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Jan 20 / Simon

Shetland Norn

by Simon Tait The London Magazine, September 2017

Shetland is a quiet, self-possessed nation of 22,000 whose population still considers itself to be more Norse than British. They like celebrations, foys they call them, but the big one comes on the last Tuesday of January, a midwinter relief when male Shetlanders dress up as Vikings, process through the capital, Lerwick – or Lerook in the vernacular – with torches and set fire to a galley. The day after is the public holiday to allow the revellers to recover.

The name of Up Helly Aa, according to John Jamieson’s 1818 Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, is from the Old Norse word uppi meaning “the end of”, helly is “holy” – the end of Christmas – and aa is “all”. So, given the abandon the festivities are consigned to at the depths of the near-Arctic climate, “the end of all that’s holy” would be about right.

Thousands descend on Up Helly Aa in their vast tourist cruise ships, and welcoming as Shetlanders are, much of their chatter will be alien to even the English speaking visitors. Half of Shetland’s residents can still speak their ancestors’ tongue, once forbidden by the ruling Scots but still alive, unique and charming, in which the biggest insult is to call someone a “soothmoother’, one whose speech comes from beyond the islands. Our “ith” has been largely lost to dialect, so that “they” is “day”, “then” is “dan”. “Their” and “there” have both become “dare”, but “you” is “du” – the “y” form having once been runic for “ith” so that “du” comes from “thou”. “Wat du daan da day, dan?” is “What are you doing today, then?”

Shetland dialect has German, Old Scots, elements of Latin, even discernible traces of French, but at its base is their own Norn which reclines on Old Norse.

Norn, or Norrøna, is essentially a street language. Much as Shetlanders love their sagas and blood curdling yarns of whaling disasters and family tragedy it’s largely an oral tradition, though I have a volume of dialect poetry that takes much from Norn. Despite its Old Norse base Norn relies heavily on onomatopoeia and where there isn’t a word to fit a particular situation, a new one emerges from the idiom. And there is its great charm.

Life is hard in this land where the sun only shines for half the year, when the men traditionally fished for whale in the winter months and worked the land where no trees can grow in the long hours of the seasons of “simmerdim”, while the women were spinning and weaving, plucking wool from the gorse bushes and cutting peat all year round. So it is not surprising that the dialect has, for instance, 12 different words for exhausted: you could emerge from the daily grind daddit, debaetless, depooperit, disjasket, forfochen, hurless, maegered, mankit, moyenless, ootmaagit, pooskered or even pyaagit, largely depending on which of the islands you hail from.

To help rescue this beguiling language Alistair Christie-Johnston and his wife Adaline, who live on the island of Yell, published a dictionary, Shetland Words, with the Shetland Times, compiled because he and his editor, Neil Anderson, feared that many of the intrinsic words were falling out of use and will be lost for ever. At the end of the 19th century there were thought to be about 10,000 Shetland dialect words extant, by 1970 only about 15% of them were found; through ground knowledge and detective work Shetland Words has recorded about 4,000. The book, published in 2010, sold out and a second edition has just been published with 300 more words gleaned from the outer islands, difficult because the accents change from island to island so that the same word might sound quite different at Skerries to the north east, say, than it will at Foula in the west.

The basis remains, and the survival of Norn is remarkable. It began to die as long ago as the 16th century when rule reverted from Norway to Scotland and Scots law was imposed with the indigenous language proscribed, but many beautiful words of Norn remain in the argot. Bonnhoga, for instance – from the Old Norse barn (child) and hagi (pasture) – which means spiritual home. Gauvenliss is the word for feeble or clumsy; a mouse is a bohonnin, which by some old irony comes from the Norse for watchdog; a pig is a pottisidna; a clergyman is a prestengolva (“the one in the cassock”). A swee is a strong dram, an organic word, and a clock midder is a hen with chicks, but a hansel is a commemorative gift, from the Old Norse for the transference of a right; a cangle is a quarrel.

Modern life has made its incursions, but in a curious way that leaves a helpful distinction. The shower in your bathroom is pronounced “shower”, but a quick downfall of rain is still a shooer. Shetland also has its own, not always appealing, cuisine and words to go with it. It may not be a surprise to know that a dish of fish livers mixed with oatmeal, stuffed in a herring’s head and boiled is called “krappit” and is rarely eaten any more.

The etymology of some words is mysterious until you know more of the island life. Wild thyme is taegirse, which translates as “toe grass” and makes no sense until you know that thyme here is used as a treatment for athlete’s foot. But Alistair Christie-Johnston and Neil Anderson were not content – “tae” after all is Scots and plants in Shetland tend to keep their Norn traces. They tracked the real derivation down to the Old Norse word for root fibre tág, plural taeger, which fits the tight network of the Shetland variety of creeping thyme. You have to be there.

It is an ancient language full of social history, and a glimpse into a lost age, Neil Anderson told me. He is a Shetlander of the old school who can give you the family name of a man he has never met simply because of the way he walks; in the same way, he can tell from which island a person comes from the words he uses. And he had an affirming experience in the Lerwick shop he runs when he offered a young man a foodbag. He didn’t know what he meant, but he did know the Shetland word, maetpockie.

https://www.shetlandheritageshop.com/Shetland-Words-A-Dictionary-of-the-Shetland-Dialect.html

Jan 20 / Simon

How Britten and Peers saved Sutton

by Simon Tait The London Magazine, December/January, 2019

Philip Sutton celebrated his 90th birthday on October 20 with two exhibitions, in what has become his home town of Bridport in Dorset. One of them was of charcoal drawings, the other was a retrospective of the last seven decades, including some new canvases, “my whole life”. Painting still is his life, and although his eyes are not good any more and the sight is gone in one eye he paints constantly and walks the West Bay beach three times every day.

Less conspicuously, there was also a small exhibition at the Red House, the Britten-Peers Library at their home in Aldburgh, Suffolk, of the seven Suttons the library owns, including his portrait of Peter Pears and the picture that changed his life.

Sutton he says he owes his profession to chance – that he was able to make use of the ex-serviceman’s grant scheme for higher education in 1949, that the Slade saw something in his evening class drawings of car badges, that William Coldstream was the Slade professor, that the dealers Henry Roland and Gustave Delbanco went to the Slade’s 1953 degree show on Coldstream’s recommendation and saw Sutton’s melancholy portrait of a fellow student. And that the singer Peter Pears happened to pass the Roland, Browse & Delbanco gallery in Cork Street.

The ex-aircraftman arrived at the Slade, as did Coldstream, in 1949 with an intake that included Ewan Uglow, Craigie Aitchison and Michael Andrews whose different kinds of genius were recognised and nurtured by the avuncular, taciturn Coldstream – not least Phil Sutton’s. His friend Derry Irvine – Lord Irvine of Lairgs – recalls Coldstream telling him: “Phil can never be written off. His work can go through bad phases, but he is and always will be capable of producing something that is really good because he is a gifted, intuitive painter”.

The college career – at the Slade he met the film-maker Heather Cooke, his wife of 64 years, who died last year – was auspicious by any standards, but graduation reality in austerity London was hard. He and Heather escaped to Europe for a while on bursaries he’d won, and at one point Uglow found them living in Menton on a diet of potatoes. Heather became pregnant and they returned to London penniless with baby Jake in a woven straw carrycot.

Sutton got low-paid teaching shifts at the Slade and another college friend, Harold Cohen – later to be the pioneer of computer art in the United States where he developed the “cybernetic artist “, AARON – found the family a room in the house where he had a flat. Toilet, kitchen and bathroom were shared, Jake slept in a cardboard box, and it was a fairly squalid environment from which to launch a career, a career Sutton was not sure was there to be had.

It was at about this time that Peter Pears happened to pass the gallery window and had his eye caught by Sutton’s sombre, expressionistic portrait of a fellow student, Tony Tice, who was later to commit suicide. Struck by the vibrant colour use he bought it on an impulse – the first Philip Sutton picture to be sold through a commercial gallery – got into conversation with Delbanco and heard of the poverty the family were subsisting in, got Sutton’s address and asked him to lunch with Benjamin Britten at their favourite Covent Garden restaurant, Bertorelli’s. “All I can remember of it was that I was starving hungry but so nervous I couldn’t eat anything”, he says.

Britten and Pears thought the family were in need of a holiday and offered them the use of a cottage in Snape, Suffolk, for a fortnight. It was called Joy Cottage and they stayed for three years, during which two more children were born, and Sutton commuted three days a week to the Slade.

He arrived at Joy Cottage at a crossroads in his painting. He was aware of developments in St Ives, saw the American Expressionists’ exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956, and was agonising on whether abstractism was the way he should go. Several canvases were destroyed in his frustration, before he finally rejected it. “At periods in your life when something’s floating in the air you pick it up, almost like a virus”, he says. Instead he felt the power of the landscape outside his windows. “All I can do is respond to how things fall. But I was a different painter when I left Snape than the one that went there”.

The invitation was a life-changing, career-making, act of kindness. Britten and Pears used to take the family off in their car on fine days for beach picnics, and it was at the cottage that Pears’s portrait was painted. The family lived a spartan life and when Delbanco visited he found “a most disorderly household… the piss-pot stood in the kitchen and so on” and he found it “amusing to have to sleep in my overcoat because it was so cold”.

But Delbanco liked what he saw. Sutton’s style matured and coalesced at Joy Cottage, the colours became less hectic and less mordant, the paint thinner on the canvas, the strokes more lyrical; there were pale seascapes, dreamy landscapes from the open country that had inspired Constable and Gainsborough, and many happy depictions of his growing family. “As an extrovert colourist – because there are introvert colourists – this complete lack of hesitation with the handling of paint, this instinctive understanding of the nature of colour, is a thing so rare in the English school, and it’s Sutton’s greatest asset”, Delbanco said. The art began to sell.

In 1958 the family left Suffolk for affordable Battersea, transported by their friend Jeffrey Camp, for a phase in which Philip Sutton became popular, and then in the 60s and 70s fashionable. Their house, bought thanks to a loan from Heather’s father, became a salon, the work was collected by the Tate, the Government Art Collection, Harrison Birtwistle, Albert Finney, Penelope Wilton, Arnold Wesker, Nell Dunn, Irvine, Carl Davis and Lord Snowdon, who did an elegiac photographic feature of the Sutton household for the Sunday Times Magazine. In the 70s Sutton was elected an RA and never misses showing and selling in the Summer Exhibition.

It was in the Suffolk years that Sutton became assured that he was a painter by profession, not a teacher that paints. He arrived at Battersea with confidence and ease in the depiction of form and colour that he found within himself, thanks to the tranquility of Joy Cottage.

“I was looking for a target, what I should be painting, and realised it was in myself”, he says now, “and I found it by chance. Chance has been so important.

“As long as you bump into something you don’t know is there and can take it on, that’s being creative, but if you bump into something you know is there and look no further, that is not a creative act. The essence of a spirit of adventure is that you don’t know the result, and for that you need courage.”

Philip Sutton at 90 is at Bridport Arts Centre until October 6
Philip Sutton RA is at the Literary and Scientific Institute Bridport until October 6
Early Philip Sutton is at The Red House, Snape, until October 28

Jan 20 / Simon

Following Hokusai’s Floating World

by Simon Tait The London Magazine, October/November 2018

Hokusai: the Master’s Legacy, ed. Rosella Menehazzo, published by Skira

The early 20th century French printmaker and art historian Henri Focillon described Hokusai as “freely inspired and inebriated by life and its phenomena” (Hokusai, 1914) at a time when the Japanese artist was influencing not merely design but very lifestyles, having been barely known outside his own country 50 years before.
Hokusai, who died in 1849 aged 90, led Japan’s equivalent of the Impressionists, bringing the everyday, the beautiful, the comical and the erotic to a newly eager general public as the country entered a modern era, working largely in a classical medium, woodblock, in a radical modernist way.

In the last couple of decades Katsushika Hokusai’s name has become almost as familiar worldwide as those of Cézanne and Monet, and his Great Wave off Kanagawa has become the most reproduced image in the world, and last year’s British Museum exhibition, Hokusai: beyond the great wave, was a sell-out visited by 150,000 people.

His recent rise in Western consciousness is thanks to scholars like the BM’s Tim Clark, who curated that show, and Rosella Menehazzo of Milan University. After more than 20 years studying the Japanese art of the late Edo period, she has edited the book which, while the British Museum’s exhibition underlined Hokusai’s standing with the story of his long life, places him as a major influence not only among his own contemporaries but on artists, from the east and west, to the present day.

Hokusai – the last of several names he adopted as he passed through phases of his life – was born in a district of what is now Tokyo, the son of a mirror-maker from whom he inherited nothing except a skill to design the decoration around mirrors. At 14 he was an apprentice woodcarver and at 18 had become the pupil of an artist of the ukiyo-e style of woodblock prints and paintings that focussed mostly on images of famous geishas and Kabuki actors. Menahazzo translates ukiyo-e as “Pictures of the Floating World”.

He began to develop a reputation for his spare and faultless line, but regarded his first 60 years as a preparation for what was to occupy the last third of his life. ‘…until the age of 70, nothing I drew was worthy of notice” he wrote in a translation of his Manga by Henry D Smith III. “At 73 years I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects and fish. Thus when I reach 80 years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at 90 to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at 100 years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at 110 every dot and every stroke will be as though alive. Those of you who live long enough, bear witness that these words of mine are not false”.

He applied his ukiyo-e techniques to a much broader range of subjects, principally to nature, and eschewing traditional practice. He won a competition by painting a single blue curve on a large sheet of paper and chasing across it a chicken whose feet had been dipped in red paint, saying that it represented the Tatuita River with red maple leaves floating in it. In the 1820s, able to make use of imported Prussian blue, he produced his seminal Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, followed by the three volumes of One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, the last volume of which was published in the year of his death.

At 50 he created his own exhaustive manuals on how to draw, the Hokusai Manga, which included facial types and changing expressions as well as of flora and fauna, street life and the supernatural. There were 20 in all, five published posthumously, and they are still reproduced and much-used references.

Menahazzo puts Hokusai in the context of the modernised Japan of the late Edo period (1603-1868), which ended more or less with the opening up of trade to the West, and the other ukiyo-e artists that rose alongside him. His pupils Hokkei, Hokuba, Shinsai and Gakutei, and his peers Eisen and Utamaro established great success, but the most famous of them, Eisen, always acknowledged that Hokusai represented “an absolute point of reference for him in painting”, Menegazzo writes.

Hokusai and his fellows were making art for public spaces and places, but also for private consumption, including the abuna-e – “dangerous pictures” – which were a testament to the liberalised society of the late Edo they illuminated. Often there were coy hints at sexuality such as glimpses of red underwear, red being seen as a provocative colour and forbidden for outer clothing by the sumptuary laws. But they could also be explicit, such as Hokusai’s Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife which, writes Menegazzo, “only the consummate skill and wit of the master could render so captivating and devoid of bad taste”.

A flood of Japanese art hit the West following the arrival of the American fleet under Commodore Matthew Perry in 1854 and the trade deal sealed by the Convention of Kanagawa, coincidentally the site of Hokusai’s most famous image. It inspired designers and artists across Europe and America in the later 19th century and through the 20th, with The Wave appearing in Van Gogh’s Starry Night of 1889, and being the image for the cover of Debussy’s La Mer in 1905.

In Tate Modern’s 2018 exhibition Picasso 1932 there is a suggestion that Picasso was inspired by Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, the lascivious tentacles seducing the sleeping woman, to paint the series of reclining nudes of Marie-Thérèse Walter he made at Boisgeloup that year when his own work was becoming more sensual.

The instructions of his Manga – the word means random or impromptu pictures – in which the emphasis was on the simplicity of the fewest possible but perfect lines to tell simple stories were seized on by the Impressionists, among others, liberating them from existing assumptions about how to draw and paint. It is the basis of the modern genre that borrows the same word, the comics and animations that have created world-wide market worth billions of dollars. It is not too much to claim that modern art begins, at least partly, with Hokusai, and as Rosella Menehazzo that he brings to the current era “the art of the Floating World in full bloom”.

Jan 20 / Simon

Auerbach’s Inimitable Magic

by Simon Tait The London Magazine, February/March 2016

Frank Auerbach
Tate Britain

When Frank Auerbach first came to public notice – emerged rather than burst – in the 1950s he was noted as a “British Expressionist” in the white hot enthusiasm for the American abstract colourists Clement Greenberg (not to mention the American government) was punting around the world with spectacular success.

It was a gross misreading of his work. Auerbach was not concerned with conveying an emotional response but has spent his life examining his changing relationship with objects, people and scenes to which he has returned repeatedly for 60 years. He is part of an extraordinary post-war flourish of British talent that was too often only seen in the context of the likes of Pollock, Rothko and Newman and, difficult though it can sometimes be to read, Auerbach’s work is never abstract in the sense of internalised perception. His paintings are not mere expressions, they are evocations, and although the paint is applied very quickly and often in large amounts, the process can be prolix. Often they require long consideration by the viewer, a case in which patience is always rewarded as a form gradually becomes plain from a maelstrom of paint. That is Auerbach’s inimitable magic.

This exhibition is not just a retrospective, it is the artist’s own statement on his life’s work, chosen, he says, not particularly chronologically and certainly not stylistically or by subject or context, but so that “each work be considered as an absolute which works (or does not work) by itself”. Yet there is a chronology in that six rooms are each devoted to a decade, with the seventh being a kind of summary by his friend and long time sitter the curator Catherine Lampert.

Auerbach builds his paintings, and famously his impasto can be several inches thick so that some of the frames here are more like vitrines, so deep do they have to be to accommodate the mountain of oil paint. But as he shows with his choices, he can excavate an idea as much with sparse almost faint strokes as he can by piling paint on with a palette knife (and the piling on is not a process of correction, he will scrape off ounces of pigment if he feels it is not going right and start again).

One of the wonders of Auerbach’s art is that he gets so much from so little, and it would be easy to assume that each image of a sitter or a scene is a new attempt to get it right, writing-off what went before. It doesn’t work like that for him: each essay is an articulation for the truth he sees at a moment, and sometimes developing over years, and each offers answers to a perception of a new verity. He has got a whole world out of Mornington Crescent. In Lampert’s room she has included three images from 1988 called J.Y.M. Seated in the Studio in which his long-time model Juliet Yardley Mills is painted in exactly the same pose. They could almost be like different state impressions from a print process, but they are individual paintings in which Auerbach has found different qualities in the scene through using different pigments – none is a preparation, each is a resolution.

He introduces himself in the first room by covering a huge span of his early work. There are two portraits of his friend and stalwart sitter Stella West (“E.O.W.”). One is a charcoal drawing of 1959-60 in which the exquisitely drawn features – almost a Henry Moore face – look out expressionlessly and slightly austerely from a piece of paper that is dotted with marks, bits of stuck-on labels, old adhesive marks, as though she is an authoritative presence in a space of casual chaos (there is a self-portrait of 1958 in the same vein). Four years earlier he had painted a Head of E.O.W. in a dark study in which the sitter’s melancholy face emerges from a background of thick dark swirls, mordantly pale and looking down in an almost sculptural statement of features. And then again, Head of E.O.W II of 1961 is so impasto it cannot help but be a flurry of movement, and in this impression there is gentleness, humour, affection, fun – action painting in which the action is in the image, not the energy of the artist.

Auerbach’s story is remarkable but not unusual for the mid-20th century. He came to England aged eight on the Kindertransport leaving behind the parents he was never to see again. Naturalised British in 1947 he studied at St Martin’s and the Royal College of Art, but with his friend Leon Kossoff did David Bomberg’s famous evening classes at Borough Institute which perhaps gave him the confidence to be so different. His first solo show was at the Beaux-Arts in 1956 and he was taken up by the critic David Sylvester, and his reputation grew so that in 1978 the Arts Council gave him a Hayward Gallery retrospective when he was still in his forties. In 1981 he was a strong part of the RA’s seminal New Spirit of Painting, curated by Christos Joachimides, Norman Rosenthal and Nicholas Serota, in which he took his place alongside not only Francis Bacon, R B Kitaj and Lucian Freud but Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and Pablo Picasso as representing the most inventive work of the 1970s.

By then he had found his place, Camden, from which he seldom budges, painting what he sees about him and each time extracting a new essence, and at 85 he is painting with undiminished enthusiasm and invention – the most recent painting here is one of his studio from 2014. Primrose Hill appears frequently in his show, cold, stark and slashed with blood red fissures in Spring Sunshine, angular but festively green and red in Winter Evening of 1974-5, and then in 1971 a joyous sweep of flowing warm summer strokes in Primrose Hill.

His portraits are not so much likenesses as descriptions, and he has included two of his son Jake in 2008-9 and 2009-10, both head and shoulders in exactly the same pose, but the first is oil the other charcoal and pencil, and the effect is the same as having a different conversation with the same person. In fact, the next Auerbach exhibition should be in the National Portrait Gallery.

In this exhibition Auerbach shows himself as an artist who has accomplished, the points in his life of those accomplishments being irrelevant, and in his catalogue essay the arts historian T J Clark has a phrase which sums it up perfectly: “…full of grimful glee…”.

Jan 20 / Simon

Grappling with Structure

by Simon Tait The London Magazine, Dec/Jan 2016

Giacometti: Pure Presence
National Portrait Gallery

Giacometti lived a peculiarly double life, despite his lifelong quest for a “real”, as he put it. From the age of 21 he mixed in the dizzying artistic milieu of Montmartre, experimenting and eventually coming to terms with his own perception, pulling his art towards the acetic spindly bronze figures, the Pure Presence of the exhibition’s title, that would bring him acclaim. But for the summer he went home to Switzerland to paint quiet little conventional still lifes and portraits of his family. Which was the real Alberto?

What the curator Paul Moorhouse does with this account is trace Giacometti’s development from the very beginning through his portraits. That way he attempts to grasp the unique reality of perception Giacometti strove after turning away from the straightforward Impressionism he began with.

In Paris Giacometti lived in what became a rather famous squalor, eventually kept in some sort of order after the Second World War by a devoted wife, but he came from a well-to-do middle-class Swiss family.

His father was the successful Post-Impressionist painter Giovanni Giacometti who saw his eldest child’s promise with a pencil very early. At 13 he was given some Plasticene and made a head of his younger brother which pleased Giovanni so much he cast a bronze of it, and at 17 he was sent to art school in Geneva. His father took him to Italy where he discovered Tintoretto and Giotto who opened his eyes to the audacity that was possible in capturing the human form. In 1922 Giovanni decided to send him to Paris and the best artist/teacher there Antoine Bourdelle at the Swiss-founded Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where the stifling academic rules of the Ecole Des Beaux Arts were eschewed and life drawing was the key discipline.

Alberto was 21 and for the next decade or so in Paris he experimented with Abstractism, Primitivism, Cubism, and most intriguingly Surrealism. His friends were André Breton, the leader of the Surrealists, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Man Ray, and later Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. At the opening of his first solo exhibition at the Galérie Pierre Colle in 1932 the first through the door was Picasso.

We see nothing from this Parisian maelstrom of activity when Giacometti was looking for his own reality in the only city in the world where he had every new thought on the matter immediately to hand. Instead we see the other side of his creativity, the gentle portraits of family done during his annual returns to the cosy tranquility of Stampa, the family home village near Switzerland’s Italian border. He was looking for his metier, and in 1921 he made a marble relief portrait of his mother from a chalk drawing by his father of more than a decade before. In Post-Impressionist patchwork oils we have his sister Ottilia, his brother Boris sleeping, his other brother Diego, who was to be Giacometti’s principal model for the rest of his life, standing in the living room, tall, handsome, neatly dressed and aggressive, quickly painted and apparently looking for a fight. But what was Alberto looking for?

We see him grappling with structure in pencil, oil and bronze. In his sculptures from the early 1920s Giacometti is even scribbling on his forms to get his structures, and he struggles particularly with his father’s likeness – he has bronzed a head of Giovanni and scratched on it the facial features that are effectively graffiti. Another head of his father looks naïve, until on closer looking you see the detail he’s worked up, every hair of the salt and pepper beard in place. It’s as if by returning to the domus he goes back to his creative nursery to remind him of the basic tools before he plunges back into the crucible of Paris and the struggle for his real.

But he abandoned many pieces, dissatisfied with his attempts to create a completely accurate head and continually starting again: his hand was not conveying to the clay what was in his mind’s eye – while his painted portraits, and there’s one of himself in the act of painting, are resolutions his father would have approved.

At the Academie, although he had praise of his drawing, he had difficulty with the nude form, finding it impossibly complex. He stuck to heads, going back to Cubist basics to find structure. Then for a while he abandoned working from the life completely as being too distracting from the essence, using only memory to try to capture his wanted image.

Then in 1933 Giovanni died and Giacometti had a complete re-evaluation of his work, almost as if released from the need to conform with the values his father espoused. He broke with the Surrealists and worked with a new independence, renewing his efforts to resolve the problem that each time he looked at his model he saw something different.

He began to model to the size he saw in perspective, rather than actual size, and there is a drawing of his mother Annetta from 1937 in which he has abandoned all signifiers of identity to leave a solitary presence, as Moorhouse describes it, and she was a regular model until her death. From this point his Swiss and Parisian selves seem to be reconciled. A resolution began to form when that year he saw his model Isabel Nicholas at a distance in the Boulevard St-Michael, her features unseeable but her presence unmistakeable, surrounded by and commanding space.

The war was an impasse in Giacometti’s Parisian quest and he went back to Switzerland in 1941 when he met his future wife, Annette, his other main muse from then on. He stayed in Geneva where he made tiny sculptures of anonymous human forms. In 1945 he brought them back to Paris in matchboxes, and they were the start of the tall, thin figures that are the Giacometti the world knows, the Pure Presence.

We don’t think of Giacometti, who died in 1966 aged 64, as a portraitist, but by being in the National Portrait Gallery this exhibition makes clear that, in the simplest terms, that is what he is. But this exhibition sets out to show that to say he is a portraitist is as inadequate as to say he is a sculptor.