A Giacometti Portrait
Until 1961-62, when he was awarded two well-known sculpture prizes, first that of the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, then that of the Venice Biennale, Giacometti was considered an artist of good repute rather than of eminence. He had as champions a restricted but vocal coterie who admired and bought his work, whereas for the wider art public he was a disconcerting rather than a commanding figure who stood outside identifiable groupings. No one doubted either the seriousness of Giacometti’s purpose or the real artistic worth and interest of what he produced. Yet people were never gripped by his paintings and sculptures because they looked tentative, fragmentary, and uncompleted. And true enough: Giacometti is an artist who struggles and stutters without ever arriving at a definitive formulation of his vision.
During the last three years, however, the view of Giacometti’s work that prevailed earlier has been overturned, and though he is now in his sixty-fifth year he has been “discovered” and taken up like some bright stripling of the avant garde who might still be in his middle twenties. Giacometti’s works are to be found in galleries, apartments, museums, and exhibitions; laudatory texts roll from the printing presses, ambassadors and cultural attachés line up outside his studio for interviews, while journalists have taken to calling him “the finest artist working in Paris.” Yet all this has come to pass without any significant change occurring in Giacometti’s own outlook, methods, or achievements.
We do not have to seek far for an explanation of this newly excited interest, because it can be traced to a concerted effort, on both sides of the Atlantic to promote Giacometti to a place in the much depleted front rank of fashionable modern sculptors. Thus it happens that, at this moment, Giacometti has two full-scale retrospective exhibitions running concurrently. One of these, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (going on to Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco), is duly commemorated in a volume edited by Peter Selz with 112 illustrations and texts by various hands. The other (200 items) has been staged at the Tate Gallery in London. There’s nothing, we are left to conclude, so effective as an onslaught in mass when the work itself is unconvincing.
Yet the effect of this prestige-seeking maneuver is bound to be unfortunate for Giacometti himself in so far as it persuades him that he has arrived and deprives him of the doubt-ridden solitary position he has hitherto enjoyed. For, artistically speaking, his work has a very different value from that of the more publicized and popular, though unquestionably lesser, talents—for example, Moore, Calder, Zadkine, and Marini—with whom he is now to be aligned. Unlike them, Giacometti is not a fabricator but a sincere, genuinely gifted, and honorable artist. Surveying his work as a whole, one may be excused for feeling that it is slender, even repetitive and uninventive, by…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.