Now Playing at a Manhattan Museum
Casting a Long Shadow: Giacometti at the Guggenheim
By Margot Clark-Junkins
Like his contemporary Pablo Picasso, Swiss-born sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) was part of an elite cadre of artists who led the avant-garde in Paris in the 1920s. Giacometti’s artistic legacy, while as significant as Picasso’s, has received less attention because, one could argue, Giacometti was a humbler, more cerebral man.
The “Giacometti” exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum is superb and wide in scope, with over 175 works of art tracing his trajectory from the late 1920s until his death. The show, the product of a collaboration between the Guggenheim and the Paris-based Fondation Giacometti, examines the sculptor’s creative influences and features an impressive array of the bronze figures for which he is most famous. It also includes delicate drawings, a number of plaster sculptures, and numerous paintings.
Giacometti’s works are set with gem-like precision in the shallow exhibition spaces lining the interior spiral of Frank Lloyd Wright’s landmark building. As you ascend the ramp, you will see spare arrangements of figures and corresponding paintings. The marvelous lighting casts long shadows that lead your eye from one work to the next.
At the age of 21, after attending the Geneva School of Fine Arts, Giacometti, whose father was a post-Impressionist painter of some renown, made his way to Paris to study with Rodin’s assistant, Antoine Bourdelle. He set up a tiny studio in Montparnasse, where most of his life’s work was produced with the exception of the war years, when he returned to Geneva. There he met Annette Arm; after the war, they returned to Paris and they were married in 1949. Both she and Alberto’s brother Diego served as Giacometti’s primary models for much of his career.
Before the war, Giacometti worked at an even pace, experimenting with style and technique, producing paintings, drawings, and small bronzes. The bronze-casting process appealed to him, but it was both expensive and laborious. His work in plaster was an important part of his creative process and the examples in the exhibit (large and small, some painted) are delightful. His plaster heads from the late 1920s and early 1930s are expressive and have an immediacy to them, like three-dimensional sketches.
Giacometti knew Picasso and was interested in the tenets of Cubism, but ultimately allied himself with the Surrealists, a group of artists and intellectuals led by the poet and writer André Breton. By 1935, he had distanced himself from this group as well.
The artist often visited the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadero and he read — and even contributed to — avant-garde magazines like Cahiers d’Art; these were rich sources of non-Western art. As you can see from his notebooks, the artist was impressed by the totemic power of Oceanic, Cycladic, African, and Egyptian figures, with their stiff posture and head-on, unblinking gazes. These influences had much to do with the development of his mature figurative style, formalized by the late 1940s.
Curators Megan Fontanella and Catherine Grenier point out that this timing was no accident: “These innovative works, including a series of elongated standing women, striding men, and expressive busts, resonated strongly with a public grappling with the extreme alienation and anxiety wrought by the devastation of World War II.”
The years following the war were the most productive of Giacometti’s career. In Paris, he began to paint more than before, in spite of the scarcity of materials. He also produced more bronzes, relying on Diego to do the challenging finish work. He began grouping his figures, sometimes arranging several on the same pedestal, and played with contrasting scale; he wanted to explore how the figures might “talk” to each other compositionally.
In 1947, the artist exhibited at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York City, and it seems to have been a pivotal moment, which finally afforded him the opportunity to be able to cast his works in bronze with more frequency. Giacometti was also stimulated by his new friendship with French writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who were deeply involved in an exploration of existentialism. His interest in their philosophy is reflected in the solitary figures he created — lonely, even when positioned in groups.
In the 1950s and early ’60s, Giacometti focused on paring down: his already monochromatic paintings were reduced to grays, his portraits — with their piercing gazes — seemed to be achieved with fewer brush strokes. His sculptures grew longer and leaner, with less surface area. Even though he was finally successful and financially secure (he won the grand prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennial in 1962), Giacometti struggled with confidence in his work; he persevered, working until the very end of his life.
The exhibit at the Guggenheim concludes with a quote from Giacometti: “I have the feeling, or the hope, that I am making progress each day. That is what makes me work, compelled to understand the core of life.”
Don’t miss this monumental show, which closes September 12.
Alberto Giacometti, <After Egyptian sculptures: heads of Amenhotep IV>, graphite on paper, c. 1920, Fondation Giacometti, Paris
Alberto Giacometti, Woman with Chariot (Femme au chariot), plaster and wood, c. 1945, Fondation Giacometti, Paris
Alberto Giacometti, The Nose (Le nez), bronze, wire, rope, and steel, 1949 (cast 1964), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Alberto Giacometti, <Black Annette (Annette noire)>, oil on canvas, 1962, Fondation Giacometti, Paris