Giacometti: Pure Presence, at the NPG

This exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (London) closes on Sunday and if anyone out there has a £20 note burning a hole in their pocket then by all means get down there. Be sure to let me know what you think.

I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. I wonder in hindsight if the point being made here was just a bit too subtle for me. Not to mention that there was no nudity to speak of, that probably would’ve got me on board a little bit more.

I don’t know what kind of paintings I went there to see. (Granted, it’s a portrait exhibition, so there’s a clue; but it’s still a very broad umbrella.) Some portraits that felt sexy perhaps? Some that felt ominous? Some that had mysterious characters, experimental techniques, or redefined the identity of the sitter and the artist… But what I saw was dozens of portraits treated in exactly the same way, with very little variety in composition or tone; all featuring a full frontal view of a despondent face, atop an under-rendered body, in the lower portions of a rectangular frame. Each sitter – mother, brother, wife, prostitute, self – presented identically. As a viewer I felt addicted to the printed wall information and could read nothing of the situation depicted from the paintings themselves. In fact it made me wonder, if a painting of one’s lover and one’s parent look exactly the same where was the point in painting either one?


I’ve read some reviews*, mainly out of concern that I’m a Luddite who should stick to comic books and fashion illustrations rather than brandishing her under-educated opinions on grown-up stuff around the internet. Indeed, a lot of reviews have five stars next to the title, so I can only assume my concerns were well founded there. Reading the thoughts and interpretations of these (middle-aged, middle-class, white, male) critics has given me a greater appreciation of the subtleties and the purpose of this show, I’ll admit to that. Yes, the discreet changes in observation, mood and skill are interesting, and do demonstrate that you are never done looking at a person but can always find another nuance or a better grasp on their self. However, the same seated, full face pose, in the same media and even the same colour palette, with interminable repetition is boring.

Presumably being a sculptor at heart, the most interesting marks and textures in Giacometti’s paintings are where he’s slashing into the surface to define planes and direction. To me these aren’t portraits so much as working sketches for the development of sculpted heads. If you’re a fan of his sculpture and want to see the working mind behind the finished article, then this exhibition is worth seeing. But be warned that this one isn’t for the faint of attention span.

Maybe I just struggled with it because the repetition goes against my personal nature as a maker; I bounce around from one craft to another, trying out a thousand things, never pursuing one relentlessly until I’ve wrung it out of inspiration. Indeed there’s probably nothing wrong with that, it probably makes me a more interesting person with more strings to my bow, but I’d probably never be an artist because I lack that fundamental obsession and addiction. Unlike Giacometti, whose brother sat for him uncountable time, even if I had a bother I’d probably paint his portrait once and then skip off to weave a basket or do some raku firing.


*further reading:

DISCALIMER: I filched these image off the internet. I’m genuinely very sorry, but it does feel like a victimless crime. If you own any of them and would like to have a go at me please do –

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