Alberto Giacometti at Tate Modern

By Tim Epps

The Fondation Maeght, situated near Saint-Paul de Vence, 25 km from Nice, is a private art space opened in 1964 by Marguerite and Aimé Maeght to present modern and contemporary art in all its forms. The Fondation owns one of the largest collections of twentieth century paintings, sculptures, and graphic works in Europe. Aimé Maeght was a Paris art dealer and friend of the great names of modern art including Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, Fernand Leger, Georges Braque, Alberto Giacometti, Marc Chagall, and Eduardo Chillida.

The Fondation Maeght is not a museum but an art village. Its architecture is as dedicated to the artists exhibited as it is open and welcoming for art lovers. Designed by Josep Lluís Sert, a Catalan architect and close friend of Joan Miró, it is formed of a collection of buildings, including a chapel, courtyards, and sculpture gardens. Painters and sculptors have collaborated with the architect by creating works that are integrated into the buildings and landscape: a Miró labyrinth filled with sculptures and ceramics; mural mosaics and stained glass by Chagall; pools and stained glass by Braque; a fountain by Bury; and a Giacometti courtyard, one of the world’s most famous in-situ works featuring his tall, elongated, walking figures.

Tate Modern was probably visualised by Nicholas Serota in much the same way as Marguerite and Aimé Maeght viewed their art space—to create an environment dedicated to showing all forms of art in sympathetic surroundings. Unfortunately, in comparison, Tate Modern doesn’t quite match up. While one has to accept that Tate Modern has become a ‘wonder of the world’, equal in pulling power to Madame Tussauds and the Tower of London, it does not serve art as well as it could.

The Turbine Hall is a magnificent space that has very rarely been used to its full potential. When not showing ‘spectacular’ installations, the space is wasted. The surrounding galleries are mean, claustrophobic spaces that cannot accommodate the visitors that stream into view the art, creating a less than satisfactory experience. The addition of the Tanks and the Switch House has not added to an environment that has so much potential for visitors to experience and understand art in its multitude of contexts. Tate Modern is surrounded by outside space that to the north is given over to some sad silver birch trees, third rate street entertainment, and a depressingly drab Christmas market. While to the south, where the Switch House was built, a vast acreage of bland tarmac has been laid—another wasted opportunity. Worst of all, one cannot move without bumping into a sales counter selling tat wrapped in bad reproductions of the art on show, further demeaning the sense that art has a greater value than financial. (They are now selling vast quantities of their ‘home’ made chocolate!)

Tate Modern’s retrospective of Alberto Giacometti is a wonderful exhibition. As you squeeze through the rooms, a cavalcade of artworks unfold, showing the gamut of Giacometti’s consummate expression and tactile discourse. In the first room a sea of small sculptures, mostly human heads, confronts one. While this is a stunning entrée, it also gives one pause to think that small, claustrophobic, rooms are not the place for sculpture—particularly not for a sculptor whose work begs space. When one has seen Giacometti’s large walking figures striding across a terra cotta tiled courtyard on a terrace with views to the Mediterranean, mean spaces on Bankside will never satisfy.

This is a shame, because it is superbly curated exhibition covering Giacometti’s oeuvre, and, within the restrictions, well planned for moving through the artist’s life. But there are omissions, principally examples of the tall walking figures previously mentioned. There is a room with such figures but they are quite short in comparison to some and, even worse, they are roped off so one cannot walk among them and view them for their magnificent three-dimensional beauty. One can’t help thinking at this point why Giacometti’s larger sculptures were not placed in the Turbine Hall or outside on the tarmac plain. Is it because they would be free to view?

Sculptors view objects differently from two-dimensional artists, when they look at their subject they see all around them—not just the plain that is before them. This is particularly noticeable when they draw. Throughout art’s history sculptors have produced some of the greatest drawings of the human figure—drawings that captivate with their spatial dimension. Dotted around this exhibition are many of Giacometti’s portrait drawings and they are sublime examples of such skill.

Also included in this exhibition are films and photographs of the artist. They are well worth studying because Giacometti is a wonderful subject for the camera—his craggy visage as if moulded from clay by his own hand. He was photographed by some of the leading exponents of the art and their studies in light and shade give us a clear view of this playful, watchful man.

Alberto Giacometti at Tate Modern, 10 May to 10 september 2017.