National Portrait Gallery curator Paul Moorhouse on the double life of Giacometti

By Kayleigh Rose Lewis | 16 October 2015

Curator Paul Moorhouse exposes the double life of Giacometti in the NPG's new exhibition focusing on the artist’s portraiture

an abstract panting of a woman in hues of grey, white and black
Bust of Annette by Alberto Giacometti, 1954 © Private Collection
“Art is changing”. This is according to Paul Moorhouse, curator of the first exhibition to consist exclusively of portraits by twentieth-century artist Alberto Giacometti.

Giacometti: Pure Presence at the National Portrait Gallery, contains paintings, sculptures and drawings, and marks the fiftieth anniversary of the artist’s death. But Moorhouse believes that this exhibition is much more relevant than that.  

“After a period of extended interest in conceptual art, in which the idea was taking precedence over the making of the object, I think artists are now going back to making paintings and making sculpture, and fabricating objects,” he explains.

“The process of making art is becoming increasingly important. But most of all looking is becoming central to the process and artists are rediscovering the vital need to look as the engine for making art. There’s no artist better qualified to lead that process than Giacometti, for whom looking is the essential concern and the process of making art is the be all and end all.”

Giacometti is best known for his sculptures of elongated figures, and his prominence in Paris during the 1920s.

“Giacometti was really a pioneer. There was a progressive refinement of the form and elements of his abstract sculpture, which is probably unparalleled by a great many artists,” says Moorhouse. However, this exhibition lends its focus to Giacometti’s lesser-known work, produced in parallel at his family home in Switzerland, and unbeknownst to his peers in Paris.

“In Paris Giacometti was separated from his father [Giovanni Giacometti], who had been an enormous influence. But Giovanni was a post impressionist painter, he belonged to a different generation, and for him the vision of the world he was trying to portray in painting was an idealised one and a beautiful one,” explains Moorhouse.

“So when Giacometti came to Paris he was released in a sense from Giovanni’s influence and found his own way. He fell in with the surrealists, and started to make a kind of work that his father would not have approved of.”

But meanwhile, and in spite, says Moorhouse, of Giacometti’s comments in 1925 that it was “necessary to abandon the real”, the artist continued to make the kind of portraits that his father would approve of when he was in Switzerland.

“Effectively he had a double life, but he kept his Swiss work secret from his surrealist companions, who would have been appalled by the idea that he had been making portraits, that was an anathema to them. So he kept both of these different sides of his existence secret.”

Although Giacometti was also influenced by Egyptian and Etruscan sculpture, Moorhouse emphasises that above all he was influenced by his experience. “That is what he ultimately came back to,” he says, “and I would be wary of seeing his work, as many art historians do, as simply the evidence of a succession of artistic influences. What he actually was about was trying to remain faithful to his own vision.”

The title of the exhibition is a reference to Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1948 essay ‘The Quest for the Absolute’, in which he said that Giacometti was trying to give ‘sensible expression’ to ‘pure presence’.

However, clarifies Moorhouse, Sartre was applying this to the elongated, standing figures, whereas the curator has applied it to Giacometti’s portraits.

“That is what his portraits are about,” he says, “They’re not about the conventional attributes of portraiture; they’re not about psychology, biographies or stories, achievement, characterisation or mood, all of that is stripped away. And when you strip it away what are you left with? Pure Presence.”

  • Giacometti: Pure Presence runs until January 10 2016 at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

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