Giacometti and Caroline

Giacometti will always remain one of my favourite artists. For my latest Top Lot, I’ve picked this amazing portrait, Caroline, painted in 1961.

Caroline, 1961

What draws me most to this portrait, as with many others by Giacometti, is the way you are drawn into the figure’s head and eyes. The head is shrunk slightly so that it is disproportionately smaller than the torso; the eyes are almost scribbled upon and made to appear soulless; and the immediate background of the head and shoulders is purposely very plain and light; a hollow space, drawing attention to the facial skin which is very dark and intense.

These techniques all contribute in making the subject’s sense of presence almost hollow: is the viewer looking at Caroline, or is Caroline looking at the viewer? Despite the painting being a portrait of Caroline, there is little sense of individuality in her features (compare, for example, to the other portraits Giacometti did of her). Giacometti projects no sense of individual personality; she is just an anonymous woman staring out into the world in desperation and isolation.

In addition to the style Giacometti employs in his portraiture, the accompanying facts about who Caroline was and her relationship with Giacometti are sparse. Unlike his family members and wife Annette, who is also painted frequently, there is little information about the young woman apart from she was a young prostitute and model that Giacometti met in a bar.  Apparently Giacometti had been drawn into ‘the orbit of her gaze’. As Giacometti’s friend said, ‘Her eyes were so big they just sucked you in…’

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Giacometti and Caroline at a bar in Paris

I can certainly understand why Giacometti was associated with the idea of existentialism throughout his career. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it (and the recent exhibition of his works at the National Portrait Gallery), Caroline is depicted as a ‘pure presence’: she is merely another human being looking back you. The so-called ‘orbit of her gaze’ reverses the subject of the portrait to the viewer and poses the question: is there any grand meaning in life? Are we just alone in an absurd and irrational world?

Giacometti: Pure Presence is at the National Portrait Gallery (London WC2H 0HE) until 10 January 2016

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Fallen Women

Earlier this week I went along to visit the Foundling Museum’s temporary exhibition, Fallen Woman, which focuses on the hundreds of ummarried women who, shamed by pregnancy outside of wedlock, were encouraged to give up their illegitimate children to the care of the Foundling Hospital. The institution’s admissions policy during the Victorian era, although philanthropic by nature, was heavily influenced by Britain’s moral climate; for a period of about 50 years, mothers had to prove that they were of a previously good character and class. The ‘Fallen Women’ who were approved by the Hospital were therefore those mothers who wished to claw their way back to their respectable lives pre-seduction. As Margaret Reynolds explains, what makes a ‘woman fallen is sexual knowledge outside marriage’, coupled with the commonly-held opinion that this (often solitary) act would, in turn, lead to a life of prostitution, violence or death.

'The Drunkard’s Children', 1848 by George Cruikshank, best known as one of the early illustrators of Dickens’s novels

‘The Drunkard’s Children’, 1848 by George Cruikshank, best
known as one of the early illustrators of Dickens’s novels

The exhibition brings back to life the voices of the hundreds of milliners, governesses and maids – once upright members of society – who had become the epitome of what it meant to be a fallen woman. Small tokens, paintings and moralised images of the time take up the majority of wall space in the exhibition rooms, but it is the wealth of original testimonies, interview transcripts of the petitioning mothers and documents from the Foundling’s archives that evoke the most distressing, and effective, images of these women.

Named ‘petitioners’ because of the way they had to prove they were sorry for being seduced and that their children were worthy of being taken in by the hospital, the interview transcripts on show are endless tales of rape, abuse, marginalisation and social mores. In an attempt to obtain the clearest picture, the Foundling board (predominantly male) asked petitioning mothers incredibly detailed questions about the nature of their relationship with the father of the child: ‘Where did you reside when you were seduced?’… ‘Was the criminal intercourse repeated?’. The tales would not look out of place in a Victorian crime caper: There is the woman who thought she was being taken to see a piano but instead was taken to a bed; the housemaid’s lament of the lover that had deceitfully promised to marry her; the orphaned seamstress seduced by an aristocrat; the child born in a Paddington workhouse; the absent, dead or fleeing fathers….

Section of a petition transcript by mother Ann Gidding at the Foundling Museum

The sheer quantity of petitions is overwhelming, and even more so the number that were rejected by the Hospital on grounds as little as having an on-going relationship with the child’s father. The individual distress and disturbing personal circumstances of these women emerge clearly from these archives, made all the more atmospheric by the sound installation, ‘Fallen Voices’, by Steve Lewinson, which plays in the background of one of the main archive rooms.

There is only one month left to see the exhibition and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to absorb the old, decrepit London that you so often read about. But unlike these crime capers, these are not fictional characters but actual women who walked the streets of the Capital on their way to the Foundling to give up their newborn babies, in the most incomprehensible of circumstances.

Fallen Woman is at the Foundling Museum (London WC1N 1AZ) until 3 January 2016.