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Modern anxiety and the master of gloom: why we still love Giacometti

Feeling anxious? The Zagreb Art Pavilion will make sure you are, with their dramatic exhibition on the moody modernist

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Paolo Monti/ BEIC Foundation
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Summer’s over, it’s freezing cold, and everyone looks bloody miserable. To make things worse, the Art Pavilion are on a mission to reduce us all to trembling messes, a few anxiety attacks away from existential crises. Alberto Giacometti, the Swiss artist at the centre of their gloom-fest, would have been delighted.

The first thing you’ll see at this exhibition is Walking Man I. You’ve got no choice about that, because they’ve plonked him right at the entrance like a spring up skeleton on a ghost ride. You might have seen pictures of this, Giacometti’s most famous sculpture, but it’s a startling sight in real life: pencil-skinny at 6ft, he’s wearing the kind of despairing expression most of us reserve for the baggage check-in queue. Maybe he’d cheer up a bit if someone told him his net worth.

But then, we probably wouldn’t like him so much if he was smiling. Giacometti's brand of modernism is full of doom, and, like emotionally self-destructive teenagers, we're obsessed with it. His name has recently topped the bill in London, Paris, Istanbul and Vienna. And, just in case we slip back into liking pretty things and pop art, the Tate Modern have a mammoth retrospective planned for 2017.

That’s a lot of fanfare for the man who stuck to clay and sad-looking portraits while his peers got trippy with Surrealism. His work is sober, stark and funereal. Which begs a simple question: what’s wrong with us?

Plenty of things, is the answer, but the one that matters here is anxiety. We all know that the modern world is making us anxious, and the only thing we like more than talking about how anxious we are is looking at things that make us feel more anxious. And no one does anxious like Giacometti.

That’s what the Pavilion think, anyway, and they’re so delighted with the theory that they make it absolutely impossible to miss.

The show’s subtitle, ‘Portraits of the Present’ is our first clue. If you miss that, it’s okay, because they’ve set up four projection screens showing rolling footage of the Belgian bombings, Boko Haram, Isis destroying artefacts, and refugees pleading for asylum. Lastly, the whole exhibition is set to a soundtrack of a choir wailing like a hive of ominous wasps, meaning that, even if we literally walked around the exhibition with our eyes closed, we’d still get the point.

That choir… It’s quiet at first, and nicely atmospheric. Then it gets louder, and it’s slightly alarming but still ambient. But, Christ, it just gets louder and louder, until they’re belly-crying like the choir in that Space Odyssey monolith scene.

It inspires two feelings; firstly, discomfort (where to look? how to react?). Secondly - more surprisingly - a faint but definite urge to open up and join in. I suspect that others feel the same, because we’re all varying levels of anxious and could all do with the same cathartic experience (cf. rage yoga).

Thankfully, we manage to restrain ourselves. Giacometti exhibitions, like Terrence Malick films and Proust, tend to make people go all tense and scowly, avoiding smiles for fear of looking stupid. We’re on even riskier ground here: with those videos rolling in the background, a misjudged grin screams not only ‘I’m a philistine!’ but ‘I’m an Isis supporter, too!'

Anyway, once you’ve mastered the appropriate ‘isn’t the world terrible, isn’t the art great’ expression, you can enjoy the art. And there’s plenty to enjoy – especially the Woman of Venice sculptures.

Lined up either side of Walking Man I, they demonstrate Giacometti’s God-like mastery of scale. The bronze figures look so tiny, and the space around them seems enormous. It's impossible not to identify with the little people - gaze at them for long enough, and you'll start to feel small too.

The series famously came about after Giacometti saw his model in the street. From a distance, she looked small. That's what perspective does - obviously. But it struck Giacometti that that perspective had never been captured in sculpture, so he tried to do just that.

Then he tried again. And again. And then he kept on trying until he had twelve near-identical figures, and, probably, RSI.

Top marks for persistence! That's partly what makes his art so disarmingly earnest. In the sketches here, you can see how he found the whole business of representation both extremely frustrating and utterly irresistible; he draws his subjects – sometimes himself, sometimes his mother – with such ferocity that you can picture the fate of the poor HBs, snapping and splintering off in all directions. He was desperate to capture the face in front of him. At its best, when the skin seems to be alive with jostling atoms, the pencil work is electrifying.

It’s a shame that you’re left feeling a bit frustrated, too, because there’s a gaping hole where some kind of commentary should be (especially noticeable with a series of preparatory studies for a ‘book’ – which book?!). But you do get a glimpse of the artist at work in Ernst Scheidegger’s 1966 film which plays in the next room. If you don’t speak French or Croatian you won’t glean any of the dialogue.

You probably wouldn’t anyway, though, because you’ll be too busy watching other people’s faces do peculiar things. But by this point, you’ll have received the message, loud and a-bit-too-clear: Giacometti was doomed, and so are we.

Hopefully, you’ll also have noticed the subtler side of Giacometti's genius - it might all be pretty angsty, but it’s also profoundly human, which might just be why we can’t get enough of the brilliantly miserable stuff.

Giacometti: Portraits of the Present runs until 8 January 2017 at the Art Pavilion, Zagreb.

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