REVIEW – Giacometti: Pure Presence, National Portrait Gallery

In 1919 Giovanni Giacometti asked his son Alberto: “do you want to be a painter?” to which his son replied “a painter or a sculptor” and as this exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, he was content to do both throughout his career.

Giacometti: Pure Presence is the first time that an exhibition has focused purely on the artist’s portrait work and marks the 50th anniversary of his death. Comprised with over sixty pieces of his work, there is a very personal feel about the exhibition that really focuses on the relationship with some of the most important people in his life.

The majority of the works show Giacometti’s family: his mother,father, brothers and sister all sitting for his paintings and sculptures that show how much they were a part of his life even as an adult and how supportive they were of what he did. Walking around the exhibition, you really get a sense of intimacy and warmth that Giacometti put into his work.

There is plenty of elegance and style in the way in which the exhibition has been displayed, showcasing some of Giacometti’s strongest pieces but allowing the visitor to have enough space to appreciate them properly.

Bust of Annette by Alberto Giacometti, 1954 Private Collection.Copyright: The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris) 2015 .

The strength of the exhibition really lies in Giacometti’s early pieces, that really show off his talent from a young age. One such example is the Portrait of Diego (1914) , a sculpture that the artist completed at the age of 13, showing off the way in which he wanted to work in the future perfectly. All of these pieces in the opening section of the display show the strong influence that his father had on his work (Giovanni Giacometti was a post-impressionist painter).

It is a real shame then that Giacometti’s later works don’t quite inspire the same amount of confidence as his early sculpture and paintings do. The hurried and unfinished effect of his later works such as Diego Seated or Bust of Annette just don’t have the same appeal and this is what majority of the exhibition focuses on.

The trouble is that there is only so many pieces of this type of work that the visitor can appreciate before it becomes slightly meaningless and doesn’t add anything to our understanding in the way in which he worked.

But despite this it can still be considered to be a well-rounded display because visitors are given a strong insight into his life if not his working practises. For example, there is a room that is filled with photographs ranging from his childhood to him working in his studio and a short documentary about his work. You do leave feeling that you are understand the artist a lot more than you did at the beginning, even if his work still leaves you feeling puzzled.

For those who are familiar with his work, it is a rare chance to see his portraits and sculpture for yourself and fascinating to look at. But if you aren’t so familiar, then his style does take some getting used to and appreciating in full.

Overall, the exhibition is impressive in terms of its scale and depth of research that has gone into making it but it is not one that immediately charms visitors.

Giacometti: Pure Presence opens at the National Portrait Gallery on the 15th October and is on display to the public until the 10th January 2016. 

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