The curator of the first exhibition to focus on the artist’s portraits talks to Florence Waters about where his iconic figures came from — and how Giacometti has ‘led people astray’
‘If one began on a detail, the heel, the nose, there was no hope of ever achieving the whole... If one began by analysing a detail, the end of the nose for example, one was lost… The form dissolved, it was little more than granules moving over a deep black void.’ Alberto Giacometti, from a 1947 letter to Pierre Matisse
A portrait exhibition of Alberto Giacometti, at the National Portrait Gallery — but he wasn’t a portraitist was he?
Paul Moorhouse, National Portrait Gallery curator: (Laughs) We’re not talking about psychology, biography, mood or appearance of the sitter. All those conventionalities are stripped away. But it is portraiture, in Giacometti’s unique style. Some colleagues [at the National Portrait Gallery — Giacometti: Pure Presence is at the NPG, London from 15 October 2015 to 10 January 2016] wondered what this show has to do with portraiture. Yet all the works in the show — apart from the Walking Man — are the result of an encounter in the studio with a sitter. The show is built around the artist’s models, and all of them are named here.
Why focus on the portraits and the sitters now?
I’ve wanted to put this show on for many years. We’re in a paradoxical situation regarding Giacometti. He’s a giant of the 20th century, one of the pioneers of Modernism, one of the most expensive artists at auction — up there with Picasso — and everybody is familiar with his walking figures. Yet his story is incomplete.
Nobody seems to have really taken on board where those figures came from. He didn’t just make them up in his head. Their source is a really surprising one: it’s his relationship with all the people who sat for him in his studio.
Alberto Giacometti, Ottilia, c1920; Collection Fondation Giacometti , Paris © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris) 2015
Alberto Giacometti, Ottilia, 1934; Private Collection © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris) 2015
What do you mean by the story being ‘incomplete’?
People have this image of Giacometti in his garret in Montparnasse. The canon of his work proceeds from the abstract sculptures of 1925, takes in the surrealist objects and finally the famous tall standing figures. That’s what has been passed down. It doesn’t take in to account the fact that he was an artist who was essentially leading a double life.
In 1925 Giacometti said it was necessary to abandon the real, to give up figurative art. He immersed himself in making abstract and surrealist sculpture in Paris. That’s misleading because he was making figurative work throughout.
He basically put out a false perception. He led people astray. What I’m saying in this show actually contradicts what Giacometti said about himself. It shines a light on something less well known. From the word go, age 13 when he started making art, right through to his death, Giacometti had an unbroken relationship with portraiture.
Why do you think he was misleading people?
Throughout his life he was returning regularly to Switzerland where he kept a studio. When he was in Paris I sense he was disguising what he was doing in Paris from his family, because they wouldn’t have approved of his surrealist activities. They thought it was nonsensical.
In Switzerland, when he was making figurative work and portraits, he was not revealing that to his circle in Paris for the same reasons. Yet he had intense working relationships with his sitters in Paris at various stages throughout his life.
Alberto Giacometti, Annette IV, 1962; Tate, London 2015 © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris) 2015. For more, see below.
Alberto Giacometti, Diego in a sweater, 1953; Kunsthaus Zurich, Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris) 2015. For more, see below.
But he never perceived himself as a portrait artist?
He perceived himself as an artist whose sole objective was to copy appearance, and he said so. His vehicle for that wasn’t the view from his studio or anything else — it was simply people. He was a portrait artist in that it was human presence that was his subject.
What is your understanding the phrase Jean-Paul Sartre used to describe Giacometti’s work: ‘pure presence’?
He’s describing Giacometti’s interrogation of people, his stripping away of everything that you associate with people — identity, biography, mood, psychology, even their appearance. Caroline’s portrait towards the end of the show almost looks like a skull. What you see in the exhibition is a progressive stripping away. It’s almost like a flaying of the subject, the skin being peeled pack.
Do we know much about Giacometti’s methods — what it was like for a sitter?
The process was rooted in observation. One of his models, James Lord (see below for work offered in our The Artist’s Muse sale), wrote a book about the process of sitting for Giacometti. As each sitting started Giacometti always said, ‘It’s helpless!’, ‘I don’t know why I’m even trying’, or ‘It’s impossible! I can’t make portraits, no one can.’
Lord was driven almost to despair by the length of the process. He thought Giacometti was neurotic and a bit mad. But Giacometti is trying to grapple with pure sensation. He’s trying to capture something that actually precedes perception, and that takes you into a very strange place.
Alberto Giacometti, The Artist’s Father (flat and engraved), 1927 Kunsthaus Zürich, Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris) 2015
Alberto Giacometti, The Artist’s Mother, 1950; The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2015. Digital image The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris) 2015
Were there any great surprises in the research for the show?
His thinking. Giacometti emerged to me as a deeply philosophical man. He understood that reality is essentially unknowable — that all you have is appearance. Portraiture was the vehicle for his thinking. It all takes place in the studio with his sitters, interrogating their appearance and trying to unravel the mystery of perception.
Main image at top, left: Alberto Giacometti, Self Portrait, c. 1923-4; Kunsthaus Zürich, Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris) 2015. Right: Alberto Giacometti, Small Self-portrait, 1921; Kunsthaus Zurich, Legat Bruno Giacometti © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris) 2015
Giacometti: Pure Presence at the National Portrait Gallery, London, runs from 15 October 2015 to 10 January 2016
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