The Tate’s latest foray into the world of Alberto Giacometti captures the spectacular visual language that this painter sculptor forged during the tumultuous post-war era. Walking through the white washed walls of Tate Modern there are countless eyes staring back at you; their distinctive slender, elongated forms crafted in rough plaster, clay and bronze. Anyone who was anyone in Paris went to pay homage to Giacometti in the years following the Second World War: the short-lived Surrealist and King of existentialism that had created an entirely new way of picturing the human condition. To put it in context for those that aren’t familiar with Giacometti – Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon were some of his biggest fans. Drawn to the complexity of the human body and spirit, Giacometti returned to the same models throughout his life, including his (much maligned) brother Diego and wife Annette who put up with the squalor of life with Giacometti as the famous artist refused to change the ramshackle state of his studio or simple pleasures of his lifestyle.
Installation view, Tate Modern, Giacometti, 2017
There are so many nuances to Giacometti’s work and nods towards philosophical and aesthetic theory of the time. But when I was taking in the show on its opening weekend (or rather battling through the crowds) there was a particular work that caught my eye. In the midst of Giacometti’s Surrealist period, when he was thrilling viewers with the broken, cracked bones of ‘Woman with her throat cut’ (1932), he made a standing figure called ‘Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)’. This elegant work, with a face like the helmet of a soldier or a tribal mask reveals Giacometti’s fascination with all things primitive – which countless artists of the time shared (thanks to the schools of Matisse and Picasso). Entwined with a cage like structure, the figure leans forward, her hands gently pulled apart as if to contain an object which is invisible to the naked eye, her legs gently bent. Its magnitude makes it appear like the figurehead for a cult, inspired by ancient Egyptian and Christian objects.
Art historical big wigs have argued about the resonance of this sculpture for years and the riddle is far from solved.
Giacomett, ‘Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)’ (1934)
Some theorise that this arresting sculpture was made as a memorial to Giacometti’s father, who died just a year earlier in 1933. Giovanni Giacometti was an illustrious Post-Impressionist painter , inspired by stars of the previous generation such as Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh. Immersed in the vivid, emotive palette of the Post-Impressionists, Giovanni made some waves with his powerful landscapes and portraits in Swiss Modernist circles and even exhibited alongside the German group Die Brucke in 1912. For Alberto, his father was a symbol of artistic possibility. As a young boy he spent hours rigorously copying images from Giovanni’s art books and lapping up technical advice from the studio. With his father’s death in 1933 a wave of melancholy swept through the family and Alberto frequently travelled to Switzerland to care for his mother, which eventually prevented him from returning to Paris during the Second World War (prompting a radical new body of work which I’m sure he would not have wanted any other way).
‘Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)’ was Giacometti’s first full-scale, anatomically complete human figure and with that in mind, signalled the end of his association with the Surrealists. In fact, he was forcible kicked out by André Breton for daring to work from a life model and not his own imagination (in the same year that Giacometti was a witness at Breton’s wedding no less). You win some you lose some.
The epicentre of this work is the intangible gap between the figure’s hands. This space takes on the absent presence of Giovanni’s soul and creative spirit, which once so present has now disappeared. Alberto was also particularly aware of his own mortality and thought long and hard about the the nature of death. In his delicate sculptures he tackled the vulnerability of the body, referring always to the strange division between a living person and the still corpse. ‘Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)’ embodies that terrifying line between two states of being and the unimaginable moment between.
What ever the truth behind this work, it is almost reassuring to know that Giacometti still has some tricks up his sleeve while he has become one of the most popular artists of the 20th century.
Giacometti continues at Tate Modern until 10 September 2017.