Giacometti at the National Portrait Gallery

Dont' miss this vital new look at Giacometti, which shows his paintings alongside his better-known sculptures

On the face of it, 1964 looked set to be a bad year for Alberto Giacometti (1901–66). Diagnosed with cancer, the Swiss-Italian sculptor had to have part of his stomach removed; then, his mother, Annetta, the much-loved family matriarch, died at 92.

Giacometti Artist's Mother

The Artist’s Mother (1937).

To any other artist, this double loss, fleshly and maternal, might have put paid to thoughts of work; to Giacometti, however, absence was the stuff of art. At some point in the middle of the year, he embarked on the ninth and last in a series of bronze portraits of his wife. Catalogued as Annette IX, it is now more widely known as Annette Without Arms.

A visit to the National Portrait Gallery’s excellent show of Giacometti’s portraits, the first devoted solely to them, shows the sculpture’s name to be no more than the truth. Annette Giacometti, 22 years younger than her husband, looms towards us like the figurehead of a ship, her face an abstracted mass of forms and planes. Her lack of arms both draws our gaze and makes her vulnerable to it:  Annette demands our attention, but also our compassion. Her maiden name, oddly, had been Arm. One wonders if her husband is playing on this, cutting her off from her background, making her entirely his. In Annette Without Arms, his own recent losses are made hers and vice versa. It is a portrait of extraordinary, unparalleled empathy.

Annette without arms

The ninth and last in a series of portraits of Giacometti’s wife, Annette Without Arms demands both the viewer’s attention and compassion

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All sculpture is made up of mass and void, what is there and what is not. Giacometti, however, is pre-eminently the sculptor of absence. Close your eyes and think of his work and you will almost certainly see skinny bronze figures, tall and etiolated, standing or striding along. Part of their power is their apparent anonymity, their sameness.

After the Second World War, after Hiroshima and Auschwitz, Giacometti’s stick figures seemed like new Everymen: the weight of the postwar world, manifest in the heavy emptiness about them, pressed on their thin shoulders. They were quickly claimed by the French Existentialists as fellow travellers in a godless universe; Jean-Paul Sartre, full of approval, saw Giacometti’s figures as ‘always halfway between nothingness and being’. That reading of them stuck. What this exhibition shows, however, is that it is by no means the whole story.

Woman of Venice_giacometti

Woman of Venice VIII, a trademark Giacometti stick figure

First, Giacometti’s sculptures did not spring fully formed from his imagination as hypotheses or symbols. If his mature period —the stick-man period, if you like—began in earnest in 1946, it was as a process of evolution rather than revolution. Pre-war works in this exhibition, such as Rita (about 1938), already show an urge to reduce and omit, a grasp of the eloquence of emptiness. Second, ‘Giacometti: Pure Presence’ makes it clear that the sculptor’s apparently anonymous figures actually had their roots firmly in portraiture and that portraiture, like charity, began at home.

Born into a family of artists, Giacometti made his first sculpture when he was 13: Portrait of Diego is a bronze bust of the younger brother who was to share his life and Paris studio until Alberto’s early death in 1966. (Diego Giacometti, also an artist, would survive him by 20 years.)

To love was to sculpt: Giacometti saw early on that accuracy was not the same thing as detail. His delightful bronze, The Artist’s Father (1927), reduces its subject to the child’s drawing of a head, with features etched on the flattened face as if squiggled on paper with a pen.

It is a telling moment. A third and important contribution of this show to our understanding of Giacometti is to place his bronze portraits alongside his paintings. If there is only one trademark stick figure in it— Woman of Venice VIII (1956) —there are as many works on canvas as there are in bronze.

Giacometti exhibition divan

Man Seated on the Divan while Reading the Newspaper

These are not always as successful; the shrunken head of Diego in a Sweater (1953) is deeply moving, but that of Portrait of G. David Thompson (1957) has the faint air of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. At their best, however, Giaometti’s paintings are heartstopping; Man Seated on the Divan while Reading the Newspaper (1952–3), a portrait of Diego in their studio, has the feel for space of a Leonardo. This really is a wonderful show. Don’t miss it.

‘Giacometti: Pure Presence’ is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, until January 10, 2016 (www.npg.; 020–7766 7344). A catalogue of the same name by Paul Moorhouse is published by the National Portrait Gallery (£29.95).