APRIL 29 – SEPTEMBER 2, 2018
Alberto Giacometti (1901 – 1966) and Francis Bacon (1909 – 1992) had a decisive influence on the art of the twentieth century. This exhibition brings the two artists together for the first time. Different as their art may initially appear, the joint presentation of their work reveals many surprising similarities.
Bacon and Giacometti both take the human figure as their main point of artistic reference. Both occupy themselves with the fragmented and deformed body. Moreover, they devote themselves to portraiture and the depiction of human individuality in an almost obsessive manner. Both claimed to be “realists,” while exploring new extremes of abstraction.
Giacometti and Bacon worked surrounded by clutter, in exceptionally small and cramped studios. These two spaces, the centers of their creativity, have been reconstructed specially for the exhibition as full-scale multimedia projections that provide a vivid insight into the artists’ work environment.
The exhibition comprises 100 paintings and sculptures from major museums and private collections in Europe and the USA. It has been organized by the Fondation Beyeler in cooperation with the Fondation Giacometti, Paris, the administrator of the artist’s estate, which has made available most of the works by Giacometti presented here, some of which are rarely exhibited or have never been publicly displayed before. The exhibition is curated by Catherine Grenier, Michael Peppiatt and Ulf Küster.
Alberto Giacometti, Walking Man II, 1960
Walking Man II belongs to the group of figures originally planned for the Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York. Giacometti conceived the work as an alternative to the conventional depiction of a man walking across a square: with its disproportionately long legs, the figure marches forward in a single purposeful stride, with arms held close to the body and both feet firmly anchored in the rectangular plinth. The dynamic appearance of the striding man contrasts with the static frontality of the Tall Woman III: the male symbolizes the tireless quest that Giacometti saw embodied in his own striving for formal refinement. Walking, thereby, is not mere physical movement, but rather a process of inner development. As with Tall Woman III, the effects of proximity and distance are astonishing. The contours of the face and the body do not become clearer as the viewer approaches the work; on the contrary, the perception of physical detail is enhanced by distance.
Francis Bacon, Portrait of Michel Leiris, 1976
The French ethnographer and writer Michel Leiris was a friend of both Giacometti and Bacon. In this picture, Leiris’s face is transformed into a whirl of lustrous colors; only the disproportionately large left eye remains intact. For his portraits, Bacon generally chose sitters from his inner circle, whom he preferred to paint from photographs. In the act of painting, the subject’s actual appearance tends to merge with Bacon’s memory of him or her. In a letter from 1981 to Leiris, Bacon describes realism as “an attempt to capture the appearance with the cluster of sensations that the appearance arouses in me.” His aim, therefore, was not to imitate nature by creating a direct likeness of the model; on the contrary, he explained, “The more the artificiality of the painting is apparent, the better, and the more chance the painting has of working or of showing something.”
Alberto Giacometti, Suspended Ball, 1930
When Giacometti first exhibited Suspended Ball at the gallery of Pierre Loeb in Paris in April 1930, the enigmatic object was received with particular enthusiasm by the Surrealists. They saw the sculpture as a convincing realization of their demand for the creation of art and literature directly from the unconscious. In a cage-like enclosure, a plaster half-moon rests beneath a sphere with a grooved underside, suspended by a thin cord. The mobility of the two elements, and the potential mechanical friction between them, gave rise to a variety of interpretations: some commentators, for example, saw the work as an expression of sexual fantasies. Giacometti’s brief association with the Surrealists ended in 1935, when he returned to the representation of the human figure.
Francis Bacon, Self-Portrait, 1987
Bacon was fond of quoting a statement by Jean Cocteau: “Each day in the mirror I watch death at work.” He painted this picture at the age of 79, five years before his death. It is one of his last self-portraits, depicting the artist in a pensive mood. Unusually, for Bacon, the face is more or less undistorted; the features show little deformation and have an almost youthful smoothness. The subject’s expression, however, is tired, with eyes that are half-closed and seem to avoid the gaze of the viewer. The sprayings of red and white amid the darker colors cover the face like a veil and confer an air of deep calm on the picture.
Alberto Giacometti, Woman with Chariot, ca. 1945
Giacometti, who had been living in Paris since 1922, travelled to Switzerland in 1941 and could not reenter France as he was denied the necessary visa. Thus, he spent the remaining years of the Second World War in Geneva and at his parents’ home in the Val Bregaglia. During this period, Giacometti’s sculptures became smaller and smaller, to the point of near-invisibility. The only exception is Woman with Chariot, which was made in Maloja. In the studio, the plaster figure was originally mounted on a low wooden cart, which is reconstructed here. According to Giacometti, the work is based on a remembered image of his friend Isabel Rawsthorne, seen from afar on the Boulevard Saint-Michel in Paris several years before. The almost life-sized female figure, with arms held close to the body, stands on a plinth, looking into the distance. The sculpture marks a major turning point in Giacometti’s work, heralding the shift towards the tall, slender figures of his post-war period.
Francis Bacon, Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho, 1967
The source for this painting was a shot by John Deakin, who was commissioned by Bacon to photograph a number of his models. The original image shows Isabel Rawsthorne standing in front of a shop in the London district of Soho. In the painting, however, the only remaining reference to the street scene is the automobile in the background. Instead, the space is organized by a cage-like structure, typical of Bacon’s work, and a kind of arena. The latter anticipates the bullfight paintings, such as Study for Bullfight No. 2 (Room 7), to which Bacon turned his attention two years later. Here, too, a bull appears, in the background on the right, painted with dynamic, vigorous brushstrokes. The painting technique—using streaks of white on a black ground—is echoed in the depiction of Isabel Rawsthorne’s dress.
Spectacular insights into the artists' studios
Their small and sparse studios were very special places for Bacon and Giacometti: chaotic spaces from which great art emerged. The multimedia installation in the final room, devised specially for the exhibition in Basel, offers a fascinating insight into this personal cosmos. The studios of both artists have been reconstructed from historic photographs and brought to spectacular life in two full-scale projections across the walls and floors, created by Christian Borstlap, head of the Amsterdam design studio Part of a Bigger Plan.
Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) moved into his legendary Paris studio in rue Hippolyte-Maindron in 1926 and worked there for forty years, until shortly before his death. The video projection, lasting about two and a half minutes, shows thirty-seven photographs of the artist’s studio, dating from different periods and taken by famous photographers such as René Burri, Sabine Weiss, Robert Doisneau, and Ernst Scheidegger, who visited Giacometti in his working space. The photographs include images of his work and his models: in particular, his wife Annette, the Japanese philosophy professor Isaku Yanaihara, and the writer and anthropologist Michel Leiris. His gallerist Pierre Matisse is also to be seen in the projection. The projection, with an area corresponding to the studio’s original dimensions of 4.90 x 4.70 meters, conveys a vivid sense of the significance of this remarkable space, which no longer exists but was a creative powerhouse and a center of attraction for many celebrated personalities of Giacometti’s time. Francis Bacon (1909–1992) moved in 1961 to a new studio at 7 Reece Mews in the London district of South Kensington. This modest space, above a former stable and with only a skylight to provide natural light, was where the artist worked and lived until his death. Bacon’s studio was famously chaotic, cluttered with layer upon layer of old newspapers and magazines, books, crumpled and torn photographs and reproductions of art works, drawings and samples of painting materials. The plethora of images scattered seemingly at random around the room provided Bacon with many of his motifs and served as key sources of inspiration for his paintings.
The video projection shows the painted walls and the studio debris: again, the projection surface, measuring 4.80 x 8.90 meters, matches the dimensions of the original space. The film was created using fifteen images by the photographer Perry Ogden, which show the studio in its original state shortly after the artist’s death. It was subsequently dismantled and painstakingly recreated in Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, where it can still be seen.
The projections are overlaid with the voices of Bacon and Giacometti, speaking about their work and their studios. The Giacometti soundtrack is from a 1963 archive recording, subsequently edited by the film director Jean-Marie Drot for his documentary Un homme parmi les hommes: Alberto Giacometti (1992). Bacon’s comments are taken from a BBC film of 1966 (Francis Bacon: Fragments of a Portrait) and a profile of the artist made in 1985 for The South Bank Show on what is now ITV London.
Whereas Bacon admitted only a very few outsiders to his studio, Giacometti received visits from countless contemporaries, including Jean Paul-Sartre, Michel Leiris and Marlene Dietrich. The video projections convey the studio atmosphere and provide a direct, unexpected insight into the artists’ working methods, opening up a further intriguing dimension of their work. Experience the artist’s studios on your own mobile device in a 360° film and share it with friends – visit: www.fondationbeyeler.ch/360