Think of Giacometti and chances are you will imagine a bronze sculpture of a misshapen and scraggily skinny figure. His name has become synonymous with his whip-thin forms, one of the most potent incarnations of the desolation that gripped post-war Europe. But while these are some of the most vaunted works of modern art, they are also only part of the story: the conclusion.
By starting at the beginning, a new exhibition at the Tate Modern in London shows how he developed his style. Born in Borgonovo, Switzerland in 1901, Giacometti moved to Paris in 1922 to study with Antoine Bourdelle, a sculptor. Initially inspired by cubist painting, in 1931 he joined the surrealists, sculpting a series of dreamlike pieces. But Giacometti was never fully committed to surrealism’s neglect of the waking world in favour of the subconscious, and as war loomed he retrained his focus. After studying ancient art he began creating more realistic representations of male and female forms in miniature, which were intended to seem like figures observed from a distance. It was only after the war that he settled on his late style, typified by his thin bronze figures, which he would refine for the remainder of his life.
By devoting around half of the gallery space to his pre-war works, “Giacometti” spotlights his roving interests, in antiquity, dreams, photography and the theatre. And by placing the familiar bronze casts alongside the plaster versions which were his preferred medium, and by showing his paintings and drawings, it shows him as an artist who was more versatile than many people realise. This is a show that is both retrospective and rediscovery.
“Suspended Ball” (1930-31)
It was this work which brought him to the attention of the surrealists. Hung from a metal, cage-like frame which would become one of Giacometti’s signatures, the plaster ball is suspended just above the moon-like crescent – the two never quite meet. “Suspended Ball” impressed Salvador Dalí and André Breton. Giacometti quickly became an affiliate of their circle – though he kept his critical distance.
“Woman with Her Throat Cut” (1932)
There are few sculptures so ghoulish as this, the most shocking work from Giacometti’s surrealist period. Its contorted form lies on the floor, splayed in a death agony. A tiny cleft is cut into the narrow, ribbed throat on the right. By depicting the woman as part-mantis, part-barbed plant, Giacometti turns her into villain as well as victim. She was apparently inspired by Giacometti’s nightmares of helplessness.
“Very Small Figurine” (1937-39)
Giacometti abandoned surrealism in the late 1930s and instead began crafting more realistic works, often in miniature. Tethered to a plinth that dwarfs it, “Very Small Figurine” is 45mm tall. It draws on the stiff posture of ancient Egyptian art, which Giacometti saw as the truest representation of life. “Egyptian statues,” he wrote in 1921, “have grandeur, harmony in their lines and forms, perfect technique.” He worked on these miniatures in Geneva during the second world war (the only time he ever left Paris after moving there in his early 20s). After the war, he transported these sculptures back to Paris in a suitcase.
“Man Pointing” (1947)
When he returned to Paris, Giacometti’s style shifted again. The realistic forms he had developed in Geneva became elongated, distorted and roughed up. These emaciated humanoids, which quickly came to be seen as icons of alienation and estrangement, have since become Giacometti’s most celebrated works. “Man Pointing”, crafted over a single evening, is among the most famous. Its spindly figure contrasts with the strength and movement of his accusatory right hand. Giacometti once placed a human-size version of it at a junction near his studio, where it appeared to direct the passing traffic.
“Diego Seated” (1948)
Although best known for his sculpture, Giacometti was also a draughtsman and portraitist. His paintings almost always feature a single seated figure, often his wife Annette or brother Diego. Rather than seeking to uncover the psychology of the sitter, he tried to capture the subject’s “pure presence” – how they appeared to him over multiple encounters. As with his sculptures, he built up the figure with hundreds of tiny marks and adjustments.
“Women of Venice” (1956)
In 1956, Giacometti was invited to represent France at the 28th Venice Biennale. He chose to present a selection of his older work: a group of six tall female nudes, cast in plaster. “Women of Venice” – restored for this exhibition and reunited for the first time since 1956 – reveal, as in “Man Pointing”, the delicate imprint of the artist’s hand as he moulded his crumbling, pockmarked forms. Jean Genet, whose portrait by Giacometti also hangs in the exhibition, was rapt. “Sometimes,” he wrote in “The Studio of Giacometti” (1957), “the emotion is unbearable… I cannot stop myself coming back to this people of gilded – and sometimes painted – sentinels who, upright, immobile, are keeping watch.”
Giacometti Tate Modern, London, until September 10th