London Recommends: Giacometti at Tate Modern
First, there was a painting.
Then a play, and a sculpture.
No actually – first there were the existentialists, then a painting, the artist and the playwright…
No, I don’t think that’s right either.
Let’s do it in pictures:
Samuel Beckett said the inspiration for the play was the painting above by Caspar David Friedrich. Waiting for Godot being a play in which ‘Nothing happens. Twice.’ (Vivian Mercier) Giacometti’s own work illustrated many different publications, William Barrett’s Irrational Man or TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.
Beckett and Giacometti met and talked often and were friends with the existentialists (Sartre, Camus, Simone de Beauvoir) in Paris after the war. His dingy cold studio was often a refuge for them. His thoughts on how to make good art a source for inspiration and discussion.
However, Giacometti, as you can see in the first rooms of Tate’s exhibition started as a surrealist until they had a pretty hostile falling out when he went back to making art from real people and objects rather than dreams. His work from that time though is imaginative, often playful but also, and sometimes at the same time, ominous and disquieting.
Even his most famous sculptures seem to be of two minds. They are possibly the most recognisable sculptures of the 20th century. Tall, thin, anxious and isolated, they stand still or stride into the unknown, gesturing with their fragile limbs. They are poetic but also troubling, questioning humanity of the humans looking at them. Humans that let Auschwitz and Hiroshima happen.
Giacometti worked on his sculptures endlessly, often fearful he won’t be able to continue, to finish them. In the short film played by Tate at the exhibition he says about his portraits (in which he paints his wife or his brother repeatedly) that even if he could paint them for a thousand years, he couldn’t get it right.
Haunted by Sarah Maie is self confessedly inspired by Giacometti’s portraits. Where Giacometti’s portraits are usually seated however, Sarah painted her female figure standing tall and still. Her elongated form being an echo of the tall spindly sculpture of Giacometti’s mature work.
Sarah studied art and design and after working few years in the corporate world, she is back full time engaging with her art. This haunted figure, standing on her tiptoes, staring intensely ahead is like Giacometti’s work, alarming but also looking scared herself. The monochrome palette focuses the eye on the brushstrokes and her form.
Rather than being a beautiful nude, this girl will leave you unnerved.
Jumping Hare by Stephen Leonard Hill is a collaboration between the sea and the artist. The sea brings the wood and Stephen collects it to make sculptures. North Devon seaside is not always friendly, but Stephen says he couldn’t imagine doing it any other, easier way. His sculptures are rough looking, just like Giacometti’s, they aren’t smoothly finished, they grow out of stuff, whether it’s plaster or driftwood. This hare looks like he could be startled by Vladimir and Estragon when they end up by the lonely tree in Beckett’s play.
Driftwood often played a part in artists’ lives. The history of the pieces worked by the huge forces of the seas and oceans, its shape, were inspiration to British artists like Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.