The Tate Modern has dedicated their latest exhibition to one of the most iconic painter-sculptors of the twentieth century. Alberto Giacometti’s (1901-1966) unique depictions of the human body have influenced decades of art, and this Tate exhibition is the first large-scale retrospective of the artist in the UK for over twenty years. Giacometti traces the artist’s career across five decades and manages to be both visually stimulating and intensely thought-provoking. Growing up in rural Switzerland Giacometti was the eldest child of post-impressionist painter Giovanni Giacometti-Stampa who was one of his earliest influences. He then moved to Paris in 1922 where he would go on to create the most famous of his works.

The curation of the first room of the exhibition is outstanding. Twenty-five portrait busts (including a miniature of Simone de Beauvoir) occupy twenty-five white plinths at varied heights arranged in a rectangle in the centre of the room. These sculptures date from various points of Giacometti’s career and indicate his fascination with the human form and expression. In Giacometti’s hands, the human head is a fluid form and Giacometti never committed to a particular style or representing it, as if the face was something ever elusive.

The first row of sculptures is fascinating. Head of a Child (Simon Bérard), (1917-18), Head of Ottila (c. 1925, his sister), Head (1918-25, his mother), and Head of the Mother (Flat) (1927) display his earliest infatuations. As the viewer moves forwards the heads get noticeably thinner into his more iconic elongated style. One of the standout heads is Head of Isabel (The Egyptian) (1936), the bright white hair and flawlessly smooth skin of which shines in the gallery lights. The different colours of the plaster alongside the darker tones of the bronze in such a wide range of sizes show Giacometti’s desire to connect the lived experience with the depiction.

“When you look at the human face, you always look at the eyes. An eye has something special about it, it’s made of a different matter than the rest of the face”[1]

This first room shows a lifetime’s fascination with human features, and with eyes in particular. The heads appear static as if radiating a sense of permanence and longevity, something that will contrast much of the rest of the exhibition.

The next few rooms seek to demonstrate Giacometti’s frustration with capturing the appearance of movement in a living model. Beginning with the mid 1920’s his sculptures show the transition from naturalistic to more abstract forms as he responds to innovations of fellow sculptors and adopts influences from the abstraction of African and Oceanic objects. From 1932 Giacometti began to become involved with the surrealists (led by Andrè Breton) and, while the group focused on a rejection of bourgeois morality, his own work started to delve deeper into the unconscious. Caught Hand (1932) captures the idea of a person’s hand being stimulated by a mechanism and is captivating to see. The round turn of the wheel mirrors the curved sheen of the carved wooden hand, which mimics a type of puppetry. In the context of surrealism, the hand has a darker edge. Trapped in the midst of cords the prosthetic is open to external manipulation as it tilters on the edge of life and death reliant on a nebulous external force.[2]

For most artists there needs to come a point where they can earn a living and for Giacometti during the 1930s this involved producing decorative objects such as lamps, vases, jewellery, and wall reliefs. Many of these items are on display in the exhibition, and they show an artist almost in two halves, but with some beautiful crossovers. Untitled (floor lamp, model known as figure) (1933-4) is an intricate bronze lamp with female head. Comparing this figure with the heads seen previously highlights a disconnect between his artistic and commercial enterprises at this point. In the next room are cabinets containing tiny miniatures, not much bigger than a thumbnail. These delicate and indulgent pieces contrast greatly with these commercial objects, and highlight how different his two pursuits were at this time. Close by is the famous Spoon Woman (1927), the abstract of which appears extreme in comparison to the realistic qualities of the lamp. The figurine tales its shape from a ceremonial spoon identifiably from the Dan culture in West Africa and is possibly Giacometti’s first standing woman.

The female form is depicted variably across Giacometti’s lifetimes and treated with an almost reverence. His fascination with Ancient Egypt can be seen in the depictions of Walking Woman [I] (1932) and the inclusion of sinuous curves, visible bosom and a recognisable slit of the genitals. Juxtaposing this is also the most violent of his surrealist sculptures, Woman with her Throat Cut (1932), created in the same year. This sculpture takes on an abstract, form with little to disclose the subject’s femininity. Throughout his lifetime Giacometti returned over and over to the female form and its distortions. His female models such as his wife, Annette, crop up frequently both in the artist’s paintings and sculpture. Later in his life, Giacometti’s mistress Caroline takes over as the object of his affection and his muse.

Throughout the course of the exhibition things have gotten visibly taller. From the room of heads, we have moved through the cabinets of miniatures, and now in the final room are the gigantic Walking Man I (1960), Standing  Woman I (1960), and Tall Woman IV (1960-1). The scale of these statues is wondrous to behold and leaves a firm imprint on the viewer. To see the human form so enlarged and elongated highlights the dynamism of human existence as well as the complexity of the artist’s work. He seeks to portray both the collective nature of our race, but there is always something intensely individualistic about each piece. Giacometti gives a clear and chronological insight into the artist’s work. The Tate Modern’s whitewashed walls and excellent use of spacing allows the works to stand alone and speak for themselves devoid of clutter. Don’t miss such a beautiful opportunity to get up close with these iconic statues.

Giacometti continues at the Tate Modern until 10th September. More information and tickets can be found here.


[1] Alberto Giacometti, The Exhibition Guide, Tate, 2017

[2] “The Lure of Surrealism”,  Alberto Giacometti Stiftung Foundation