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11 May 2017updated 12 May 2017 11:21am

Lone ranger: the art of Alberto Giacometti

A revealing retrospective of the sculptor's work speaks to mankind’s alienation, loneliness and smallness

By Michael Prodger

According to Alberto Giacometti ­(1901-66), all art is solipsistic. “When you look at art made by other people, you see what you need to see in it,” he argued. What generally needs to be seen in Giacometti’s art – all those attenuated figures with huge feet and tiny heads – is mankind’s alienation, loneliness and smallness in the world. Yet the artist never admitted that this was what he was up to; indeed, the interpretation came as something of a surprise.

“In the past I have never thought about loneliness when working,” he said, “and I don’t think about it now. Yet there must be a reason for the fact that so many people talk about it.”

What he did claim for his sculptures was that they were the result of unusually intense observation (he would put his sitters a fixed distance away from him and work in long sessions, looking and looking again) with the specific purpose not of capturing a likeness but of creating “a reality of the same intensity” as life. Exactly what that reality might be or represent, he didn’t know: “I want something, but I won’t know what it is until I succeed in doing it.” The 250-plus works in the revealing retrospective of Giacometti’s work now on at Tate Modern, co-curated by the gallery’s director, Frances Morris, are all about this questing.

The very first room sets the scene. It contains 26 busts dating from the beginning of his career to the end and shows his fascination with the human head, how he gradually moved away from simple representation and how he made use of every material he could find. Like his slightly older contemporary Picasso, he was a relentless experimenter and worked not just in bronze and stone but also in clay, wood, plaster (which, unlike most sculptors, he saw as a material in its own right rather than a stage preliminary to casting in bronze), pencil, prints, oils and Biro (he was an early adopter of the ballpoint pen).

Art was all he knew: his father, Giovanni, was a well-known post-impressionist painter and his brothers, Diego and Bruno, were also artists. When he moved to Paris from his native Switzerland in 1922 he quickly fell in with a group that included Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Balthus and Picasso (not that Giacometti was a fan: “Picasso is altogether bad, completely beside the point from the beginning except for cubist period and even that half misunderstood . . . Ugly. Old-fashioned vulgar without sensitivity, horrible in colour or non-colour. Very bad painter once and for all”).

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This eclectic circle left its mark on his work as he tried out cubism and then, more wholeheartedly, surrealism, which he gave a violent twist. Woman with her Throat Cut (1932), for example, is a splayed, vaguely humanoid object, with ribs that have been cracked open and vertebrae exposed, while a Disagreeable Object of 1931 – a smooth, wooden tadpole form, made menacing by a cluster of spikes – is a tangled reference to his sexual impotence.

In 1935 Giacometti was formally expelled from the surrealist group, partly because he insisted on working from the model. From this point he concentrated exclusively on the human figure and particularly the head. “The head is what matters,” he said. “The rest of the body plays the part of antennae making life possible for people and life itself is inside the skull.”

He spent most of the Second World War in Switzerland, trapped when the borders closed, and on his return to Paris in 1945 he started to produce the tall, thin figures that came to define him. They took their shape, he said, despite himself: “The more I wanted to make them broader, the narrower they got.” The highlight of the exhibition is the six Women of Venice plaster statues he made for the 1956 Venice Biennale, here reunited for the first time. Several of them show how he would worry away at the plaster, incising it with knives and embellishing it with lines of black and red paint. Sometimes he went too far with the knife and ended up destroying the piece he was working on. Together, the women – based on his wife, Annette, but infused with ancient sculpture – form a ghostly and sinister Greek chorus. The novelist and playwright Jean Genet said Giacometti made work for the dead.

Just as potent is his Walking Man of 1960, which his friend Jean-Paul Sartre surely had in mind when he called the artist’s figures “moving outlines”. Walking Man is Everyman, even though he bears a strong resemblance to Giacometti, the figure leaning forward into his endless tramp. It was this sculpture that in 2010 broke the record price for a work of art sold at auction when it fetched $104.3m (in 2015 his Pointing Man of 1947 fetched $141m). That’s a lot of money to be reminded that, when all is said and done, you are alone in the world. 

Exhibition runs until 10 September. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article appears in the 10 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning