Museum of Modern Art/Kunsthaus Zürich/Abrams, 296 pp., $65.00
The chief reason for the Museum of Modern Art’s Alberto Giacometti retrospective seems to be that 2001 is the centenary of the artist’s birth. This is a blandly official cause for a show, and since the sculptor’s characteristic stick- figure pieces—the men striding forth; the women stock still, their long arms stuck tight against their hips—have been a fixture of modern art since the Tate Gallery and the Modern put together their large shows in the middle Sixties, you might find yourself reluctant to go look. It surely doesn’t help that the present show, undertaken with the Kunsthaus in Zurich and the Alberto Giacometti Foundation in that city, presents no radically new material or point of view on the artist.
Yet the Giacometti we encounter in the Modern’s straightforwardly installed exhibition is, as might be expected, not exactly the textbook classic. It comes as a surprise, to start with, that far from all of his work has worn well. Then, too, we are confronted with a large issue that has never been satisfactorily resolved: the fact that the artist had two separate careers, that of a Surrealist object-maker, in the early Thirties, and that of the postwar creator of the wiry figures—careers that both don’t and do mesh. Most significant, though, is that what is lovable about Giacometti’s work has a different note than standard accounts (including the writing in the handsomely designed catalog for the current show) lead us to expect. An atmosphere of stoic striving, or, perhaps, a sense that we look at figures withered by sheer ambient space, may come to mind at the mere mention of the artist’s name. Ingeniousness, on the other hand, and a feeling for character, and a sly and cheeky sense of comedy aren’t qualities we associate with him, or that commentators tell us his sculpture is about—but they may be what we most take away from this show.
Getting a true sense of Giacometti’s work means disentangling it from the man’s life story, one of the more fablelike in twentieth-century art. It’s a tale, in part, of a backwoods prince who comes to the metropolis and, by dint of tremendous labor and his innate aristocratic behavior, takes the crown. He was from Stampa, in an unusually remote and rural part of Italian-speaking Switzerland; yet he had been trained to think seriously about art since his childhood. His father, Giovanni Giacometti, a distant cousin, Augusto Giacometti, and his godfather, Cuno Amiet, were among the foremost Swiss modernists of their day, and Ferdinand Hodler, their country’s best-known painter of the time, was a family friend. When Alberto arrived in Paris, in 1922, at twenty, he swiftly made his mark by showing how deeply he understood the modernist art of the generation that preceded his. Seamlessly, he went on to join the advanced art of his own generation, which was Surrealism.
Surrealism was part of an atmosphere …