Giacometti and his portrayal of the body and space

Earlier this year in January 2016, I had the opportunity to visit an exhibition of work by Alberto Giacometti at the National Portrait Gallery in London. In fact I was so struck by the collection on display that I paid a second visit. I wrote an essay for a class of mine, comparing two works by Giacometti and looking at them through the lens of performance art. I spent hours looking at his work, but the two that I spent the greatest deal of time on were his Portrait of Annette (1954) and Woman of Venice VIII (1956).

So though this post is related to painting and sculptural work, Giacometti’s pieces struck me on a theatrical level. His final pieces showcase the process by which he worked and every decision he made through each stroke; his work isn’t about the final subject alone but his own act of representation. Beyond this performative element where his work embodies his very process of working, I couldn’t resist thinking about the relationship between body and space in his pieces (and as any theatre major knows, the topic of ‘body and space’ comes up quite frequently).

And of course, I can’t even begin to explain how I felt when I found out that Giacometti was close friends with Samuel Beckett and designed the set for Waiting for Godot.

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I have not been able to get his work out of my head, and so I’ve decided to revisit what I wrote for my class, make minor changes, and post it on here. At the very end, I digress into a short reflection (I apologize if I ramble, but as much as I am very much a visual person, writing is also a means by which I figure things out).

I should give credit to Professor Shamoon Zamir. It is in his class, Idea of the Portrait, whereby I was introduced to the work of Giacometti and as the title suggests, ways to think about portraiture.

Oh, and kindly excuse the lengthy title of the essay. As you can probably guess, I had a lot to say.

The Inseparability of Body and Space:

The Relationship Between the Body and Space in Negotiating the Co-Existence of Life and Death in Giacometti’s Portrait of Annette (1954) and Woman of Venice VIII (1956).

 

The body is affected by the cultural, social and historical conditions that surround it. It was Merleau-Ponty who stated that the body is “an historical idea” (Butler 1). Having bore witness to “the maimed bodies, the severed body parts…. after the Bombardment of Moulins” in 1944, Alberto Giacometti’s work is often seen as a testament to the fragility and resilience of human existence (Genge and Sterken 65). He has an extensive, “unbroken” fascination with portraiture from the years of 1914 to 1966 (Moorhouse). Giacometti’s work conveys the unity between the body and the space that surrounds it. He portrays a relationship between the body and space that negotiates the parallel existence of life and death. This notion will be examined through Giacometti’s oil painting Portrait of Annette 1954 and his bronze sculpture Woman of Venice VIII made in 1956.

Giacometti draws attention to the external, physical body as opposed to the ‘inner being’ of the sitter. Annette was Giacometti’s primary model in his work in the post-war period. Having married him in 1949, Annette would help look after his studio and also sit on a daily basis as a subject for her husband’s portrait. In Giacometti’s oil painting titled Portrait of Annette 1954, Annette is seen seated slouched and in the nude. Her nipples are unseen, and her right hand crosses over her left subsequently covering her vagina. She is visibly a female figure, however, “Giacometti avoid[s] elevating matter to the status of objective sensualism, substantial plenitude, complete presence” (Finburgh 91). Focus is placed on the active state of her body as Annette is presented in a universal physical state: sitting. Sylvester notes that figures in Giacometti’s work “are never engaged in activities of their own at which they are caught unawares, but are posed facing the beholder, posed so that they can clearly be seen” (Sylvester 19). The body thus becomes an object with the intention of being seen. The depiction of Annette in the nude and in a full frontal position indicates the intimacy of her relationship with Giacometti. The openness of her pose has also been “accorded with her very open, receptive personality” (Moorhouse). Yet in the portrait, Annette has a ghostly presence. From afar, Annette appears to be gazing out into the distance, her eye-line above the head of the viewer. Giacometti once commented on how “all the living were dead” (Lord, ch 39). This remark can be said to describe the social and economic conditions of Europe after the Second World War. When one approaches Annette, her eyes appear hollow because of their lack of detail, and the vertical lines that appear thinly painted over her face. Her body faces the viewer, but her eyes make no attempt to meet the spectator’s gaze. The hollowness of Annette’s eyes complements the depth of the background itself. The physical body exists within the space, however it breathes both life and still death.

Giacometti makes a conscious acknowledgement of empty space. Compositionally, Annette sits towards the right of the frame. There is an acknowledgement of the physical body because of the number of lines that contribute to her summation as a physical presence. Giacometti creates “a substructure of verticals, horizontals and diagonals scored into the canvas” (Finburgh 86). Lines that define the background overlap onto the figure of Annette. These lines contribute to the representation of Annette as a ghostly figure, her body nothing more than an illusion. This illusive quality is also seen with Giacometti’s Woman of Venice VIII (1956). Like several of his sculptures, it is an elongated, almost skeletal representation of the body. The nude sculpture appears almost enveloped by its surrounding space, its thinness alluring to a sense of fragility. The anonymous figure is both “upright and self assured, but on the other [hand] is fragile and vulnerable” (Alberto3). In profile view, the sculpture appears to be leaning forward, as if trying to escape the weight that holds her. Like the painting of Annette, the subject is firmly and almost passively fixed in place. With the brushwork on the painting or the textural material of the bronze sculpture, it is clear where the body exists in relation to negative space. However, the sculpture exists as an object within the space, whereas the painting is an object that defines space within itself. Though there are objects of the studio depicted in the painting, there is no apparent wall behind the subject. Through the angular position of the object and their partial concealment, “it is uncertain where solid form ends and space begins” (Sylvester 4). In Giacometti’s sculpture, the finite space surrounding the physical sculpture is an essential part of the sculpture. The women in both works are thus inseparable from empty space. They transcend notions of life and death, as their physical bodies are made both visible and inseparable from this space. The space preserves the subjects’ presence and acknowledges their absence.

There is a complex feeling of isolation and the ability to relate between the subjects Giacometti portrays and the spectators. In Portrait of Annette 1954 Annette sits, presumably on a stool, her legs being cut by the frame painted by Giacometti, which is then contained within the frame of the painting itself. The painted frame creates a separation between the spectator and the subject in much the same way some of Titian’s paintings do. Taking Titian’s La Schiavona (1510-12) as an example, light “washes [the lady’s] very pale skin with reddish cheeks, [which] gives the presence of a pulsating animal” (Titian’s). Giacometti employs a neutral colour palette, painting a tinge pink within the layers of lines that define Annette’s body, the pink becoming most concentrated at her hands. The pink visibly stands out, however the painting’s neutral colour palette and the hollowness of Annette’s eyes create ambiguity as to whether the body is alive or simply a corpse. A similar ambiguity exists with Woman of Venice VIII. The skeletal figure lacks detail, creating a sense of unease as to whether the figure is representative of a live being. This sense of unease also stems from the very fact that, like several of Giacometti’s works, the figure is based on a memory of an individual. However, Giacometti titles this figure anonymously. In doing so, Genet comments, “that Giacometti renders our universe ‘even more unbearable’ because he strips away the trappings of character” (Finburgh 80). This can be seen as a testament to the shared human experiences, such as that of war, which can generate a collective sense of pain and loss in a community. Giacometti once commented on the fragility of his sculptures saying that, “I am always aware of the vulnerability of living creatures as if it costs them enormous energy to remain upright every moment, and they are always likely to collapse” (Reveals). His depiction of a human as a physical body and intentional exclusion of in representing an inner self, isolates the figure. The figure is stripped materialistically as she does not bear any clothes. Standing in the nude, Giacometti makes slight references to the femininity of her body with lines indicating her bodily crevices. This complicates the relationship between the spectator and the subject, as she might be perceived as a priestess, goddess, or prostitute. This does not hold true for the portrait of Annette as the sitter is named. Additionally, Annette’s body is comprised of several curved lines. Her stomach is round, and her thighs are thick. However both the painting and sculpture gaze above the head of the spectator. Whether the body is alive or not, seems to matter less than the actual acknowledgement of the figure being a human body.

Giacometti is not only painting or sculpting a portrait, but rather he is capturing the relationship of the body to its surrounding space. Beyond being husband and wife, the painting of Annette becomes an object that is representative of the intimacy between the sitter and the painter. It is through this intimacy, given the posture of Annette, that a viewer is confronted with the dichotomy of life and death. Using an understated colour palette and painting lines that unify the background and the figure, the body is seen as inseparable from space. With the sculpture titled Woman of Venice VIII, the actual space that separates a spectator from the figure is a part of the physical definition of the sculptural figure. The woman stands both poised and on the verge of movement. Though Giacometti denies his work as intentionally concerning ideas of human existence, the temporal context of his work cannot be excluded. In his work is the portrayal of the impact of war on the body. In choosing to focus on the external physical self as opposed to the inner self, Giacometti presents work that becomes about the shared human experience of what it means to be physically caught in a place of violence and conflict. Merleau-Ponty believes the body and, “its appearance in the world, for perception, is not predetermined by some manner of interior essence” (Butler 2). In portraying the body, the historical and social context of Giacometti’s work in the post-war period cannot be excluded. Both works examined convey a relationship between the body and space that is inseparable, and to some extent transcendent. Life and death are a part of reality and exist simultaneously, rather than the latter coming after the former. In Giacometti’s work, he presents how the body and its existence in space, constantly shows signs of the co-existence of life and death.

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I ended up drawing a charcoal sketch of Giacometti’s Woman of Venice VIII sculpture. Thinking back on it now, what touched me on some level and still does was the idea that the figure wasn’t of anybody. It was created with the idea of someone in mind, and yet over time came to represent his memories of several others. In stripping “away the trappings of character,” the sculpture can be seen as representing a shared human experience.

In my film work, I’ve struggled with writing characters that are whole. I avoid revealing any personal background to the character in an attempt, I’ve realized, for the audience to connect with them on an emotional level. In short, it’s about the feels. It’s about how the seemingly ordinary carry a weight of pain. There’s a sense that they’re preoccupied with something. Which is why I feel I was so drawn to Giacometti’s work in that, the characters I portrayed on screen were meant to have a sense of universality to them. You as the audience know how they feel because you’ve been through something similar, as opposed to you can understand what they feel because the circumstances have been laid out for you. In this approach, that I am continuously reflecting on the whys and hows I choose to do this, it means that my films are not as strong as they can be in terms of story. For now, I’m in my stubborn student-filmmaker phase where I create what I want to because of what I see. What I see though, isn’t always clear. And like how Giacometti’s work is representative of the process by which he remembers, feels, creates, represents and remembers again, I think I need to find a way by which my film work can also be representative of a process and not a sense of finality. Hence the allure of performance art and theatre, where you never know what to expect.

It’s all about the feels.

Works Cited:
“Alberto Giacometti Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works.” The Art Story. The Art Story Foundation, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.
“Alberto Giacometti Reveals.” YouTube. The Flow, 17 July 2014. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.
“Alberto Giacometti, Woman from Venice I, 1956.”YouTube. Museum of Fine Arts Bern, 10 June 2014. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519. Web.
French Forum 27.3 (2002): 73-98. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.
Genge, Gabriele, and Angela Stercken. Art History and Fetishism Abroad: Global Shiftings in Media and Methods. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2014. Print.
Giacometti: Pure Presence. The National Portrait Gallery, London. 8 Jan. 2016. Exhibition.
Lord, James. Giacometti: A Biography. New York: Farrar, 1985. Print.
Moorhouse, Paul. “Curator’s Introduction to Giacometti: Pure Presence.” YouTube. National Portrait Gallery, 2 June 2015. Web. 16 Jan. 2016.
Sylvester, David. Looking at Giacometti. New York: Henry Holt, 1996. Print.
Titian’s Early Portraits. Perf. Antonio Mazotta. The National Gallery. The National Gallery, n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2016