What Lies Beneath: Giacometti's Sculptures Conceal a Wider Process of Both Creation and Destruction, Writes Michael Glover

Article excerpt

This major retrospective of the career of the sculptor Alberto Giacometti, which spreads across the entire top floor of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and includes almost 600 works in all--sculptures, paintings, drawings, notebooks, maquettes, photographs and much else--sets itself a very particular challenge. It invites us to see Giacometti's work in the context of the particular studio space in Montparnasse he occupied for almost 40 years.

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This is both the exhibition's point of departure, and its thematic centre. The studio, it argues, was not only his place of work, but also the focus of his ritual practice as an artist. It was a space of making, destruction and remaking. Thanks to many loans from the Alberto and Annette Giacometti Foundation, we see both tentative beginnings--in notebook drawings and sculptural fragments--and final outcomes in finished pieces. This is an exhibition that is devoted as much to an examination of process as to the finished artefact.

The decisive moment in Giacometti's career can be dated fairly precisely. It was in December 1926 that he moved into the new working space in Montparnasse, Paris, that would once have been within walking distance of this exhibition. (The building itself was destroyed in the 1970s.) This studio, a living-cum-working environment that was both small and monastically austere--he used to draw his drinking water from a pump outside in the courtyard--was to be his creative crucible until his death in 1966.

The exhibition begins with glimpses of his childhood in Switzerland, which includes an early painting of the seven-year-old Alberto by his father, Giovanni, who paints his child impressionistically. Elsewhere, a still life of apples on a decorative tablecloth by a 14-year-old Alberto shows a huge debt to Cezanne.

The son soon moves away, physically and emotionally. The best of the works in this first space include some of his most radical sculptural forms from the 1920s--Spoon Woman, for example, a neo-primitive exercise in stacked forms, in which the female body is represented by a white, concave bowl.

The creation of an exhibition that stimulates both mind and eye is no easy matter. Buildings can feel inflexible, and almost overbearing in their pomposity and architectural rigidity. Plinths can be too obtrusive, and sit too tall. Lighting can be too uniformly glaring. In short, artist and space so often seem to be at war with each other.

This, by contrast, is an exemplary piece of exhibition-making. The exhibition spaces are of varying sizes and shapes. Each piece is displayed with an extraordinary sensitivity to scale, height and relative positioning. When we require concentration of a very particular kind, the spaces seem to close in on themselves. …