Giacometti’s Code

Modernist, and not quite. Traditionalist, and not quite. Giacometti’s sculpture is neither realist nor abstract. Its surfaces look old, as if the pieces had been excavated. His painting is nearly colorless; his drawing, a web of hesitations. Alberto Giacometti was paradoxical. Much has been said and written about his work and about his life1 ; but now the aura surrounding his friendships with Sartre and Genet has dimmed and it is the work itself that commands attention. He was among the first to break away from the modernist dogma that art must respond essentially to other art, and to restore the connection of art and nature. And yet he was skeptical about the possibility of such a renewal. He considered abstraction an impasse for the artist, because he was unable to make connections with nature, while representational painting was beyond revival.

The oldest son of Annetta Stampa and the painter Giovanni Giacometti (1868–1933), Alberto Giacometti was born on October 10, 1901, in the village of Stampa (Grisons), in the Bregaglia valley, just below Maloja. The names of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin were constantly heard in the household; and Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918), Cuno Amiet (1868–1961), Giovanni Segantini (1858–1899), and cousin Augusto Giacometti (1877–1947), all artists then well known, often visited there. The house at Stampa was one of the main nests of the modern movement in Switzerland, of the belief that a painting is an autonomous creation, and that, as Giacometti’s father put it, “color and line are means of expression more far reaching and more accomplished than the word, and what is actually said by such means can never be repeated by the word.”2 Passionate discussions about the new art were among the earliest sounds his son would have heard. “I began to draw in my father’s studio as long ago as I can remember,” said Giacometti, who grew naturally into art after having received a continuous “natural” training. He chose to become a sculptor.

In his recent biography, James Lord quotes him as saying, “I began to do sculpture because that was precisely the realm in which I understood least.”3 After passing through the Ecole des Arts et Métiers (Geneva), where he learned little, he went to Italy (1920–1921) and then to Paris (1922), where he studied with Archipenko and Bourdelle, at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. He was joined there by his brother Diego, who became an artist in his own right,4 creating, among other objects, lamps and furniture in bronze, of a quality rarely seen since antiquity. (He created the fixtures for the Musée Picasso shortly before he died.) Except for the years of the German occupation during which he was back in Switzerland, where he later married Annette Arm, he remained in Paris (while frequently visiting his mother in Stampa) from 1927, working in the same run-down studio until the end of his life, although he could have afforded in later years a much more comfortable place. He died on…

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