‘Artistically I am still a child with a whole life ahead of me to discover and create. I want something, but I won’t know what it is until I succeed in doing it.’ Giacometti, source unknown

It was a chance encounter, whilst waiting to collect my granddaughter from nursery.  I was familiar with the elongated sculptures, but not with the paintings or drawings.  Of all the exhibitions I have seen recently, Pure Presence at the National Portrait is the one that has had the most profound effect on my work.


Extract from The Artist’s Mother 1950 (photographed from my book of the exhibition)

So many questions.  How does he see like that?  Where would I start?  How do I incorporate that degree of passion, of sensibility or pure presence, into my work?

The answer came twofold.  I found an exhibition catalogue of drawings and watercolours bequeathed to the Kunsthaus Zurich by his brother Bruno, in 2012, and exhibited in 2014.  These works clearly chart his development and offer some insight into his process and approach.  I tried to understand by drawing alone, but then a teacher appeared to guide me through the mental process of drawing, the mood, the perspective, the sensitivity, the mark making, the sheer joy of drawing.


Bodies dancing

My drawing emphasis is on the importance of each line, during the continual movement, to capture the energy, the form.


Working with torn collaged marks, I am discovering a fragility and sensitivity of mark, drawing the torn pieces into a narrative.


Giving weight and form to fabric.

In the summer I used such a drawing to develop a painting.

Charcoal on paper 42 x 30cms                                Watercolour on rough paper 78 x 58cms

This work is moving from ‘Bachelard’s notion of image and Bomberg’s spirit in the mass’  1 through to Giacometti’s truth.2

This approach to work is a huge departure for me.  Drawing, such as it ever was, was a scribbled outline using a pipette, to create a muted placement.  The starting point of drawing, particularly with charcoal, is enabling a more tactile approach, feeling my way around the form, which in turn, is giving rise to a more painterly process.

Whilst searching for the essay Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about Giacometti, The Search for the Absolute, I came across a thesis by Sebastien Fitch, Following Giacometti: A Case Study for a Multidisciplinary Approach to Art Education, 3, in which he argued for the return of copying as a valid art practice.  There are frequent references to Giacometti’s practice of copying, so this paper, by Fitch, who is widely read on the subject of Giacometti, documents the author’s discoveries whilst immersing himself in what he perceives to be Giacometti’s practice.  He concludes that Giacometti’s visual style was as a ‘product of his process – a byproduct of his obsessive working method’.   I am sure that is true, but whether you need to copy his process to appreciate that, is another matter.

It is here that I am also alerted to the importance of the gaze for Giacometti, an idea that is to surface again, during the exhibition review exercise.  He quotes from Danto ‘..what makes him alive is without a doubt the gaze. Not the imitation of eyes, but really and truly a gaze.’ (Giacometti, as quoted in Danto, p154) 4.

I am aware that I avoid the gaze, in fact all facial detail, in my work.  It is Giacometti’s truth, but at this point in my work, it is not mine.  I am still working with Bomberg’s ‘spirit in the mass‘, the essence, the sensibility of the form, the sensitivity of mark making, the importance of colour, that is my truth, and it is only by ‘gazing’ and being enveloped by its very being, its spirit, that I can represent the form in a meaningful way.  What Giacometti is teaching me is to see from within, that painting is a struggle, a mountain to conquer.

This week that teller of truths, Leonard Cohen, died.  Here was a man who wrote 80 verses over five years to Halleluja, before finding peace.  These two great men have taught me that sensitivity, passion and determination are essential to the creative process, there is no short cut.

I am six months older than Giacometti was when he died.  If the best is yet to come , I need to press on with single-minded haste.

1  Oxlade, Roy 2010, Art & Instinct p118

2  Moorhouse, Paul 2015, Pure Presence


4  Danto, Arthur C. (2005). Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Author: susanmilleruk

Watercolour painter living, working and loving Hastings and St Leonards on Sea. MA in Fine Art.

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