I finally got to my local gallery in Aix, where perhaps in compensation for being embarrassingly short of work by Cezanne (the curator of the time famously said he would never accept a painting by Cezanne) there are 19 works by Giacometti including 5 sculptures and 4 sketches.
I did a little bit of research into Giacometti over Christmas (earlier post) and was frustrated at not seeing his work in the flesh, so it was really satisfying getting to see these. Close up it’s possible to see how he erased large swathes of his sketch – fascinating – faint pencil lines are left behind, it has the effect of blinding light playing around the subject. He seems to have used his eraser with the same vigour as his pencil strokes. It was most evident in Branche dans une Vase, Flacons et Pommes, 1960. I can’t find this image on line but I found something similar, though in this he uses a lighter touch with the eraser.
I had a tiny notebook with me and sketched Tête de Diego, 1962 very quickly. It felt surprisingly natural to follow Giacometti’s lines of head, ears, neck and shoulders but took more concentration for facial features. Though he uses paint to create the form of the face, harsh black lines over the top are reminders of his sketches. The eyes are oval and set high – at the top of the ears – the nose is a rectangle, the mouth a triangle. There is a strange marking on the forehead that doesn’t seem to correspond to a recognisable facial feature except maybe frown marks? It’s a cross within an upside down double triangle – quite an aggressive mark. Giacometti’s lines give me the sensation that he is burying his way into the skull, maybe this point on the forehead is where he feels or perhaps simply sees the tension of his sitter.
Infuriatingly I can’t find Tête de Diego online – I will go back and see if I can photograph it. The head and shoulders are small within the enormous frame of the painting and sunk to the bottom half. The head is painted over and over in thick grey, black and white. A black halo spreads out behind the head. Yet on the body itself, the canvas is visible, the paint is thin, watery, dripping. The marks are less urgent. The head is important to him, it’s his focus. Just as when I first looked at his sketches on line, I get the same sense from seeing the paintings for real – he is trying to feel the form under the skin – feeling with his eyes. I’m not sure if he is trying to find a ‘truth’ about the sitter, his marks seem too violent for that, there is no tenderness here. It’s as if the truth he wants to expose is that we are all bone underneath, just bone.
This is such a strange painting. The relaxed and slumped posture of the sitter is at odds with how she has been portrayed. The overall work is settled and confident, and yet it’s a disturbing painting. The figure is downright creepy. As with Tete de Diego the painted form of the face is there, but harsh black lines carve out the features – oval eyes of a clown, a rectangular nose, two intersecting lines form a triangle of a mouth. A sickly flesh-coloured halo spreads out from behind the head, touches of this colour are at the neck, shoulder and hands. It gives the impression she is blending in with her background, dissolving. It reminds me of teleporting in Star Trek. I asked my youngest what he thought of it, and he just said ‘ghost’.
I’m not sure what Giacometti wants to convey – I wonder if he sees his sitters as empty, or maybe they are breaking down, breaking apart? Mentally or physically?
Though my initial reaction on seeing this is that perhaps it says more about his relationships with others. There is such a lack of tenderness – stranger still as many of his sitters were family and friends. I would love to know how his sitters feel about the results. These beings have no soul. Does he find it impossible to connect with people, to reach inside them, to find out what they are made of, to get hold of them?