Hard-won images: Frank Auerbach and Alberto Giacometti

Published 27 August 2015

The intensely wrought paintings of Frank Auerbach find their match in Giacometti’s sculptures, as two shows reveal, says Simon Wilson.

  • From the Autumn 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    In May 2015 a bronze by Alberto Giacometti, one of the six casts that exist of his life-size figure Man Pointing of 1947, was sold at auction for £91 million, an auction record for sculpture.

    Fifty years earlier, in 1965, a group of Tate curators had sat down with Giacometti in the gallery’s famous restaurant. The artist was in town for his great Tate retrospective that year. The gallery had scraped together £20,000 to buy work by him and drawn up a list of choices. The artist was presented with the question, “How many of these can we have for the money?”

    His reply was “All of them, and for £10,000, and I will give you one more too”. The eight sculptures and two paintings by Giacometti thus acquired joined several works already in the Tate collection. One of these was one of the other casts of Man Pointing, which had been bought in 1949 for £250. The whole group, including some subsequent additions, now constitutes a priceless national asset.

    Many of them, including Annette IV (1962; pictured) – although not Man Pointing – will be on view in a new exhibition of Giacometti at the National Portrait Gallery, alongside rare loans from abroad. The show’s curator, Paul Moorhouse, rightly remarks that the artist is one of the giants of 20th-century art. Yet this was far from obvious in his time, when many critics and curators thought that abstraction had made figurative art irrelevant. Tate’s early support of Giacometti was bold – hence his generosity.

    Now, we see more clearly how significant was that strand of European art in the post-Second World War period, when artists like Giacometti reinvented the human figure to express the profound trauma of the war and the doubts about the human condition that it raised. Giacometti’s often unnaturally emaciated, deeply pitted bronze figures, possess a vivid human presence, their fragmented facial features revealing a tortured human soul peering out at us. Oddly perhaps, it was in Britain that appeared the counterpart in painting to Giacometti’s sculpture – the high emotion and baroque bravura of the work of Francis Bacon, and the quiet, thoughtful and intense art of Frank Auerbach, who at the age of 84 is now the subject of a retrospective at Tate Britain.

  • Indeed, there are uncanny similarities of personality and practice between Giacometti and Auerbach. Hermit-like existence; obsessive working, day in, day out; signature surfaces worked and reworked to the point of tortured excess; near-pathological inability to declare a work finished. Giacometti’s dealer famously resorted to going round to his studio and simply carrying off a piece.

    Auerbach, working directly from the model or the motif, repeatedly scrapes down the canvas and starts again, often over months, or even years, until finally a version appears that he is satisfied with. From the dense layers of highly wrought paint emerges what the art historian Richard Morphet memorably dubbed “the hard-won image”, either of another human existence somehow blended with that of the artist himself, as in Head of E.O.W II (1961; pictured) or, in the case of Auerbach’s cityscapes, of an urban landscape reflecting the disorienting experience of life in the metropolitan environment.

    The Auerbach exhibition is of exceptional interest because its curator, Catherine Lampert, is both an art historian and a former director of the Whitechapel Gallery, as well as one of the artist’s life-long models, having sat for him almost every week for 37 years. It will be fascinating to see how the collaboration between artist and curator inspires the selection and setting of the show.

    Simon Wilson is an art historian and columnist for RA Magazine.

    Giacometti: Pure Presence is at the National Portrait Gallery from 15 October – 10 January 2016. Frank Auerbach is at Tate Britain from 9 October – 13 March 2016. Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting by Catherine Lampert is published by Thames & Hudson.

    Listen to a podcast of Frank Auerbach in conversation with the RA’s Artistic Director, Tim Marlow.

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