), the space frame and the composition of the painting owe much with Giacometti’s sculpture “The cage” (first version). Indeed, from 1962, the artists met frequently to exchange ideas, both Giacometti and Bacon believing that the closest representation of actual fact could be obtained if an artist strived ‘to give the nearest possible sensation to that felt at the sight of the subject’ (1). The study of this single figure contained within a space frame box in isolation and of undefinable scale shares many of the themes of Giacometti’s post-war work, which also asserts that what appears to be small may in fact be monumental (1). The space frame is a theme which appears in many of Bacon’s work including “Pope I” (1951), Marching figures (1952) and “Figures in a landscapes” (1956).
In common with many of Bacon’s works, “Study of a nude” is dominated by a dark background, against which the pale figure and white space frame seem to project. The source of the figure is the photography of Eadweard Muybridge and his book of “The human figure in motion” (1887). The muscularity of the figure shows the influence of Michelangelo. Also in common with “The cage” (first version), the figure is placed centrally, but on the edge of the frame, feet arched and arms raised, as if ready to dive into the abyss.
I wanted to mention briefly, this sketch by William Turnbull which I found especially interesting. I have not been able to find out much about this drawing, nor a link to a photograph. However, I did make my own sketch which is shown below:
This sketch clearly references Giacometti’s figure sculptures with oversized, paddle-like hands. Like his sculptures it alludes to detail on the face and very little visual information available for the rest of the body. I find the contrast between the vaguery of line in some areas compared with detail and intensity in others very engaging. Whilst I am drawn to search for features in the tangled lines shrouding the face, I am simultaneously forced to interpret the ‘missing’ lines from the body and arms. This way the sketch appears both ghostly and transient, intense and menacing.
There are many aspects of Giacometti’s work which can be read across into my own practice. His use of asymmetric placement and negative space to suggest tension, the accentuation of specific features to draw attention to them, his reference to art forms from different times in history and culture, and his use of grids and space to suggest a moment frozen in time.
In addition there is a valuable lesson about self-belief. Giacometti famously kept reworking his pieces, insisting that they were unfinished, resulting in a reluctance to make them available to potential purchasers. Luckily, Lisa and Robert Sainsbury were insistent, and managed to gain his confidence and and acquire work for their collection.
1. Sainsbury’s centre for the visual arts (2016) Giacometti: A line through time. London. Bloomsbury.
2. Southerby’s (2007) Description:Homme travers ant use place par un matin de soleil. Online. Available from: http://www.sothebys.com/fr/auctions/ecatalogue/2007/impressionist-and-modern-art-evening-sale-n08314/lot.28.html [Accessed 28 June 2016]
3. Sainsbury’s centre for the visual arts (2015) Francis Bacon and the masters. London. Fontanka.