In his Fifties and Sixties heyday, Alberto Giacometti was seen as a sculptor who did portraits on the side. Nowadays, that position is reversed. The Swiss-born sculptor’s spindly bronze figures, once considered among the defining images of modern art, are barely looked at, while interest in his haunted, hollow-eyed paintings of people is rising all the time.
This is the first exhibition ever devoted solely to Giacometti’s portraiture, including painting, sculpture and drawing. But it is the painted portraits that dominate. We follow the development of these unrelenting, near monochrome images from Giacometti’s beginnings in the Alpine village of Stampa, where he was born in 1901, the son of a post‑impressionist painter.
The paintings in the first room show him following very competently in his father’s footsteps. But Giacometti wasn’t the type to plod comfortably in someone’s wake for long. Moving to Paris in 1922, he became anguished at how hard it was to “copy appearance exactly”.
The second room shows his attempts at solving this problem, from the Cubistic portrait of his sister Ottilia (1934), where he begins reducing form to essential lines, to the plaster Head of Isabel with its Egyptian feeling of hypnotic symmetry.
By the third of these images, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1947), he’s arrived at the characteristic Giacometti appearance: the rigidly symmetrical figure staring back at us through exaggerated ovoid eye-sockets, the narrowed, shrunken head sitting atop a bulky, sloping-shouldered torso, with the remote, fixated expression of a primitive god.
You can’t help wondering, with some of the paintings and with various works throughout the show, how much is the product of agonisingly intense scrutiny – as we’d like to believe – and how much simply an almost academic skill at drawing the elements Giacometti likes from a face. The unfinished Grey Figure (1957) looks suspiciously like the rather facile beginnings of a “Giacometti painting”.
Yet this exhibition succeeds triumphantly in immersing us in Giacometti’s compulsive world view, and the atmosphere of his time and place. If you aren’t driven screaming from the gallery by the claustrophobic obsessiveness, you’ll find yourself looking through Giacometti’s eyes, and you’ll forget, for a few moments that the rest of the world exists. The exhibition runs until Jan 10 at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Do you want to have a look at more Giacometti artworks? Click on this link - bit.ly/1GFL0ji