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Why for Giacometti, small is beautiful

After all the blockbuster shows, Tom Lubbock finds a petite but well chosen Giacometti exhibition something of a relief

Monday 17 March 2008 01:00 GMT

How small is beautiful? One of the legends of modern art concerns the journey that Alberto Giacometti took, by night train, from Geneva to Paris, at the end of the Second World War – or, rather, not his journey so much as his luggage. He carried with him all of his recent work, contained in six matchboxes.

In the preceding years, after his return to figurative sculpture, he'd found that his work was getting out of control. "Wanting to do from memory what I had seen, to my terror the sculptures became smaller and smaller. Only when they were small was there a likeness, yet these dimensions revolted me." However large he started, it made no difference. "All my statues ended up a centimetre high. One more touch and hop! – the statue vanishes..."

Quite a lot of this work did, in fact, vanish. But some of the tiny female figures survive, standing bolt upright, arms clamped to their sides, stuck rigid onto disproportionately large rectangular bases. They're nearer three centimetres high, and I wouldn't call them revolting – powerfully magnetic, rather. They draw your gaze with their sheer elusive minuteness, like the Lord's Prayer written on a grain of rice.

None of these real tiddlers is among the work on view in the Giacometti show that has just opened at Compton Verney, the country house/arts centre in Warwickshire. But then, the same can be said for almost every other work by Giacometti. This exhibition is – not to put too fine a point on it – an extremely modest one. To call it "tightly focused" or "highly selective" would give a much too ample impression. It's frankly miniscule.

Four bronzes, three paintings, a sheaf of drawings: that's it. OK, I wasn't imagining a comprehensive survey of this artist's extensive output. But I guess I was expecting something more. It's about as small as a show can be while still qualifying as a Giacometti exhibition. It's much less than many modern art galleries would have, say, just as part of their normal everyday displays.

Yet, when it comes to Giacometti, or any worthwhile art, there's always the question: how much do you actually need? Three or four sculptures – well, if you really gave them your attention, surely that would be enough to keep you going? And would 300 sculptures be such an improvement? Isn't a small, attention-concentrating exhibition exactly what you want?

People have been talking down blockbuster shows recently, and I too dislike them. They're always very exciting in prospect, but when you get in, the truth hits you. It's not just the crowds. It's the fact that they can apparently only be attracted by offering many more pictures than anyone could reasonably take in within the space of single visit, even if the exhibition was entirely deserted.

If you think about it, the crowds actually provide a convenient diversion from this problem. They mask one impossibility (excess of art) with another (excess of bodies). The crush of people, making much of the show physically unseeable, disguises the fact that realistically it would not be viewable anyway.

Would you suppose you could get through the complete works of Shakespeare in a couple of hours? So why suppose you can get through the complete works of Rembrandt? The fact that you can literally run your eye over the canvases in this time does not invalidate the analogy. And now try the works of Shakespeare in two hours with someone continually snatching the book from your hand, and returning it opened at a different page – that's the blockbuster experience.

You may say that the paying public don't mind; in fact, they insist upon it. Exhibition-goers are like clubbers: they're gregarious, they like to queue, they like to be in a throng of fellow visitors, it makes them feel they've come to the right place. What's more, they're greedy. They want to boggle at a cornucopia of art, to embrace the unfolding of a whole career, even if this means there's much too much to see. And no gallery with an eye to attendance figures will dare to provide them with less.

Take the Camden Town Group exhibition currently at Tate Britain. It has about 100 paintings in it, which is not enormous but still well over the limit of what anyone can attentively look at in a single visit. But, distributed among those 100, there are about 25 paintings by Walter Sickert, which is a perfectly viewable quantity. Extract them, put them all together and you'd have a good, small Sickert show – and since the Sickerts are really the only things worth looking at here, that's in effect what this exhibition amounts to.

But if Tate Britain were to put on a dedicated Sickert show it would never be content with just 25 pictures. It would want to do it properly, give us a full survey, with a hundred works or more. Because you cannot persuade many people to come to see a show with only 25 works in it. But here's the rub: if you could persuade them, it would be even more intolerably crowded than the average blockbuster.

So those of us who feel that the ideal exhibition is one with few works and few visitors had better just keep quiet and take our pleasures where we're lucky enough to find them – for example, at this Giacometti show. Here we can dwell on that curious piece The Forest, in which seven lean upright figures, of varying heights, rise out of a single shared plinth like plants growing in a window box.

Or there's Four Women on a Base, standing in a line, where you feel that the figures are not so much standing upright as impaled by an upright force that is not their own, and also petrified like pillars of salt, and also dematerialising into the air. Or there's Four Figurines on a Stand, where the figures are fixed to a base that is in turn stuck on a long-legged table – all a single piece of bronze – which only emphasises the rigid helplessness of the figures, making them adjuncts of a piece of furniture.

But while a decent Giacometti show may not need a lot of work, what it does need is a lot of space. Perhaps the strongest feeling you get off these works is a sense of shrinkage, withdrawal. They are standing human figures that have contracted and are still contracting towards the most minimal state of being – a mere vertical line; and in the process of contracting they have concentrated, too.

They are like the enormously dense and gravitational entity at the core of a black hole. And you need a sense of the surrounding space from which they have withdrawn. It would be very effective to put just a single piece bang in the middle of a big and entirely empty room. And the fault of the Compton Verney show is simply the lack of space it allows its exhibits.

The kind of attention that it encourages is very welcome, though. It's welcome, I mean, that you don't feel obliged to leave off looking at something because there's so much more work ahead beckoning you on, and you end up not really looking at anything – the curse of the blockbuster.

On the other hand, £7 to give your full attention to this groupuscule of works (even with some contemporary projection pieces thrown in, and a day out in the country) is possibly a bit steep.

But apropos Giacometti, here's one you can do at home. Take a pen and a blank sheet of paper. Imagine a standing human figure, legs apart, arms hanging loosely by its sides. Make five little marks on the paper, corresponding to the positions of the head, hands and feet of this figure. Do this in the middle of the page, with a fair margin of surrounding empty space. You have now made an approximate equivalent to a drawing Giacometti made in 1950, Figure Debout.

It's a kind of anti-pin-man. And even with a very rough version, you may be surprised at how well the magic works. Simply by marking these cardinal points, the presence and stance of the invisible standing figure are clearly felt. Just as with three strokes you can make a face, with five you can conjure a whole body out of nothing.

Alberto Giacometti, Compton Verney, Warwickshire, on the B4086, between Wellesborne and Kineton (01926 645500), to 1 June

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