The art of modernity

29th November 1996 at 00:00
Alberto Giacometti 1901-66 Royal Academy until January 1

Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the 18th Century Tate Gallery, London, until January 5

Despite the unavoidable absence (albeit with some substitutions) of some items included in the Edinburgh show - and the equally un-avoidable omission of the early 1930s trap-like pieces and any pictures of Paris streets - this is still the most comprehensive bringing together of Alberto Giacometti's work shown in Britain to date.

From a drawing of his two brothers in bed done when he was 12 years old to work executed only weeks before his death, every phase of his development is represented: the early influence of his father; the absorption of non-European and Cubist art; the major contribution to Surrealism; and the final discovery and consolidation of an authentic vision that instantly identifies every drawing, painting or sculpture done after 1945.

At almost every stage in his career there are works which make a very deep and lasting impression: the exceptionally refined execution and penetrating gaze of the 1919 Head of Bruno; the implacability of the 1926-7 Spoon Woman; the terrifyingly accurate realisation of rape, murder and disembowelment in the 1932 Woman with Her Throat Cut (a piece which surely matches the skill of Picasso); the extreme tension of the l945-7 bronze Standing Woman, suspended between existence and non-existence.

All are scu1ptures and it is as a sculptor that Giacometti is most widely known and admired. But if the amount and quality of his paintings come as a surprise to many visitors, his drawings are likely to be revelatory. Francis Bacon considered Giacometti to be "not only the greatest draughtsman of our time but among the greatest of all time". This exhibition suggests the extent to which habitual drawing both underpins the paintings and sculptures - and helps explain them: an exemplary experience for students.

During the 1920s, Giacometti brought sculpted heads of his father and mother so close to the act of looking alone that they abandon the fully-rounded forms he knew to be there and restrict themselves to a frontal flatness instead. From the 1940s onwards the material existence of his isolated figures is so threatened by the space that surrounds them that there is often little left except the confrontation between their gaze and ours.

Grasping Giacometti is a pertinently titled free guide for secondary students who might also have the opportunity to attend a study session exploring his preoccupations in greater depth. Primary, secondary and higher students can take advantage of the pre-opening time tours held on three days of each week. There are Wednesday and Sunday gallery talks and a pack of background material by Rachel Barnes that they will not wish to be without.

Equally invaluable is Sarah Greenberg's information pack for teachers that accompanies the Tate's Grand Tour exhibition. Very sensibly raising questions about tourism in the 18th century and tourism now, she implicitly suggests both different ways of approaching the show that are relevant to young people and routes that might be pursued back in school or college.

If the most enduring legacy of the grand tour is the importance of travel as an educational and leisure experience, what images, she asks, lure us to Italy? Are late 20th-century images of tourism related to those in the exhibition? What souvenirs do we bring back from our travels?

Not merely antiquarians and connoisseurs but the majority of visitors to this richly rewarding show are likely to be taken aback by the number of striking parallels with, and continuing influences upon, our own time.

The origins of the postcard lie in the innumerable views produced for 18th-century travellers just as our public museums followed in the wake of The Capitoline, opened in 1733 to cater to foreign visitors.

Even our art schools have their roots in the lure of Italy and its academies. And if English banks, shops, cafs and clubs in Rome seem modern,all were established there more than 200 years ago.

What perhaps is most remarkable about this exhibition is the degree to which it manages to lend a sense of reality to so many aspects of the experience between the eagerly anticipated journey and the later recollections.

Filling the galleries with drawings, prints, paintings and sculptures, however many are by reputable artists like Claude Lorrain, Piranesi, Zoffany, Reynolds, Wright of Derby or authentic Roman marbles, will not in itself achieve this. But put them into coherent and interconnecting groups representing the travellers, the journey, places, festivals and antique remains, as here, and the whole thing comes alive.

Further information from the Royal Academy Education Department, 0171 494 5733, and the Tate Gallery Education Department, 0171 887 89228767.

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