An exhibition of portraits by Alberto Giacometti is to open at the National Portrait Gallery in London this autumn. The first ever exhibition solely to consist of portraits by the artist was announced only hours after a sculpture of the Swiss artist sold for tens of millions of dollars at an Christie’s in New York, making him the world’s most highly prized modern sculptor.
To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the artist’s death, Giacometti: Pure Presence (15 October 2015-10 January 2016) will comprise over 60 works, including paintings, sculptures and drawings, from the entire range of his career.
Including very rare loans from private collections and seldom-seen portraits, the exhibition will be the first to focus on the lesser-known double life of the Swiss twentieth century artist.
Most famous for his tall, thin, standing or walking figures, Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) is widely known as a leading modernist and surrealist sculptor working alongside Picasso, Miróand Ernst in Paris in the 1920s. Acknowledging the experimental and imaginative nature of his work, Giacometti claimed that, starting in 1925, for ten years ‘it was necessary to abandon the real.’
But the Gallery’s exhibition emphasises the portraits produced by the sculptor during this time as he steered a lesser-known, parallel artistic course at his family home in Switzerland. Beyond that, and covering the period 1914 to 1966, the exhibition reveals Giacometti’s life-long preoccupation with portraiture and ’copying appearance.’
Giacometti: Pure Presence will focus on the intensity of his relationships with frequent sitters such as members of his close family; Isabel Nichol (who later became Francis Bacon’s muse Isabel Rawsthorne); and the prostitute Caroline, whom he met in 1960 and who sat for his portraits over the following five years.
Tracing Giacometti’s engagement with representing the figure, Giacometti: Pure Presence will display portraits of all his main models, including his wife Annette and his brother Diego, as well as such friends as the writers Louis Aragon and Jean Genet, the retailer and philanthropist Lord Sainsbury and the art writer James Lord. The exhibition will also feature a room of photographs documenting the artist’s life.
Highlights include his earliest portrait bust of his brother Diego created in 1914 when he was just 13 and his last bronze busts from 1965. These are displayed alongside an astonishing range of paintings and drawings which show Giacometti’s development from post-impressionist influences via cubism to expressionist portraits of figures in highly charged spaces, reminiscent of the ‘caged’ compositions of Francis Bacon.
Major sculptures on show range from a serene head of Isabel inspired by classical Egyptian portraiture to portraits of Diego and Annette: gnawed, dissolving heads and figures that became Giacometti’s trademarks. Such sculptures are frequently pared down to very small forms as though the viewer is observing the sitter from a long distance.
One of the artist’s most celebrated tall hieratic figures Woman of Venice VIII, stands at the centre of the exhibition, making a vital contact between Giacometti’s portraits and his famous sculptures evoking an anonymous human presence.
Giacometti: Pure Presence will be the first large-scale Giacometti exhibition to be held in the United Kingdom since those at the Tate in 1965 and at the Royal Academy in 1996, and will be the first to focus exclusively on Giacometti’s engagement with the human figure and the creation of images of an individual human presence based on particular models. The title of the exhibition derives from the existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre, who referred to Giacometti’s endeavour to give ‘sensible expression’ to ‘pure presence.’
Drawn from museums and private collections worldwide including Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Tate,
Collection Fondation Giacometti, Paris, Alberto Giacometti Foundation, Zurich, Kunsthaus Zürich, Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Paul Moorhouse, Curator of Giacometti: Pure Presence, says: ‘Giacometti is widely celebrated as one of the giants of modern art, but his almost continuous involvement with portraiture is less well known. In devoting individual rooms to his main models, the exhibition exposes the singular, obsessive and intense nature of Giacometti’s portraits. Repetition, variation, accretion and dissolution are revealed as vital elements in his extraordinary vision.’