As a new exhibition opens of Giacometti's sculptures, Iain Gale assesses the work that offers a powerful insight into the frailty and irony of the human condition
Look carefully among the forest of matchstick-thin figures and you will find it. A single canvas painted in an almost monochrome palette of brick red and brown. The subject: an apple on a sideboard. The artist: Alberto Giacometti. Apple on a Sideboard is one of the most surprising and significant works in the first major show devoted to Giacometti in this country for over 30 years. Of course the painting is a visual metaphor for human isolation - a Cezannesque exercise in fruity symbolism. Yet it is much more than this. In this one image it is possible to discern the essence of one of the most complex and rewarding artists of the 20th century. Gaze at it for long enough and the apple appears to float above the sideboard - the picture itself dissolving into Giacometti's signature framework of layered and cross-hatched lines and brushstrokes, to leave only the ineluctable weightlessness of the apple.
In 1958, Giacometti, in conversation with Jean Genet, summed up this sensation: "One day, in my room, I was looking at a towel lying on a chair . . . The towel was alone, so alone that I felt I could have removed the chair without the towel moving. It had its own space, its own weight, its own silence even. The world was light, light. . ."
The greatest triumph of this extraordinary show is to allow us to see how Giacometti gradually succeeded in achieving this autonomous lightness - the unbearable lightness of being - in all his work, but principally, and astonishingly, in sculptures made of a tangibly heavy metal.
Giacometti was a magus. A peerless prestidigitator, he imbues the pre- Classical, hieratic forms of his major bronzes with a disquieting levity. Giacometti's sculptures are not merely monumental presences in space, but the means of defining that space itself. In his hands, clay is worked to the point of near obliteration, to be cast in bronze and transformed in the process from the worldly into the ethereal.
Somewhere in your subconscious you will probably carry an image of what Giacometti means - an archetypal, improbably skeletal figure, thinner than the most anorexic super-model. You may too have some perception of an association with Sartre and the received interpretation of these sculptures as the physical equivalent of the tortured existentialist literature of post-war Paris. Neither will prepare you for the variety, vitality and sheer power evident in this exhibition.
Giacometti is one of the defining figures of our century. Born in Switzerland in 1901, the son of a successful painter, he showed a precocious talent from an early age. The youthful portrait studies on view here contain, in their blunt frontality, some hint of his future direction. Trained in Paris by Rodin's pupil Bourdelle, by the age of 24, Giacometti had already passed with some distinction through forms of Divisionism and Cubism and, via the influence of Africa and Brancusi, into a satisfying quasi-primitive style that echoes Epstein and Lipchitz. The first of two remarkable epiphanies came in 1929 with the discovery of Surrealism; the second only five years later in 1934 with the first experiments in a new figuration.
Like Giacometti's own progress, this show is not easy. Often, it is uncomfortably confrontational; from the watching eyes of the portraits to the unreturnable stare of Gazing Head, a barely articulated piece of flat, hammered bronze. At every turn the viewer is invited, expected, persuaded to become involved in a dialogue with these mute objects. In presenting them so skilfully, this exhibition reveals that, above all else, Giacometti is about the difficult experience of being human. In Three Walking Men (1948), for example, three figures cross over each other's paths. …