The chaos of post-war Paris produced monumental political, cultural, and social change in France, which came to a head with the ideological student revolt of May 1968. This same time period, 1945-1968, also gave rise to several concurrent art movements that we now view as the beginnings of contemporary art. However, despite their shared historical moment and geographic location, the work produced by the artists in these disparate groups is rarely shown in dialogue with one another. The new exhibition Alberto Giacometti Yves Klein, now open at Gagosian Grosvenor Hill until 11 June, does just that.
Curated by Joachim Pissarro, this exhibition explores the formal and thematic intersections between the work of two post-war artists working in the Montparnasse neighbourhood of Paris during the 1950s and 1960s. The connection may at first seem rather tenuous as there is little evidence that Alberto Giacometti and Yves Klein, who were nearly thirty years apart in age, ever interacted directly. Giacometti was a Swiss-born sculptor, who participated in the Surrealist movement in the 1930s. He is best known for his later metal sculptures of skeletal figures. Klein on the other hand was a member of the Nouveaux Réalistes group and is known for provocative monochrome paintings in his eponymous trademark blue.
However, if we step back slightly from these preconceived notions of each artist’s work, the intersections become apparent. Both Klein and Giacometti had an obsessive, repetitive artistic practice: Giacometti’s revolving around form and Klein’s around material. While Giacometti’s figural sculptures are whittled, hewn, and moulded until they are so thin they are barely recognisably human, Klein painted different sized canvases over and over in different monochrome shades, searching for the perfect resonant hue. Both made expansive series of works during the 1950s, some of which are on view in this exhibition, which document their relentless experimentation. Towards the end of the decade, Klein began his own investigations of the human form through his Anthropométries. These large-scale paintings were made by nude female models, directed by Klein, carefully applying paint to the canvas with their bodies. The resulting impressions are eerily gaunt and ghostly, much like Giacometti’s wizened figures. The examples of Klein’s Fire Paintings on display are equally unsettling and contain a gestural violence also found in Giacometti’s drawings and sculpture.
In aesthetic terms, the juxtaposition of Klein’s Anthropométries with Giacometti’s standing figures is the most immediately arresting, if slightly obvious. The overall effect, however, is pleasing and works extraordinarily well in the well-lit space. In a way, the simple formal comparisons are what make this exhibition work on multiple levels: a viewer without prior knowledge of either artist can appreciate the manipulation of the body in both two and three-dimensional representations, whereas those viewers already familiar with these two major names in post-war art can gain fresh insight into each artist’s work through the comparison.
This original pairing of art by Alberto Giacometti and Yves Klein simply works. The Klein paintings breathe life into the sombre Giacometti sculptures, and the Giacomettis lend gravitas to the irreverent Kleins. Let’s hope this will inspire other similarly thought-provoking comparative exhibitions that encourage the audience to rethink the work of well-known modern and contemporary artists.
By Helena Anderson
Alberto Giacometti & Yves Klein; In Search of the Absolute, Gagosian Gallery, April 27 – June 11, 2016, 20 Grosvenor Hill, London W1K 3QD