London

London

Before the event it looked a disaster that the Giacometti retrospective here should have clashed with the one in New York. But in fact neither exhibition seems to have suffered—the most important unique work, the Museum of Modern Art’s “Palace at 4 am.,” was in any case too fragile to have traveled to London. What the double event proved, to most people’s surprise, was the massive scale of Giacometti’s output, even allowing for the fact that much of the work is cast. He was himself delighted by the coincidence of the two exhibitions and one almost felt that it had convinced him of something about his own work.

If one had been able to walk from this exhibition into a retrospective of almost any other major figurative artist of this century one would have been struck by the stable quality of Giacometti’s imagery. A work of 1945 takes its place beside a work of 1965 as of a piece. This is not just because of the severe limitation of subject matter. Nor does it imply stagnation. On the contrary, every work sparkles, seems poised on some brink, condensed, electric. His work questions every orthodox view of stylistic development. The point is that with Giacometti as with no other living artist, the realization of the work does not involve the destruction of a previously won pictorial or sculptural image. What has already been realized is simply not relevant. As he cuts back the clay or the plaster to the very armature and gathers himself for a further restatement, what has been destroyed is not a solution carried over from previous work (his own or other people’s) but an image evolved within the working process, within the experience of this particular work. This is what gives his output, seen together, its extraordinary tempo, an unparalleled vividness. He is not in dialogue with his own previous statements, but with the hours and the minutes of the present working experience: the look across the studio, the shift to the clay on the stand, the return to that figure, still mysteriously present, still that distance away. The difficulty of finding words for Giacometti is analogous to the difficulty of imagining the present extended in time.

The point is dramatized in the most extraordinary way by certain works in sculpture of the last six years or so, which some observers have tended to dismiss as reversions to an older tradition of expressionistic realism. If you look at the work of the late ’40s or early ’50s as statements about style, and their attenuations as distortions with a stylistic intention, then recent busts such as the Head of Annette IV might be interpreted as a retrenchment. But as one gets to know them it turns out that they are if anything more daring, not less, than what had gone before. For here he has arrived at a state of freedom where the perennial problem of the relationship of the parts of the head to the whole seems to have been dissolved away: while still making a head he gains separate control over the phenomena of eye, mouth, brow, hair, nose nostril, those gristly nobs, those black holes with which the head so aggressively projects its identity. There is no need now, or so it seems, for an apparatus, a fantastic device with which to set in train the mechanism of likeness (for this is what the Tetes tranchantes consist of). Each of these later heads is a new configuration: an eye stares, a mouth is dug into the clay with that knife-blade thumb nail—the two wings of it, right and left, scarcely hanging together at the middle—and the volume of the head is like an idea, a piercingly vivid memory continually revived but never committed to mass. Often these heads have no backs, are as shallow, as feathery, as locks of hair. The frontal image is phallic and violent like a plucked bird: shoulders stump out like truncated wings, the neck is fitted for the hand. Against first appearances these later busts are the most disturbing and radical of all, and in them the unbridled sexual violence of the ’30s—the Woman With Her Throat Cut—has returned with an unimaginable velocity, the velocity of a moment continually renewed.

The Giacometti exhibition was selected with great insight by David Sylvester and it was mounted by the Arts Council of Great Britain. It came as a distinguished climax to a season which has been full of interest and which included earlier in the summer a major retrospective of Victor Pasmore (also at the Tate) and at Whitechapel a five-year retrospective by Harold Cohen. These two exhibitions had a certain complementary character: Pasmore, the most vigorous and gifted representative of formalist abstract art in this country, completely dissociated from any American influence, an esthete; Cohen, the most intelligent and driving of the generation young enough to be able to look at American painting with critical detachment. This is a topic which I hope to return to later—it is crucial to the present situation. Meanwhile my excuse for mentioning Cohen, whose exhibition has already been widely discussed, is that I have been looking again at one of his recent pictures which is on view at the Robert Fraser Gallery, and I find myself more than ever convinced of its authority.

The picture presents on a generous scale a certain concatenation of forms; there is that about these forms which is arbitrary (they appear to have happened and to that extent they are things); and there is that about them which is reflective and controlled (they have been judged and worked with and to that extent they are ideas). It is in the nature of the picture, open, dry, ample, that one is aware of a certain psychological elbow-room between these two values, and of an effective cross-wiring, so that at times the arbitrary is like a determinant of control, at others control is like a revelation of the arbitrary. The lucid pictorial process takes on a quasi-moral quality, as must any drive towards self-consciousness, stripped of indulgence. This is strengthened by the fact that it is not polarized round any kind of systematized imagery. The phrase “semantic painting” has been widely canvassed, often by people who have not altogether grasped the fact that what puts Harold Cohen, or Jasper Johns for that matter, in a class of his own is not simply the content of his inquiry, but the fact that he has been able to use it to structure a powerful constructive drive. The work, the painting about the meaning of painting, is itself a distinguished painting.

If discussion of semantic painting has become a cant topic, this is at least a comprehensible reaction against the dead-end of much self-congratulatory “lyrical” painting of the last decade. A courageous attempt to press lyrical painting out into a new area has been made by Bryan Wynter, one of the most thoughtful of the group of middle-generation informal abstract painters associated with St. Ives. He has recently shown a group of boxes at the Waddington Galleries in which colored cut-outs revolve in random patterns in front of powerfully illuminated mirror-lenses. The effect cannot be reproduced in photograph, not only because of the continually developing pattern of movement but because, when one stands at the right focal distance, the hanging forms become completely disembodied by the effect of light and magnification (like an object seen in bright light through a glass of water) and become free floating areas of pure color, of which the farthest from the eye project stereoscopically in front of the nearer areas, thus inverting the perceptual evidence of scale and overlap. At the moment the actual shapes Wynter is using are less than interesting in themselves: black and white photographs stress a rather passe, Caligari-like quality which in the works is transcended by color saturation. Intriguing, in a way beautiful, these boxes seem to me to have reached the Pygmalion-limit in a new sphere. Here the work really functions as if it were nature, a lasting sunset, a rainbow in a waterfall, the formation of clouds; or would if one could suspend indefinitely the disbelief engendered by their obvious mechanical ingenuity. They do for a certain kind of abstract nature painting what 17th-century Dutch peepshow boxes do for the vision of de Hooch and Vermeer.

There is a fine such box, a Hoogstraten, at the National Gallery. The summer visitors cluster round it; it never loses its magic. One hopes that some of these visitors will share the excitement felt here by the reappearance of the great Uccello Battle of San Romano after years in the hands of the restorers. Acquired by the gallery in 1858, the Battle is one of the most important quattrocento works in the British Isles. It has two companions, one in the Louvre, one still in Florence. It has long been known that they have not always been their present shape and it can be deduced from certain extensions at the sides that they must at one time have been arch-shaped, nearly as high as they are long. What was not known and could not be anticipated was the effect of removing spurious additions from the National Gallery picture: a sky painted over much of the background, and clumsy resilvering of the knights’ armour. The picture is now entirely coherent, even allowing for the fact that one can now see that it has lost its top. The landscape which now fills the back of the picture-space is a revelation; tightly drawn terraces punctuated with bushes lock powerfully into the frieze of battling figures. It is a miracle of flat organization in which Gothic fantasy and Renaissance order coalesce. Not all the National Gallery’s restorations have been as successful as this and I have been among their critics in the past. But this work, with its patched and sprung wooden support mended and its intractable repainting given sense has been brought back to life both esthetically and physically.

Andrew Forge