“We succeed only to the extent that we fail.”
Giacometti was born in 1901 and during a hard working and disciplined life he became one of the great sculptors of the twentieth century. The major exhibition of his work at Tate Modern is the first for twenty years and we have waited far too long for it. It is a fine show. The sculptures that Giacometti has left us seem to live on for him, honouring his memory. Each one bears the marks his fingers made on their surface as he worked on them obsessionally, his presence still clings to the surface giving it life. He loved to mould clay or plaster with his hands, although his work was cast in bronze, and the austere, passionate personality of the man who worked in the same frugal studio for many years stares calmly out of everything that he made. They do not challenge us, they just are. They have dignity, grace, composure, movement and above all humanity. They are timeless.
Even the tiniest most unassuming little figure lives, although barely formed. The “very small figurine” made in 1937/39 is a tiny miracle. It is barely there at all……. yet it lives. I stood alongside a teenage boy and we both marvelled at it. The man walking across a square, a bronze figure from 1949, has determination and purpose- he is crossing that square to get somewhere- it is as though we can read his mind. The bronze dog from 1957 has great personality. He is going along at a medium lope, on his own, sniffing for stuff but he has not found anything yet. He is comfortable. He knows where he is and where he is going. It is also a saluki, one of the worlds oldest dog breeds so it can stand in for all dogs, everywhere, alive and dead, who have spent their lives doing just that. The falling man, a bronze made in 1950, has been caught in mid tumble, just before he loses balance. A moment has been freeze framed. In the final room three giant figures face us as we walk in, two women and a man. It is humbling to meet them- and yes it does feel like a meeting- and see Giacometti working on a grand scale. A grand scale which has lost none of the humanity and humility which runs through all his work.
The paintings which mostly come from his early years, are dark and shadowy, intensely worked and full of vibrating life. I didn’t like them so much as the sculpture although there is one of Jean Genet which appealed to me very much.
Part way through the exhibition there is a wonderful film of Giacometti at work in his studio. He is concentrating hard, intensely tactile, fingers moulding the clay, passionate, dignified, strong and unchanging, but always humble. He used the same few subjects, a few people who were close to him, over and over again and he tells his interviewer that he could try to paint someone for a thousand years and he would end up saying “it’s still all wrong but I am getting a little nearer”. Rather than making a likeness of an individual he was paring life, and in particular humanity, down to its essence and that is a long job- not one for the faint hearted. Never have I seen work that so reflects the personality of the man who made it. I think I would have liked him very much.