Not Just Reality, But Truth: Giacometti and the Virtues of Style


Giacometti - Figure

Giacometti - Figure

'The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.'
Alberto Giacometti

On a recent trip to Vancouver I visited an exhibition of the work of Alberto Giacometti (Vancouver Art Gallery until 29 September). The show originates from the collection of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury held by the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, Norwich.

Inevitably I was drawn to Giacometti’s tall, slender bronze figures. Big feet, small heads, rough hewn and long limbed. Standing somber, pacing purposefully, stripped bare, isolated and alone. They seem to suggest the very essence of humanity - and after the Second World War they were taken to represent society’s existential crisis.

'When I make my drawings... the path traced by my pencil on the sheet of paper is, to some extent, analogous to the gesture of a man groping his way in the darkness.’

I was also struck by Giacometti’s portraits. They sit square on, staring us straight in the eye. We can see how the artist has restlessly worked and reworked the image: the scratching and scraping; the narrowing focus on posture, frame, face and eyes; the struggle to capture an essence, an identity, a soul.

‘One day when I was trying to draw a girl, something struck me: suddenly I saw that the only thing that stayed alive was her gaze. The rest, the head which was turning into a skull, became more or less the skull of a dead person. The only difference between the dead and living is the gaze.’

Giacometti was notorious for refusing to accept that his portraits were ever finished. On one occasion the Sainsburys needed to get a work signed. But they were warned not to let the artist get his hands on the piece, as he’d never give it back.

Alberto Giacometti -  Diego Seated , 1948,  oil on canvas

Alberto Giacometti - Diego Seated, 1948,
oil on canvas

'That's the terrible thing: the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it.'

Perhaps there is something we can all learn here. We live in an era of pragmatism and practicality; of discipline around deadlines. We’re taught that ‘done is better than perfect’ and ‘perfect is the enemy of good’. But in the digital age a task is never complete, a goal never reached. Endings represent a submission, a letting go, a kind of complacency. Nowadays we must constantly improve, endlessly evolve. We shouldn’t be afraid to keep on, to persist in the quest for perfection.

'Failure is my best friend. If I succeeded, it would be like dying. Maybe worse.’

One section of the exhibition considers Giacometti’s sources and influences. In the 1920s he studied classical sculpture in Paris, and he spent days in the city’s museums sketching and making notes. He was clearly inspired by Egyptian, Greek, Roman and West African art.

‘Have you ever noticed that the truer a work is the more stylized it is? That seems strange, because style certainly does not conform to the reality of appearances, and yet the heads that come closest to resembling people I see on the street are those that are the least naturalistic – the sculptures of the Egyptians, the Chinese, the archaic Greeks and the Sumerians.’

Many years ago, on a visit to Athens, I came across the Museum of Cycladic Art. I was bowled over by the elegantly reduced female figures, highly stylised in smooth white marble. Arms folded, flat faced and sharp nosed, they reach out to us across the centuries, cool and aloof, silent and knowing. Originating from a small group of Aegean islands in the second and third millennia BC, Cycladic figures are consistently cited as an inspiration for modern sculptors.

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And here they are again at a Giacometti exhibition on the other side of the world. The artist explained why he found them so compelling.

‘If I didn’t know that your skull had a certain depth, I couldn’t guess it. Therefore, if I made a sculpture of you absolutely as I perceive you, I would make a rather flat, scarcely modulated, sculpture that would be much closer to a Cycladic sculpture, which has a stylised look, than to a Rodin or Houdon, which has a realistic look.’

Giacometti regarded art as 'the residue of vision.’ It’s what’s left behind after flawed perception and fading memory have decayed and distorted the lived experience. Beyond reality there is truth.

Perhaps sometimes in the world of brands, communication and entertainment we strive too hard to reproduce reality, to reflect the world as it actually is. Giacometti suggests that we should set aside our crude attempts at naturalism; that rather we should reduce, condense and distil - and then embrace style, abstraction and individual interpretation.

All we have to do is take a leap.

'The more I work, the more I see things differently - that is, everything gains in grandeur every day, becomes more and more unknown, more and more beautiful. The closer I come, the grander it is, the more remote it is.'



'So true, funny how it seems.
Always in time, but never in line for dreams.
Head over heels when toe to toe,
This is the sound of my soul.
This is the sound.
I bought a ticket to the world,
But now I've come back again.
Why do I find it hard to write the next line?
Oh, I want the truth to be said.
I know this much is true.
I know this much is true.’

Spandau Ballet, ‘True’ (G Kemp)

No. 247

(Don’t) Turn Your Back On Me

Edvard Munch

I attended an Edvard Munch show at the Tate Modern. Dark, melancholy, awkward stuff. Angst, loneliness, jealousy. A difficult relationship with society in general and women in particular.

It was striking that he painted quite a lot of pictures of women with their backs to the viewer. A powerful expression of exclusion, loneliness, unrequited love.

I spent my youth being turned away from London’s elite nightspots. Perhaps it was the sleeveless plaid shirt, the white towelling socks, the caked on Country Born hair gel. But the bitter sense of disappointment hasn’t left me. I can taste it now. And I learned more about clubbing from Spandau Ballet videos than actual experience…

‘He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’

Handel, Messiah

As a young executive I was invited to apply for an Amex card. I applied and was duly rejected. Naturally I was confused and disappointed and I never spoke to them again. I’m sure consumers often feel a similar sense of exclusion from brands. Refusal and denial are shaming, embarrassing. The fear of rejection is almost as powerful as rejection itself. And then there are the coded gestures, the arcane language, the gender and cultural specific semiotics. The feeling that you don’t belong, that you’re not welcome here. It’s a private conversation, you wouldn’t understand.

I guess that’s why strategists so often recommend that brands are more open, inviting, transparent. We want brands to look us in the eye, to reach out from the canvas with a knowing glance and a welcoming smile. Easier said than done, of course.

 

Vilhelm Hammershoi

Yet the turned back does not have to be all bad.

The Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi often painted a solitary woman with her back to the viewer. She goes about her daily routine in a quiet middle class home, lost in private thought. Hammershoi’s subjects seem more loved than feared. This distinctive reverse view gains its power in part from being so unusual. But also from the sense of intrusion on private time. The sense of seeing, but not being seen. It’s a little awkward, but also intriguing. Am I encountering her truest self, her identity freed of relationships, social constraints and concerns about appearance?

It reminds me of the oft’ cited quote from George Bernard Shaw: ‘Ethics is what you do when no one is looking.’ (I’ve uncovered versions of this quote from many sources. Henry Ford said ‘quality means doing it right when no one’s looking’. And of course, most recently Bob Diamond suggested ‘culture is how we behave when no one’s watching.’)

So how do brands behave when no one is looking? What would the brand encountered in a quiet room be up to? Would we find it dutifully engaged in customer-centric endeavours? Would its jaunty personality be sustained when there’s no one to impress? Would we discover an honest engagement with issues of citizenship and responsibility?

I’m worried that we’d most likely find the brand plotting a marketing and PR plan. I’m worried that in business as in politics too much thought nowadays is given to how things will play, how they will be perceived and reported. I suspect that too often the brand’s instinctive ethical and commercial compass has been replaced by recourse to brand image tracking and favourability ratings.

I appreciate this may be a curious thing for an adman to say. I should perhaps celebrate the triumph of modern marketing, the inevitable victory of perception in the All Seeing Age. Perhaps like a modern celebrity the smile must always be on, the guard must always be up. But it still makes me a little melancholy…

And what of Agencies? How do we behave when no one’s looking?

We are often perceived as conventions of feckless youth and superannuated yuppies. And I confess I was a little uncomfortable when Clients first started plugging in laptops, decanting lattes and working at our offices. I worried that they’d disapprove of our timekeeping, that they’d be offended by our cussing.

But as more Clients have made the Agency their mid-week home, I think the Agency has benefitted. The Embedded Client often sees passion, industry, talent and integrity. They get to see our truest self. And it’s not as bad as they, or we, may have expected.

In the words of the great Brit Soul luminary, David Grant…‘I’ve been watching you watching me. I’ve been liking you, Baby, liking me…’

First published BBH Labs: 10/09/

No. 15