Giacometti’s sculptures give form to fleeting perceptions
In 1948, when Alberto Giacometti exhibited his new work for the first time at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York, the full weight of the Holocaust was being felt. Its horrors were fully known by then, as was the devastation wrought by the atomic weapons dropped on Japan. Meanwhile, the Allies had ceased to be allies and the advent of the Cold War seemed to threaten universal nuclear annihilation. To complete the sea change in the social, political, and cultural context, Existentialism, as adumbrated by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, had swept the field philosophically on both sides of the Atlantic.
Sartre actually authored the essay in the Matisse Gallery catalogue, and in that text he stressed the contingent nature of Giacometti’s enterprise in tandem with its palpable correlations to antique sculpture and painting from the classical era all the way back to the primordial caves. Furthermore, he set the tone for reading Giacometti’s art as an agonized meditation on the artist’s struggle to give form to fleeting perceptions and as the desperate efforts of the isolated if not alienated individual struggling to make a place for himself or herself in an indifferent if not hostile world. A decade later, Partisan Review editor William Barrett published Irrational Man: A Study in Existentialist Philosophy, which popularized the ideas of Sartre, Camus, and others for English-speaking readers, and the cover of the original paperback edition featured one of Giacometti’s “walking men.” Finally, Giacometti’s prominence in a landmark 1959 exhibition, “New Images of Man,” organized at the Museum of Modern Art by Peter Selz, completed the codification of the meaning of his work as an emblem of the plight of humankind in extremis.
Giacometti’s attenuated figures became the ravaged archetypes of a tragic view of the 20th century. But with the passage of time, Giacometti’s wraiths have taken on a different aspect: one, there is reason to believe, that is closer to the artist’s nature and intention. For Giacometti was never a topical artist. Neither from his vantage point in Paris at the start of hostilities, nor from his subsequent refuge in Geneva for the duration, had he witnessed warfare’s true destructiveness. Moreover, to the extent that Giacometti’s mind dwelt on history, his concern was art history.
The works in the Wexner Family Collection span the heyday of Giacometti’s career and public prominence.
Giacometti’s pedestrians, like Homme qui marche sous la pluie (ca. 1949), may be tragic, but their plight is demonstrably un-dramatic, ordinarily “existential” in the same way that anyone who simply must keep going enacts the human condition of purposeful activity and endurance.
In the latter of these two “walking man” works we see Giacometti experimenting with new ideas for the role that bases can play in modern sculpture . . . . Starting in the mid-1930s several of his larger pieces had wheels; in one instance these are explicitly chariot wheels, underscoring his debt to Etruscan bronzes, although actual mobility was denied his protagonists. Homme qui chavire (1950) is the rare instance when one of Giacometti’s normally rigid figures appears animated from within; however, we are not witnessing dynamism but instead the arrested collapse of someone vainly reaching out for help or hoping to catch himself before plunging forward.
By comparison, the loping, sniffing Le chien (1951) displays a sprightliness consistently denied Giacometti’s humans, reminiscent of the Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s wry ode to the “canine condition”:
The dog trots freely in the street
and sees reality
and the things he sees
are bigger than himself
and the things he sees
are his reality
Drunks in doorways
Moons on trees
The dog trots freely thru the street
and the things he sees
are smaller than himself
Fish on newsprint
Ants in holes . . .
I quote this 1957 poem to provide a whimsical counterpoint to the austere if not grimly resigned emotional tenor of Giacometti’s work, but also because it introduces the issue of experiential scale that is essential both to Ferlinghetti’s conceit and to Giacometti’s view of the world. According to the latter, what defines us is our size relative to others that we encounter.
Sartre was acutely sensitive to this and wrote of Giacometti’s working environment: “His studio is an archipelago, a disorder of diverse distances.” In planning the installation of the Wexner exhibition we have tried to evoke that flux without in any way attempting to replicate the site itself. Accordingly, the striking juxtaposition of small statuettes and large monoliths initiates a dialogue among different degrees of closeness or remoteness. Thus his under-life-size figures are as incommensurable with our own height and mass as his over-life-size ones, and never do those that approach our own dimensions appear in lifelike, one-to-one scale.
A kind of atmospheric erosion eats away at the contours and features of all of Giacometti’s sculpture such that what remains of them appears to flicker as light catches the irregularities of their profiles and the pinched, poked, prodded facets of their “flesh.” In the portraits of Diego, the artist’s long-suffering brother undergoes continuous metamorphosis, his head shrinking in relation to his mountainous torso in one iteration while in two others the waxing and waning head flattens into an axe-blade thinness. The painted portrait of Diego Diego dans l’atelier (1954) strikes one as prosaically descriptive by comparison, its uncannily radiant gray penumbra notwithstanding. But it also underscores the point that Sartre makes about the painterly characteristics of Giacometti’s sculpture, which reside not only in the equivalency between the touch of his hand and that of his brush but also in the sense of permanent remove in both the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional image.
On occasion limbs disappear altogether, as in Femme à l’épaule cassée (1958–59) or Femme debout (1963) which resembles a damaged Greek statue that has rotted away in the mud, or a clay variation on Venus de Milo struck by lightning and reduced to a rigid filament of femininity. Following this process of fragmentation still further while enlarging the fragments themselves, Giacometti fashioned La jambe (1947/cast 1958), which recalls the ruins of colossal statuary scattered throughout the Roman Empire—an Ozymandias for our day. The towering Grand femme debout I (1960) is his undamaged female counterpart, standing alone, intact, as if she had survived whatever catastrophe had blasted her larger consort. And, when looking up or down at other examples of work just beyond arm’s reach or across the room, but above all when moving from one piece to the other, individual spectators will experience a sense of corporeal disorientation, as if they have lost a feel for their own proportions and are no longer able to gauge their own relative scale—indeed, Giacometti is still very much in control.
This is an excerpt from “Signs of the Times,” Robert Storr’s catalogue essay for the exhibition “Transfigurations: Modern Masters from the Wexner Famly Collection” at the Wexner Center for the Arts through December 31.
Robert Storr is an artist, critic, and curator who teaches at the Yale University School of Art and has served as its Dean since 2006.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 68 under the title “Pinched, Poked, and Prodded.”