Yesterday I visited this exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia with a very wonderful family friend called Chris Traxson.
Giacometti was a Swiss-born sculptor and painter who was based in Paris most of his working life. He is famous for his waif-like figures, which you can see an example of on the cover of the book pictured above. I was very struck by the video of Giacometti that plays at the start of the exhibition. As you watch him work you recognise what was later described in one of the sections as a ‘nervous energy’. He sculpts in a way that I would describe as ‘intellectually visceral’, if there is such a thing. When he is drawing, the pencil seems to barely move from the page and his movements across the page are quick and skilled, but frenetic in nature rather than deft. The way his drawings are composed of a mass of lines which often intersect the different shapes of an object reveals that there is clearly a very astute analytical and creative mind behind all of the work. You get a sense of the particular way he looked at the world and dissected it.
(These photos of Giacometti’s drawings aren’t my own, since no photos were allowed in the actual exhibition)
Chris told me about how Giacometti painted his brother, Diego, over two hundred times. He would do each work as if he was gazing upon his brother for the very first time. Amidst the different drawings, painting and sculptures of Diego, our favourite was undoubtedly this one:
It’s simply called ‘Diego in a Sweater’. We found it funny firstly because the silhouette of the sculpture is so funny (and, in contrast to many of the other sculptures, is ‘chunky’), and because we liked the idea that Giacometti was having to come up with increasingly poor excuses to do another work featuring Diego.
The exhibition explains that the reason the majority of the figures Giacometti paints are so ‘waif-like’ is because it was his way of portraying real space – of the viewer experiencing the same distance from what the art is depicting as the artist did.
This idea of exploring space and distance connects onto a feature very present in Giacometti’s later, post-war, work. A lot of his artwork from this period uses framing within the artwork. Frames appear drawn or painted, but there are also real frames in sculpture, as in ‘The Cage’ pictured here:
This idea was used by other artists of the same period as it helped to depict the melancholy and depression of the post-war era. One of the examples of this highlighted in the exhibition was the work of Francis Bacon:
Bacon and Giacometti’s contemporary, Isabel Rawsthorne was also featured. Her work was incredible, in particular I found ‘Death of a Gull’ particularly arresting in nature (sadly I couldn’t source a photo of this work, she is definitely worth looking out for if you have the opportunity). It is unfortunate that Bacon’s portraits of her seem to have overshadowed her own artistry.
Possibly the best line of the exhibition was attached to the discussion of this technique of framing. It was noted that Giacometti’s work was often not very large, but that Giacometti himself had remarked that, ‘Size was not the same thing as scale and what may appear to be small may in fact be monumental’. I would hope that there was vehemence in his voice as he said such a thing.
At the end of the exhibition, there was a section displaying sketches submitted by members of the public who had visited the exhibition. In many ways this was as enjoyable as the ‘actual art’ that we were paying to see. We were also able to wander around the floor above the exhibition and enjoy the permanent collection of the Sainsbury Centre (pictured below).
All in all, I really enjoyed the exhibition. However, I’ve also discovered that, sometimes more than the art itself, I like learning the personal history and context of an artist’s work. In this case, wandering through the exhibition was an inadvertent wander through one life lived and its significance. A life that was small but monumental.