The Italian sculptor’s haunting work is all the more intense thanks to the exhibition’s determinedly neutral backdrop, writes Flora Neville
Giacometti: Pure Presence at the National Portrait Gallery opens with a small bronze bust of the artist’s brother Diego completed when Alberto Giacometti was a child. ‘I look back on that first head with a mixture of envy and nostalgia,’ Giacometti once said. And perhaps the Italian sculptor had his early efforts in mind when he completed the final work in the exhibition - a painting of Diego in the distinctive Giacometti style: the body too big for the head; the eyes hollow and staring possessed into nothingness; a figure that is neither dead nor alive and yet distinctly present.
This insistent presence, first recognised in Giacometti’s art by Jean-Paul Sartre when he coined the term ‘pure presence’, is the name and the main theme of the exhibition, curated by Paul Moorhouse and designed by Stanton Williams director, Paul Williams. This is the fourth exhibition that the two Pauls have worked on together, (including Bridget Riley at the Tate in 2003) and they have established their modus operandi.
‘We approached Giacometti as we always do through close discussion,’ says Moorhouse. ’Paul begins by asking me detailed questions about what I am trying to achieve and, through the conversations that follow, each idea is tested, developed and resolved.’ Williams sees his role as questioner rather than expert. ’Curators bring the knowledge,’ he says, ‘and architects bring the questions.’
The cul-de-sac layout of the gallery, means the crowds shuffle through to one end, about-turn, and re-see everything on the return. Williams used blade walls to emphasise ‘the threshold you cross from one room into another. ’Coming back,’ he says, ‘the blades are in the negative so it’s a different threshold.’
Still, if the blade wall subtlety is lost on you, you could easily find yourself floating like a lost soul in an existential universe from one room to another, wondering where you’ve seen that expression or those hollow eyes before. The spatial awkwardness feels appropriate to the existential theme.
We feel the ‘pure presence’ of Giacometti’s sitters through their haunting and unavoidable stare. The stare or gaze, was something that Giacometti obsessed over. ’He interrogated their appearance, repeatedly and intensely,’ says Moorhouse. This intense gaze and the relationship between artist and sitter was something Moorhouse was keen to thread through the entire exhibition.
Williams achieved it in his design through positioning the various paintings and sculptures so that the eyes would meet the eye level of the average height visitor. It is a simple, but effective trick. The sitters stare back at you with the same intense gaze that Giacometti originally subjected them to.
Giacometti submitted his final muse, Caroline, to a fiercer interrogation than his brother, mother or wife all of whom he regularly painted. He said that her gaze was like a ‘screech’ and called her ‘the grey one,’ believing that ‘grey signified life itself.’ In his paintings of her, her body is dematerialised and her hollow eyes are particularly open and empty. He only ever painted her at night, and the final room in the exhibition, which is full of portraits of her, has a sombre, twilit atmosphere.
Moorhouse and Williams intended for the exhibition to recreate the atmosphere of Giacometti’s small Parisian studio and the conditions the artist worked in, hence the the darkness of the room dedicated to Caroline. The rest of the exhibition depicts the studio by day, but with no natural light in the gallery Williams inserted clerestory lights to ‘look like light from a grey day coming in through a window.’
In a temporary exhibition, the curator and designer have a unique level of regulation. Here, it allows for the creation of a totally neutral space in the vein of a controlled experiment. Every object is positioned is such a way as to predict the path the visitor will take around it, the angle at which they will see it, and owing to the allocation of a specific time slot for each visitor, how long they can view it.
By ceding all control, the visitor is encouraged, even forced, to focus purely on the objects as they come to life before their eyes. This is to do with the primacy of the objects. Foregrounding the objects themselves, with everything design related as background allows the visitor to pause in front of the portrait, to reflect, to engage eye contact and, says Williams, to ‘hear the creator of the work.’