Giacometti Tate Modern, London, until September 10
In one important sense Alberto Giacometti was his own worst enemy. The stick-thin human forms he created during his post-war years in Paris, with titles such as Walking Man, Man Pointing and Tall Woman, have since become such signature works for the Swiss sculptor as to obscure practically everything else in his creative output. Hence the current exhibition at Tate Modern does both him and us a valuable service in exploring a range of perspectives stretching beyond those famous – or notorious – attenuated figures.
He could have made a respectable living from modelling the human head in bronze or marble, but the spur of a restless originality drove him instead to Paris and the surrealists. Giacometti embraced surrealism on his own terms, rather than signing up, à la francaise, to its full-blown dogmas and orthodoxies. In this context, the show emphasises his conceptual versatility, stretching from fantasy machines and game boards to semi-abstract works in polished stone reflecting his absorption with the planes and curves of African art.
While designing lamps, jewellery and decorative reliefs, he was continuing a drastic experimentation with sculptural form in compelling pieces, such as Invisible Object and Woman with Her Throat Cut. An abiding influence, as revealed by this phase in the Tate Modern show, derived from the sculpture of ancient Egypt, with its carefully calculated exercises in posing the upright human figure so as to emphasise its rootedness to the earth.
Where exactly were such ideas and references taking him? During World War I, visa problems confined the artist to Geneva, where a hotel room served for both lodging and studio. Here he worked on reducing the palpable substance of his figures while enhancing their atmosphere of distance and solitude.
Out of this notion – further evolving after his return to Paris in 1945 – of the human physique at its sparest, defined purely by spatial relationships, came these skeletal creations, resembling cranes or stilt-walkers, by which most of us know him, or think we do.
The result of Tate Modern’s striking retrospective survey, which includes Giacometti’s paintings and graphic work, is a reappraisal of his genius, and of that genius’s unique polyglot discourse and its visionary essentiality. Could any artist have made better use of time and resources? From the hauntingly menacing depths of shadow encompassing his portrait subjects, to the stern, craggy, uncompromising nature of his final sculptures, Giacometti demands our answer.