Alberto Giacometti: Sensible Expression And Pure Presence National Portrait Gallery

If the outlandish and often gimmicky world of contemporary art is too hard to digest, ‘Frieze’ week also offers some statelier, classic offerings.  Aside from Frieze Masters itself, Giacometti: Pure Presence has just opened at the National Portrait Gallery while round the corner the National Gallery is offering Goya: The Portraits.

Swiss born Alberto Giacometti (1901-66), a contemporary of Picasso, Miro and Ernst, is best known for his sculptures of elongated figures with tree bark like textures.  Alongside his sculptures, the exhibition includes paintings and drawings created throughout his career.  While emphasizing his body of portraits, the show focuses on the intensity of his relationships with frequent sitters such as his brother Digeo, his wife Annette and friends like the writers Jean Genet and Louis Aragon. This is the first ever exhibition solely to consist of his portraits.

What is evident from his early works is his interest in texture, form and structure as well as his superb draughtsmanship expressing his wide influences from ancient and classical art, through the Renaissance to the Post Impressionists.  The seeds of his definitive textured surfaces are sown very early on in his career such as in the 1920 oil on canvas portrait of his brother Diego.  Once he moved to Paris in 1922, he began to develop his interest in form and structure as seen in The Artist’s Father (flat and engraved) from 1927. His paintings and drawings become more sculptural, his colours more monochromatic and culminate in his later much looser paintings, with a lighter muted palette from the 1960s.   In his paintings and drawings, the often-frenetic circular motion of his strokes contrast with their isolation.  The paintings are united by this use of figures isolated in space, blended into a monochromatic background and facing the viewer head on.  The intensity of their stares are at once intimate and personable reflecting the closeness of artist and sitter. The title of the exhibition derives from t he existentialist writer Jean Paul Sartre, who referred to Giacometti’s attempt to give ‘sensible expression’ to ‘pure presence’.  Figures are often set in cage like surroundings reminiscent of Francis Bacon.  Interestingly one of Giacometti’s models, Isabel Nichol, later became Francis Bacon’s muse Isabel Rawsthorne.   

There is one room devoted to photographs documenting the artist’s life, often showing him at work in his studio while at the centre of the exhibition is one of his elongated figures Woman of Venice VIII, standing proud on a plinth putting his portraits in context with his more widely known sculptures. 

*Artlyst’s comment: Highly recommended, enjoyable and informative show.

Giacometti: Pure Presence: National Portrait Galery 15 October 2015 – 10 January 2016

Words: Sara Faith Photo: P C Robinson © artlyst 2015

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