Giacometti review – master of all things thin

By Laura Cumming

Tate Modern, London
Fight your way through the spindly hordes at this huge, overcrowded Giacometti show and you'll find a tender, protean artist who is still uniquely strange

There is a figure no bigger than a pin halfway through this colossal retrospective. It emerges from a plinth the size of a frugal chunk of cheddar. You could pocket the whole object without difficulty; indeed Giacometti (1901-66) once returned from his native Switzerland to Paris with all the sculptures he had made through the second world war neatly contained in six matchboxes. No matter how tall or broad he wanted them to be, the artist said, each figure just kept getting smaller and smaller.

The size and shape of Giacometti's sculptures is both intensely famous and surpassingly strange. That is the lesson of this show. Poorly lit, tactlessly displayed and about as overcrowded as a Giacometti show never should be – 250 works, densely contextualised with drawings, memorabilia and even ornamental floor lamps – it nonetheless gives a sense of the artist in all his prodigious variety, from the pinheads to the striding giants, the thin men to the rows of tapering women, rigid but helpless on their stands. Uniquely alone, and yet palpably connected, they amount to a new race of sculpture.

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