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.
Ever since I was interested in art, I have always seen Howard Hodgkin as one of my artists whose work resonates strongly with me. In this review of Howard Hodgkin’s Absent Friends exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, I want to explore, understand and put into words (if that is possible) what it is about Hodgkin’s paintings that have managed to turn mere paintings into objects of contemplation and hold my curiosity for so many years. At the same time say goodbye to another great artist; Howard Hodgkin died on 9th March 2017, two weeks before this show opened.
Howard Hodgkin was born in 1932. He studied at Camberwell School of Art between 1949-50 and Bath Academy of Art between 1950-1954. In 1985 Hodgkin won the Turner Prize and represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. Since then he has gone on to exhibit across the world and has his work is in many private and public collections.
The art I expect to see at the portrait gallery normally refers to an anatomical likeness of a person in the traditions of pictorial realism. However, in this show, the paintings are titled as portraits that capture a memory of a person and a moment as a dematerialised idea imprinted on the mind. They are described by Hodgkin as ‘representational pictures of emotional situations’. The paintings capture realism as a complete expression of individuality, of both the artist and what he sees. Paint and colour refashion the world as he sees it. Hodgkin sees more than an individual likeness; he sees how the light falls to create abstract forms of intense emotion. He paints his thoughts from memory with swirls and splashes as a response to the flux of the world. The paintings are like a recording that captures a feeling, that took place between him and the person in the title.
Hodgkin once said, “Painting is like putting a message into a bottle and flinging it into the sea,” Observer article, 2001. Howard Hodgkin believed his paintings talk for themselves and often was reluctant to discuss the meaning behind his work. He was always happy for the viewer to see and interpret what they like from his deeply cherished moments.
The paintings are more like artefacts or an object rather than just paintings. Hodgkin worked slowly producing a maximum of 10 paintings a year. He laboured and agonised over them in an intense process, which is evident from the dates of the work and from listening to him discuss the torture he injured when painting. His artistry clearly lies in making something that took years to look like it was made in a couple of hours.
“It’s very hard to keep all the things going on in a painting, the feeling, the emotion, the memory; they have to turn into something else. The problem really is making the painting stand up by itself. The memory has to turn into a thing, into an object. And that is a very slow process for me.” Howard Hodgkin, BBC Radio 4, Desert Island Discs.
It was always clear to Hodgkin when a painting was finished and complete, as it captured his original idea that triggered the picture. He painted on used blackboards, kitchen worktop and old picture frames rather than canvas. He liked pieces of wood that already had an identity and a life. When walking through the chronological hung exhibition, it is evident to see how Hodgkin developed a confidence with colour through his career. Each painting has a strong, unique, distinctive character of swirls, curves, dots and lines in vibrant pigment, a collision of pattern and forms.
The painting that sums up Hodgkin’s painting practice for me is ‘Mrs K’, 1966-7. It is a portrait of Jane Kasmin. It reminds me of being in a dark room as someone enters from the far end through a closed door. The sun floods into the dark room, and a bold form of a figure interrupts the light, as you adjust your eyes. The painting opens up heartfelt sentiments of solitude and vulnerability. The painting challenges your visual psychological space, it encourages you to learn something new about the world about what realism could be or should be. In my eyes, the painting is a more accurate and truthful interpretation of human perception than traditional pictorial realism.
The impressive show with many well-lit rooms of high-quality work was a pleasure to visit. The exhibition delves deep into Hodgkin’s practice of painting, asking questions about our human construction of reality in this seemly meaningless world. Every single one of the paintings in this show feels like a battleground between the artist, materiality and reality. They are an expression of individuality of the artist and its subject; they are self-portraits of the artist and subject portraits wrapped up in one. Hodgkin created paintings that outlast the subject and the artist himself. A makeover of the world in paint, with the paint being the carrier of vibrant and radiant feelings. It is a joyful farewell to an outstanding artist.
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Through painterly questions of scale, content, colour and form I’m interested in expressing physical and emotional vigour of the human body in the city. I often work with and against the silhouette of the figure in the city. I capture the ephemeral with assertive gestures inspired by poetry and music. My process draws attention to the edge of things, to what is already there. I look to create a visual poetry with energy and motion arrested in space by simultaneously hiding and revealing our world to us and focusing on the void in between the things.
Josef Albers is known for his Homage to the Square. He uses a series of variations of the square that illustrated how colours affect each other. His book titled, ‘The Interaction of the Colour,’ is a studio course for teaching and studying what happens between colours. Josef Albers was born in Bottrop in Germany in 1888 and died in New Haven, USA in 1976. He taught at the Bauhaus and at Yale. I came to the exhibition of Josef Albers’s work at David Zwirner in London and was looking forward to seeing more of his work and hoping to develop a further understanding of Albers basis modernist theory of colour.
The show spread across 2 floors, contains just over 30 artworks. The title of the show ‘Sunny Side Up’ gives you positive expectations of an uplifting experience. There is plenty of space to view each small artwork, and they are certainly is uplifting especially because, on the day I went, there was a protest march against Donald Trump going at the end of the street on the drab wintry day.
I was surprised to find lines that were clearly crafted by hand and sometimes the areas of colour show the marks from the palette knife that was used to create them. The paintings are studies which show that perfectionism is not significant to Albers. The little colour swatches on card, with writing on them, show Alber’s thought processes like a sketchbook of ideas where he worked out what he was thinking.
I expected the flat plains of colour in the artwork to feel empty. However, the squares are like little doors into another world, the world of the sublime. I felt I was being pulled into the squares and into a deep abyss of sunshine.
This exhibition acknowledges the importance of Josef Albers and the contribution he has made to the timeline of art and colour education. The man-made squares of different sizes of yellow, orange and gold make you think more deeply about colour and help develop a deeper appreciation of abstract art. My experience with the show was stronger because of the gloomy weather outside and contributed to increasing my enthusiasm to continue learning about the uses of colour in my work. There are is so many variables that can affect the impact of the square of colour and Albers is clearly the master, as Albers says, “If one says ‘red’ and there are 50 people listening it can be expected that there will be 50 reds in their minds. And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different.”
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Eric Fischl was born in 1948 in New York City, his suburban upbringing and career as an internationally acclaimed American artist is presented in his book ‘Bad Boy’.
Fischl shares his deep wounds when discussing his personal relationships, especially with his depressed and alcoholic mother. These troubling experiences made their way into his artwork creating a dialogue about his personal wounds and ironically they ultimately lead to him getting into trouble.
The death of Fischl’s mother inspired the work he became famous for. It is interesting that after his first solo show in New York at the Edward Thorp Gallery in 1979 and the following success lead to him ‘going off the rails’ as the book title suggests and he enjoyed success a little too much.
Fischl’s book is informative and helpful to other artists. There are interesting advice and tips on how to deal with the process of being a successful artist and he discusses the issues and ideas in his work.
Eric Fischl says in the book,
“Painting is a process that guides me back through complex experiences that I didn’t have words to describe or understand. It relieves feelings and memories and brings them forward with clarity and resolution. Each one of my paintings is like a journey, a process to excavate nuggets of emotion, artefacts of memory, the treasures buried in my unconscious. My imagery evokes feelings that were once too painful to ephemeral or too embarrassing to articulate or even to remember.”
Eric Fischl’s ideas are well developed and considered as you would expect from someone who has had international success as an artist. He uses clear, convincing and honest language. I think the book is a good read and has lots of information and advice about dealing with life an artist. I enjoyed reading it and strongly recommend it.