The Devil and Giacometti

Alberto Giacometti

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Christian Klemm, in collaboration with Carolyn Lanchner, Tobia Bezzola, and Anne Umland
an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 11, 2001–January 8, 2002.
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 where “the new” no longer constituted discoveries about color or form, which had animated Matisse, Picasso, and their contemporaries, but, rather, one’s inner life—one’s dreams, tics, sexual drives. Over a period of a few years, Giacometti added his voice to that of Miró, Dalí, and other artists, and many writers, who, with various degrees of subservience, took the autocratic André Breton as their leader and guide. Giacometti presented to his Parisian audiences a series of sculptures that, novel in appearance, portrayed or embodied the themes of sexual warfare, dream states, and sheer nervous tension. The art of sculpture was being completely recharged. But then, with little notice, the artist, barely thirty-five, pulled out from the Surrealist fold to go, as it were, back to basics.

For over a decade, Giacometti removed himself from the art scene, conducting a kind of private self-tutorial in pre-modern skills. His aim was to make representational sculpture—and painting—based on how he actually saw the model before him, and the goal, which he had made stabs at even in his days as an up-and-coming second-generation modernist, was grindingly hard to achieve. Not able to produce any saleable pieces, and not showing any of his old ones, he was supported by family money and by the decorative items he and his brother Diego, essentially Alberto’s lifelong right-hand man, made for the decorator Jean-Michel Frank. Giacometti had been a rising star of the avant-garde and an artist who undemonstratively radiated authority—Picasso himself sought out the younger man for advice; but now he was, in effect, struggling to reinvent the wheel.

When he emerged some thirteen years later, in a show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, in New York, in 1948, Giacometti brought with him the beginnings of a saintly aura. He had always been voluble about his trials. Throughout his career he turned out fairly polished pieces of writing about his work, his phobias and visions, and certain older artists; and he eventually counted among his friends, some of whom wrote about his effort, Sartre, Beckett, Beauvoir (whose sculptural portrait he made), and Genet (the subject of one of his best paintings). Maybe more significantly, photographers were also drawn to Giacometti. Cartier-Bresson, Herbert Matter, and Ernst Scheidegger were among those who took arresting photos of the man—images that, like those of Pollock, became increasingly hard to separate from our experience of the work.

Very often wearing a tie and a tweed jacket, even while working in his studio, and possessing an abundant amount of frizzy hair which was a piece of sculpture in itself, the strikingly handsome Giacometti was at once rumpled, professorial, and sleepily sensuous, rather like Jean-Paul Belmondo playing an Oxford don. It may have been Scheidegger who best captured the artist’s plaster-bestrewn studio, with every wall pitted and drawn on. The romantically rude and seemingly small space (in turn, part of a larger dwelling) was where Giacometti lived for nearly all the years he was in Paris. It was completed by his wife and frequent model, Annette Arm, who might be seen sweeping up, and by the invaluable Diego. Their studio world was a bit like a cell, and making his new art, the artist implied, had turned him into a bit of a prisoner.

And for some time Giacometti’s pipe-cleaner men and women, with their uniformly prodded, weathered, twittering surfaces, seemed inseparable from the pervasive anxiety about existence that informed the new European writing of the time. Certainly it felt natural to take in these figures, too thin even to be called emaciated, as the very embodiment of a depleted yet somehow resilient mankind. Maybe only Bacon’s contemporaneous paintings were equally powerful representations of the half-century that had experienced totalitarianism, two world wars, concentration camps, and the bomb. The sculptor’s sunken-cheeked, tortured-looking Head on a Rod or the stark Man Falling surely stood for the climate that Faulkner was referring to when he famously asserted in his 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech that mankind would “prevail,” not merely “endure.”

Yet Giacometti’s original point, of course, had to do with his quest to pin down the reality before his eyes. The artist was only loosely a political person, and the plight or courage of his fellow man wasn’t really on his program; and he made clear in interviews (if less so in his writings, which could veer into a not-of-this-earth dreaminess) that the point of his work was the struggle to catch accurately, whether in his sculpture, painting, or drawing—all three were of equal concern to him—how we truly see. His proper subject was phenomenology. His position, endorsed by many of those who wrote about him over the years, including Reinhold Hohl, David Sylvester, and Peter Selz, was that what we are given in most representational sculpture, whether by Rodin or the Greeks, is a kind of convention and that what Giacometti was doing, with his incredibly thin figures, was recording, as if for the first time, the way people actually appear at a given distance.

Researcher of representation as he was, though, Giacometti was no detached, equable observer. To begin with, he had not set out to make figures so scrawny or elongated—they wound up this way, he confessed (with some distress), because otherwise they didn’t look “right” to his eye. And as he was also at pains to make clear, accurately capturing the face or figure before him was well-nigh impossible. His every sculpture, painting, or drawing was, as he told it, virtually an abandoned work. To take him at his word, his art was the embodiment of helplessness and futility. So in some way the artist who maintained that his subjects were perception and rendering—and, really, the impossibility of rendering—wasn’t so different from the artist who was popularly thought to mirror a stricken, alienated mankind. This is why the idea of an “existential” Giacometti has never lost its currency.

Yet without discounting the Giacometti who saw his work as so much doomed striving, we can say that the artist who carries us along for much of the Modern’s retrospective is the opposite of a frustrated creator. Certainly, the Giacometti we see in his early works, whether they recall primitive art or touch on Cubism, or are full-fledged Surrealist sculptures, is a witty, dextrous, problem-solving sculptural genius. He couldn’t be less like the Giacometti of legend, the poet of difficulty. The young Giacometti neatly resolved one issue after the next, and perhaps the real pleasure to be derived from his “first” career is in getting a tour de force demonstration of what the art of sculpture is capable of.

Here, in so many compact pieces in wood, plaster, and marble, dating from roughly 1926 to 1934, are works that encapsulate much that twentieth-century sculpture could, or would later, do. We pass by a wittily abbreviated stone carving of the face of the artist’s father; a charming takeoff of primitive art called Small Crouching Man; pieces that resemble game boards and nonchalantly dispense with the age-old sculptural need for pedestals; little cage-like constructions with swinging parts that suggest the factor of time (what has just taken place? what will happen next?); pieces such as Man and Woman, which show, as seemingly no sculpture did before, the violence and tension inherent in sexual contact; and works that, with their alluring titles—Disagreeable Object; No More Play; Reclining Woman Who Dreams—draw us into deciphering the pieces in ways that prefigure how we now try making sense of, say, installations by Bruce Nauman.

Works of the early Thirties such as The Palace at 4 AM demonstrated that a major sculpture could take the form of a model for a stage set. Woman with Her Throat Cut, a piece made up of a number of connected parts and best comprehended when placed directly on the floor, where it looks like a large, mangled yet still potent scorpion, miraculously never loses its capacity to be lurid, creepy, and fun all at once. With all these inventions, so to speak, Giacometti opened up a new way to think about the art object, one that was significantly different from Brancusi, whose pieces were about a physical and formal perfection, and from Duchamp, the point of whose Readymades was that art need be no more than an ironic intention.

This isn’t to say that the young Giacometti steals the show. Looked at in light of his life’s work, there is a rootlessness about these early sculptures, even the Palace. For all that many of them are tense dramas in themselves, there’s little drama in watching Giacometti go from one to the next; whereas in the figurative sculpture that followed, we’re held by a single theme—attenuation—that is continually being rethought.

On a deeper level, though, it might be said that even in his better-known and more engaging figurative sculpture, Giacometti is still thinking as a Surrealist. It is routinely held that no matter how close we get to Giacometti’s diminutive people they seem to be far away. This is said to constitute a signal achievement of the artist’s; and the fact that, as he searched for a way to make his own version of traditional sculpture, his pieces became smaller and smaller is almost always described as the end result of an excruciating and deeply personal process he could barely control. What is usually left out of the discussion, though, is that in this process Giacometti worked essentially as a miniaturist, and his miniaturism, with its concern for scale, relativity, nearness, and distance, was little different from that of artists of many eras (including the pres- ent one). What is also strangely left out of the standard treatment of Giacometti is that his concern for proportion, deep space, and the small in itself was shared by other members of his very generation.

Surrealism is generally described as a movement that sought to bring normally unconscious drives to the fore. The Surrealist credo was a call for the irrational and the instinctive to take center stage, and, literary in its origins, Surrealism held that the formal properties of a painting or sculpture were of incidental importance. But there was a loosely unifying (though unspelled-out) formal concern in the work of some of the more significant artists attracted to the movement, particularly Miró, Tanguy, Dalí, Ernst, Bellmer, and Giacometti himself, and it was clearly an affinity for miniaturism and deep space.

In an interview in his later years with David Sylvester—it is in Sylvester’s Looking at Giacometti (1994)—the sculptor said that the only thing he shared with the Surrealists was “a kind of revolt against the recent past.” This is disingenuous, yet it is broadly true; he was in revolt against his forebears, which meant that he was questioning modernity itself. The pioneers of modern art worked with a kind of emotional and formal boundlessness, a sense of limitless possibilities; but Miró, Giacometti, and these other artists of their generation who came of age in the late Twenties rejected it, or couldn’t believe in it. Theirs was a conservative rebellion; they refused to see the grand as anything but a container of the minuscule. In love with linearity, they were all makers, to one degree or another, of artworks that showed, or literally employed, cages, plowed fields, boxes, webbings, constellations; that had horizons and vanishing points; that implied vast yet tensely measurable worlds. They made artworks where the very small and the huge are generally in some taut relation to each other.

The taste of these artists for deep space and the tiny protagonist was ingrained. In the early Sixties, Miró was making enormous paintings of single colors, supposedly indebted to the Abstract Expressionists. But, in almost a parody of the miniaturist’s core belief that everything is relative, those vast areas of sheer blue, say, become no more than containers for various thin lines and little blobs placed here and there.

Of all the major Surrealists, Giaco-metti shares the most with Dalí. This might sound improbable, because their respective reputations would place them as polar opposites. Giacometti has for decades been exalted for his single-minded, even self-torturing devotion to his own way of seeing, while Dalí, at least for the art establishment, has for an equally long time been considered an unspeakable sellout, art’s ultimate panderer and clown. Yet, more than any of the Surrealists, Giacometti and Dalí were determined to justify—to find a system for—their different returns to a traditional, pre-modern way of seeing. More than any of their contemporaries, each continually retold his life as a series of nightmarish realizations and helpless obsessions. And both made clear, in stories of astounding similarity, that there is more than a touch of aggressiveness in working as a miniaturist.

Giacometti’s story, which appears in different accounts, is set in his father’s studio, where, when he was in his teens, he was working one day along with his parent. Dalí’s, which is in his The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, is set in the days leading up to his admittance to art school in Madrid, when his father had come to the city with him. Both stories are thus about crucial moments for any Surrealist: dealing with one’s father. In both cases, the young artist is drawing what he sees, and he makes the image so small he gets under his father’s skin (sweating Señor Dalí thinks his son’s unorthodox drawing will keep him from getting into the school). Both the young Giacometti and the young Dalí are asked to do it again. They get to work industriously, and after much effort Giacometti comes forth with an image that is the same size as the first and Dalí produces one that is even smaller. The stories could hardly be bettered as dramatizations of the antagonistic and comic heart of both Surrealism and working as a miniaturist.

It’s the devil in Giacometti, not the martyr, that makes his mature works sing. Nineteen-forty-seven was roughly when everything clicked for him, and his sculptures from this and the next eight or so years are the best he did. The works show him operating with a freedom and inventiveness that match the streak he was on when he was fashioning his Surrealist objects in the early Thirties. In some pieces, he was actually redoing his Surrealist ideas with his new idiom. Caught Hand, of 1932, where an arm with outstretched hand appears to be caught in a system of pulleys, is revisited in The Hand, of 1947, which presents, floating in space, as it were, an arm, ending with outstretched fingers. The Surrealist object more graphically presents a sense of threat, but The Hand conveys more. Not only is it an image of vulnerability but in its wiry clarity it is touching and amusing.

Another first-rate piece of 1947, The Nose, also revisits an idea from Giacometti’s Surrealist days: a hanging object set in a little open-air cage. What’s hanging in The Nose is the head of a geezer with a nose so long and pointy it protrudes into the space beyond the cage’s “wall.” In a piece that seems geared to children as much as to adults, we see a sort of aged Pinocchio, toothless and gaunt but still lying. But the fun of The Nose doesn’t stop there, because added to the head and nose is a strange long neck, and when the whole piece is seen from any distance its outline forms a long, spindly revolver. Our ghoulish protagonist is as much culprit as victim.

Giacometti’s best tall sculptures certainly date from this time. These early skinny pieces are like graspable characters. With their little eyes, their hair which seems to stand straight on end, and their startled, innocent presence, they’re equally grown-ups and children, and they produce an immediate sense of affection and protectiveness, like some characters in Dickens. Man Pointing, one of Giacometti’s high points, was conceived as part of a two-figure composition, which explains why, while one arm points, the other is bent around someone or something that isn’t there. But this coppery brown piece feels complete as is. We encounter a self-important and boyish man who might be directing traffic, conducting an orchestra, or addressing people on a soapbox from some Hyde Park Corner of the mind.

The Chariot (see illustration on page 22), another glorious one-of-a-kind work—it’s a whitish oatmeal in tone—is the female equivalent of Man Pointing. It shows a woman with long arms on a platform which is attached to gigantic primitive wheels, themselves held fast on wood blocks. It’s an outlandish conception, indebted, it seems, to ancient art, and yet it’s heavenly because at the very top of this vision of simultaneous movement and immobility is the face of an un-timeless person. Taking in her full presence, we think, This is a real little somebody, vulnerable, triumphant, ridiculous.

It was in these years that Giacometti made his masterfully droopy Dog, where the creature’s bits of flesh hang off him like laundry on a line, and (unfortunately not in the show) his Cat, a cartoonish yet fully naturalistic stalker with an outstretched tail like a flagpole and a head that resembles a tennis ball. Giacometti’s stick figures striding in separate directions were of the same moment. City Square, for instance, or Man Walking in the Rain are very much about the sensuously smooth bronze bases the figures pad about on. The way, in walking, they sometimes suck up the “pavement” onto their feet (or shoes) brings to mind the shimmery way a distant, advancing figure appears in a telescope, altering the very atmosphere with each advancing step.

Giacometti’s paintings of the era, specifically his portraits, can have a similar original blend of the carefully observed and the fantastical. Pictures from 1950 of the artist’s mother and wife, both seen head-on in a reddish room at Stampa—Giacometti returned regularly to his family home, to the very house he grew up in, all his life—are ostensibly about the artist’s compulsive need to pin down nearness and farness, which he does with countless twitchy, thin lines. The figures who emerge from this barrage of netting are pleasingly twitchy themselves. We’re not sure if we look at people who have been turned into insects or at the world as seen by a fly. A few years later, though, in portraits of Diego in a plaid shirt, Genet (with big knees), and a nude Annette, Giacometti made himself far more receptive to the person before him. In these paintings from around 1954, the strongest in the Modern’s exhibition, there is a perfect balance between the artist’s determination to redefine everything with lines and the full-blooded, graspable person who, sitting in a sketchy yet atmospheric, dully lit room, pushes against that filtering process.

Giacometti’s sculpture was also successfully becoming more corporeal. In a number of portrait busts of Diego from around 1954, Alberto was sneaking bulk, as it were, into his vision. Diego wears an enormous sweater or cloak, which comes across as a mountain of sheer, squishy, clawed material, though the heads that pop out of these mounds—one has a tangibly bemused expression—wonderfully suggest cork- screws. At the same time, Giacometti could still call forth his particular vein of the gruesome, the hallucinatory, and the comic. He was obsessed with the way, when people are seen first head-on and then in profile, they’re like different individuals, and in Large Head of Diego he practically makes a joke out of the issue. Head-on, Diego zooms toward us like a blade in the water, yet as we walk to either side we’re given the flattest of profiles, and the personality we encounter, with his open mouth, encircled eye, and hair rising to a cone and descending at the back like a rudder, both has an Expressionist vehemence and is peculiarly reminiscent of some goofball from Mad magazine. We disbelievingly register that this work, a blood brother to much current art inspired by cartoon animation, is already half a century old.

After the middle Fifties, the magic left Giacometti. By most accounts, he worked increasingly from the model in his last decade (and less from memory). His health in steady decline, he appeared to be more obsessed than ever with recording the exact sensation of seeing the person before him; but the result was a less characterful, more anonymous art. His feeling for fragility in itself, and for the bizarre and the absurd, deserted him. His paintings, never his strong point—those of his studio or of different landscapes, even in his glory days, are little more than souvenirs of his method—became washy and drab. A case could be made that these later paintings, which generally show faces painted an oily black, emerging from backgrounds that have been wiped into nothingness, are at least elegant. But the sitters are barely individuals, and after one or two of these pictures they all begin to feel like the same work.

The mood of Giacometti’s sculptures also becomes somewhat interchangeable. Although these works occupy only a small part of the show, we seem to encounter a terrain of so many lockjawed sentinels. Some of his most often reproduced pieces from the period—a large male head, a large walking man, and a large standing woman, created for a Chase Manhattan plaza around 1960, which was never realized—are among the least flavorful works he did. (It’s nice to know that the artist himself called the project a waste of time.) His tall standing female figures of these years present merely an impenetrable steadfastness. And while he continued to use different patinas, there’s an overall drabness and lack of luminosity to these later works.

There are late sculptures, though, that hold us. There is a striking bust of Annette, where her lips and lower face appear swollen, and she seems ill; and when Giacometti’s model, toward the end of his life, was a friend called Eli Lotar, he came up with a piece, called New York Bust, that is an all-too-convincing image of a facially collapsed, toothless old age. Giacometti had made old men subjects of significant pieces before, whether in heads of his father or in The Nose, but those works were transformed by a Surrealist’s sense of satire and malice. Here, in this late bust of Lotar (and in that of Annette), we look at a strong, moving, yet impersonal naturalism. We’re given the traditional, conventionally proportional sculpture the artist had been circling around ambivalently for much of his life. It’s as though we see the rock on which, when he was younger and healthier, Giacometti had erected his impish masterpieces.