Tate Etc

David Austen on Alberto Giacometti

Writer David Austen reflects on Alberto Giacometti’s work Hour of the Traces

Alberto Giacometti, ‘Hour of the Traces’ 1932
Alberto Giacometti
Hour of the Traces 1932
© The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris), licensed in the UK by ACS and DACS, London 2019

It is always smaller and more fragile than I remember. Its title is redolent of deep night, stained sheets and dragged bodies, while the cage-like structure is reminiscent of the scaffold and the guillotine, or a charred building. Above, attached by twisted bent wire to the roof beams like an early television aerial, are three white shapes: an upside down “L” or blind man’s cane, a crescent or shooting comet and a broken moon. These shapes could just as well be impaled body parts: a gaping head and a long skinny penis or tongue. This is a place of medieval torture or an ancient object from an Egyptian tomb. It is a grisly, cruel scene – none of the gaiety, humour and bird-like sounds that emanate from a Klee or Miró. 'I work to please the dead' Giacometti said.

Dropped down into the body of the cage and held by a trembling wire is a small plaster heart. It is a pendulum in a Swiss clock, a beating heart from a Poe story, or a heart for a tin man. It makes me think of weight and gravity, the terrible lonely ache of love, passing moments and the 'unbearable lightness of being'. I have a photograph I must have taken a very long time ago in Tate of the little plaster heart hanging by its wire. Now and then it surfaces to the top of a big pile of images I have in my studio. I always stop and look and think how something so simple can work so well, and it’s always going to be there.

Giacometti is on at Tate Modern 10 May – 10 September 2017

Hour of the Traces was purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery in 1975

Featured in Tate Etc. issue 4: Summer 2005

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