The figure was a challenging subject after the war. For many artists, it appeared an almost impossible theme and one that Alberto Giacometti felt he had to take on in his art. The Swiss sculpture, painter, draughtsman and printmaker savoured the challenge of confronting man’s inhumanity to man with such determination that he spent his life working towards this goal in an endless strive for perfection. The exhibition at Tate Modern takes a fresh look at Giacometti’s modern art, asking questions about the success of Giacometti’s life work. In this review, I am interested in considering the competing advantages of working with a strive for perfection against settling for artwork that is good enough in a discourse that could help me with my work.
Alberto Giacometti 1901 -1966 was born in Val Bregaghn in Switzerland. He was the son of the successful post-impressionist painter, Giovanni Giacometti. Alberto Giacometti was interested in art from an early age, at thirteen he made his first sculpture of his brother Diego, and in 1922 he moved to Paris to continue his education as an artist. Giacometti was awarded the grand prize for sculpture representing France at the Venice Biennale in 1962.
The exhibition space at the Tate Modern starts with his formative years when Giacometti depicts what he sees from life. As the show progresses Giacometti experiments with cubist and surrealist sculptures such as Head-Skull (1934), Torso (1925) and Cubist figure (1926). The sculptures of this period have a real physical interaction; it is interesting to see that Giacometti is trying and struggling to get a grip of his extraordinary personal view of reality. The angular sculptures take on and contemplate the space around the figure. A cheek bone is not directly represented as a cheek bone. Instead, Giacometti creates a poetic essence of the form. This extract of essence allows the sculpture to be an object in itself, completely eye-catching and unmatched, different from anything else.
It is clear that Giacometti quickly realised that depicting only what he saw in life was limiting. The concept of these sculpture came from an alternative source when he saw fully formed ideas in his head. The forms have a power and force about them that relates to forms and shapes from primitive art. They contain a real freedom as if Giacometti was grappling with a concept and trying to put it in his work. It is a remarkably varied body of work. To me the work shows Giacometti at his experimental best. When he went for good enough and when he had not expected the public to see some this work. For me, this was a real highlight of the show.
Later in his career, Giacometti dedicated himself to mainly depicting men walking and standing, as well as busts and nude women. He became known for his sculpture of thin figures with, “just enough clay for the figure to stand up and nothing more.” This approach enabled him to pursue the question further as he considered the essence of man and his following work resonated with existentialist art lovers and collectors.
In his pursuit to capture the essence, Giacometti felt the need to limit access to what inspired him. A walk in the wood was too much for him to take in. A short walk looking at one tree at a time in Paris is all he felt he could cope with. Giacometti said, “Having a quarter of an inch of something, you have a better chance of holding on to a certain feeling of the universe than if you had pretended to be doing the whole thing…by trying to draw a glass [on a table] as you see it seems like a fairly modest undertaking. But because you know that glass even that is almost impossible.” By limiting his inspiration, Giacometti felt that it would give him a better chance of getting to the bottom of his goal and his continuous strive for perfection. By limiting himself to only having a handful of models enabled Giacometti to focus on developing a distinctive visual language that everyone could recognise as his. From this Giacometti felt he could go deeper into how, we, as individuals relate to others. He worked towards capturing the self-consciousness and the universal feeling of being alone in this world.
Each time Giacometti made a sculpture he always had a strong feeling of failure. Giacometti wasn’t looking for a way to lie to himself. He didn’t tell himself that what he was doing was good enough. He was after perfection and anything else fell short. This disparity between his objective and his implementation opened up a breathing space for his next work, often Giacometti then repeated his previous piece. Even though he knew it was impossible to create a perfect response, Giacometti said, “All I can do will only ever be a faint image of what I see.”
This later work grapples with getting hold of the essence of the figure and although this is where he truly becomes a master, the control of inspiration that he uses can lack some of this freedom of exploration. I have always had a high affinity with Giacometti’s work. In this exhibition I wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t focused on perfection. What if Giacometti had continued to make one-off pieces of experimental work through his career, producing work that is good enough rather than perfect? I wonder what else Giacometti could have produced?
There is an energy that comes out of Giacometti’s work that makes his work compelling. It was interesting to watch a video of Giacometti at work in the exhibition. He made heavily worked surfaces through squeezing, pulling, touching and pushing clay. It was surprising watching his unconscious creativity and his obsessive restless movements as he worked on the form. Giacometti was fascinated by the head and eyes in his sculptures; he felt they represented the core of human beings and life. By getting the eyes right the rest of the figure he believed would fall into place.
There is a lot to be said for comparing this to other artist’s practices. Mondrian’s repetitiveness allowed him to pursue his interest in how one shape of colour works in competition with black and white. If Mondrian had only made one painting of a black grid with white, red and blue squares, it would of never have got to the bottom of his interest in visual order. Without this repetitiveness, he would of never of been able to ask profound questions about the visual world and his belief that everything is an illusion. Mondrian thought that using repetition highlighted his belief that an abstract painting is truer to reality than a painting depicting the illusion of what we see.
Picasso, however, was well known for reinventing his art every few years, like his cubist works and blue period. Picasso used new approaches to get to the bottom of his desire to depict his personal view of the world. Matisse also reinvented his approach to making art several times, finishing his career with the biggest risk of all the cut out. I wonder about these different contrasting approaches and wonder what approach would suit me best my practice.
In my eyes, failures are as valuable as successes. Giacometti endlessly pursued, his search to find the universal poetic essence of a figure and the truth of our shared humanity. Giacometti did this by focusing on one tree in the forest at a time or one person in a crowd of millions. Through this approach, he captured alienation and melancholy of life. His engagement with searching for a truth that was always out of his reach lead him down a very restrictive path.
While it is admirable to focus intensely on, “a quarter of an inch of something.” I wonder if Giacometti’s approach of limiting his inspiration and his endless strive for perfection or whether a wider body of experimental approach would suit my approach to art making?
Giacometti created a distinctive visual language with his thin sculptures of man that enabled him to find success in his lifetime. Dreaming something up and executing it and working and stuff comes out are quite different approaches. The lightning bolt of inspiration doesn’t strike on demand. There is a lot to be said for starting to work and seeing what you can produce and where it takes you.
I think what I take forward for my practice from this Giacometti exhibition is that developing some kind of process is essential for removing too much thinking and self-doubt. It is not hard to make art that looks like other art; the trick is making art that doesn’t look like someone else. Giacometti achieved that. Pushing your art to where no one else is working is a lot more of a quest than striving for perfection. Problem creation with self-imposed limitations can easily be devised into a practice. In that practice, it can be a positive decision to limit your inspiration or choices. The only conclusion is in Giacometti’s approach is no matter what you try humankind is beyond human understanding.
When starting as an artist rather than waiting for a big idea, I took my camera to the city. I took pictures of everything and anything that interested me. I just pressed and released the shutter. When l reviewed my photos, l realised that l was naturally discovering interesting material. My ideas came from living, painting and repeating.
When returning to the city with my camera, l followed my natural curiosity and my ideas deepened and expanded. At times it was hard to choose which way to take my work. It was essential to review and understand what l had. I took many directions but kept returning to taking photos of the city and taking them forward by painting them on canvas. The trick is not to give up Helsinki Bus Theory link.
I realised over time that my original idea was chasing some obscure knowledge through a simple process that I could repeat.
I feel like I have been painting the same painting for ten years as now I realise that my original ideas just got the work started. The original idea is still in my work but it has changed and developed in ways l could never have predicted. My work has grown to portray something unique that help us to understand our life on this earth a little better.
These seeds begin to germinate in many different directions like a plant does when it is attracted to light and water. It has taken many years for my original ideas and intentions to bloom into flowers. Now the interesting thing is not my original ideas or intentions. It is that l have found my way to communicate; my unique voice and inclination. As my work has deepened and expanded, it has lined up with natural talent, unlocking bigger ideas. Bigger ideas that l could never have predicted ten years ago.
The point of this post is that it is impossible to know where your practice as an artist will take you. One of the biggest challenges is learning to trust the decisions you make and to stop doubting yourself. Instead, l have developed confidence in my inner voice even when l can’t see where it is taking me.
My advice is to play, as there is no such thing as a mistake. Anything can lead to a breakthrough. If self-doubt is getting the best of you put your trust in a process and live, paint, repeat.
Over time when you review your work a way forward should reveal itself. Trust yourself and your creative process. Rather than paying attention to your own intentions, pay attention to what the work actually does. When the thinking and doing come together the work becomes more convincing.
I have an inherent need to communicate and express something. I am constantly looking for a new way to read the world to understand the physicality of forms. I see my practice as an exercise of being a painter/curator of moments of our lives; reclaiming a more agreeable melody, restoring, reordering and decluttering to focus on what is truly important.
By focusing on the space and the possibilities of structure and composition, I hope to emphasise the beauty and harmony from the chaos in the city, to invoke a new reading of its noise, movement and pattern. By revealing things through a slow open process, my work uncovers the importance of the positive and negative space. Where rhythm, colour and form play off each other, and each shape takes it configuration and meaning from the next, as a metaphor for the qualities of a seductive poem or an intriguing piece of music.
There is truth in the paintings as I try to deal with the present tense and how these ephemeral junctures were for me. A situation and context where discoveries and revelations happen. There is a layered time as I grapple with evidence of awkward moments, aspects of failure and changes of direction. Leaving the physical traces of responding to mistakes, that relate to intrinsic qualities of being human.
If you would like to read what other artists have to say on this subject please take a look at;
Please comment below about your thoughts and experiences related to this post, ‘An artist’s complicated journey of generating ideas and new work’
A space to play, where anything is possible is such an important place for a creative person. Having a space to go to and process the world and its complexities is extremely valuable and I feel very lucky to have the freedom around my full-time job and family life.
There is something very special about making work with just a few strokes with an open mind in an instant. A pencil or brush in my hand with an open mind allows me to be transported to a place where ideas are instinctive, intuitive and spontaneous. Accidents from unintended foot prints, rings from coffee cups, photocopiers, spills and accidents all have their place. These studio sessions often leaves my thoughts uncovered and on display in their raw state where my ego is left aside.
These ideas can be explored and refined but at this point the conscious self comes back into the room. The energy and emotions in the preliminary drawings and paintings that came from this outburst of freedom can often be lifted onto another sheet for further refinement. The open-ended problem creation can often be more prized than the problem solving finished work that follows.
I find that at this point, just after the preliminary studies, I don’t know what I have got. I often find a place to store this work and revisit it at a later time. This time lapse helps me to realise what I have really got. This is when l contemplate the potential and hopefully uncover original ideas. After all, everything has been done before, very little is original. New work is often a shadow or an echo of what the artist has seen or experienced before. This process can also often lead to selecting, editing and reworking, to look for originality. The artist’s studio is also a place for destruction, recovery and transformation.
Chuck Close, the New York painter, has this to say, “We often don’t know what we want to do, but we sure as hell know what we don’t want to do. So the choice not to do something is often more important than the choice to do something.”
I find problem creation as a process is much more effective in finding interesting art than a problem-solving approach, Duchamp said: “the artist has only 50% of the responsibility, and that is to get the work out, it is completed by the viewer.”
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