From the Archives: On Alberto Giacometti’s Connections to Cubism, in 1974

Alberto Giacometti, The Hand, 1947, bronze.


With a major Alberto Giacometti retrospective currently on view at Tate Modern in London, we turn back to the Summer 1974 issue of ARTnews, in which Jonathan Silver mused on the importance of frontality and Cubism to the Swiss artist’s practice. Writing on the occasion of a Giacometti retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Silver argued that the exhibition did not connect the artist’s work well enough to other modernist movements. Silver’s article follows in full below. —The Editors

“Giacometti, Frontality and Cubism”
By Jonathan Silver
Summer 1974

The popular view of Giacometti maintains that he is an artist who was indifferent to modern art and that his later works are eloquent traces of a constant, but foredoomed, effort to realize fugitive appearances. The current show at the Guggenheim Museum fails to correct this view since it omits crucial works in the development of his later style. The best paintings of the early and middle ’50s, in which the artist brings his naturalistic concerns to terms with Analytic Cubist form construction, are missing, and the selection of portrait sculptures is inadequate to convey the nature of Giacometti’s full engagement with this significant theme throughout his career. The spottiness of the show is not so serious with respect to the Cubist and Surrealist sculpture because the differences between individual works in these styles are easier to interpret. But it is particularly damaging to our understanding of Giacometti’s figurative style; important nuances of development seem only insignificant variations unless they are understood within the context of a larger view of his central artistic problems and his gradual mastery of them. Nor does the catalogue by Reinhold Hohl compensate of the exhibition.

I believe a fresh approach to Giacometti’s figurative style will show that its apparent reductiveness—the insistence on frontality, the prevailing monochrome of the paintings and the attenuation of the sculptured figures—represents the common ground between contending aims and mutually limiting conditions in his artistic makeup: his highly sophisticated sense of what constituted a viable modern art, developed by his experiences as a Cubist and Surrealist, and a deeply felt need to make a human-centered art based on direct observation.

Consider frontality. Why was Giacometti, despite his often expressed aim to paint and sculpt what he saw, restricted, for the most part, to a single view of the human figure? Surely this limitation cannot be understood unless we consider Giacometti’s sensitivity to subjects, poses and viewpoints as conventions of other styles to which narrative and psychological meaning foreign to his main intent could adhere and his consequent need to limit his selection among them in order to bear that intent clearly to the spectator. Compare two seated figures in paintings from 1950 and 1956. The 1950 figure is exceptional, but not unique, in Giacometti’s later oeuvre, for the informal asymmetry of the pose. The attitude of the model invites inquiries very different from those which occur when the figure is presented head-on. Necessarily, we read it as an arrangement composed by the model in response to the immediate pressures of the situation, and question the implications of the balance of tension and relaxation in the pose for the character of the model. The pose is sufficient as a narrative of character and social relations.

In the 1956 painting, however, the pose is static; no gesture is marked enough to indicate an attitude on the part of the model or to point up a capacity for movement. As a result, the narrative interest of the work shifts from the situation and attitude of the model as they imply antecedent and subsequent action, to the artist making a record of his observations. Giacometti’s insistence on frontality invites interpretation as an assertion of the artist’s will toward pure observation.

Alberto Giacometti, Diego Seated, 1948, oil on canvas.


But we cannot fully measure Giacometti’s accomplishment in introducing frontal human images into the context of a naturalistic study of appearances without considering the inherent antagonism of frontality to the conventions of representation, which has not been noted so far as I know. Although we are accustomed to think that any pose can be easily represented, the fact is that no viable convention for the frontal view has, or could have, developed within the traditional vocabulary of illusionist art.

This is a complex problem with far-reaching implications. Fortunately, one aspect of it, important for Giacometti, can be easily demonstrated. Imagine, as a crude schema for a “frontal” head, a drawing of an egg shape with a line down the center.

In the figure, we cannot tell whether the center line indicates convexity, concavity, or—the most likely interpretation—lies parallel to the surface plane. Of course, in finished drawings or paintings, no line marks the center of the head. But to the degree that the symmetry of the head is felt, the central division and to that degree, this critical ambiguity persists even in developed representations: the head in a frontal representation is frozen and flattened, and this effect extends to the whole image when the frontal head is central in a painting or drawing. Accordingly, in the relatively rare instance in which “illusionist” painters attempted a head-on view—Holbein is an example—the oblique light source is critical, since the artist relies almost entirely on asymmetrical patterns of light and shade working against schematic divisions of the form to introduce the idea of the movement of light and thus make the volume felt. Hodler’s experiments in frontal portraits may have shown Giacometti the nature and extent of the problem.

The difficulties in representing frontality, and the aversion from it in Western art since the Renaissance, point up in a striking way the narrative, or story-telling, basis of perspective construction and illumination. Our analysis implies that not only the description of human action and expression, but even the full description of plastic values of inanimate objects, must be realized through clear implications of movement, if only the movement of light over form.

If I am right that Giacometti felt the necessity to suppress movement and subdue the narrative element in human images in such a way that the accomplishment would tell with strong effect within the Western tradition of figurative art, he could not fully succeed merely by the choice of frontality as a figural attitude because of its inherent spatial inertness. He turned to Analytic Cubist form construction as a way of making whole paintings that would be spatially active without explicit reference to movement in the human subject or its environment, (although he had harsh words for Cubism and always insisted that he was only trying to copy what he saw). In fully developed Analytic Cubist painting, Picasso’s Ma jolie (1911), for example, even the smallest touch of paint appears, under scrutiny, isolated in a flexible spatial context by the intervention or juxtaposition of other forms of a size, type and value contrasted to counter our expectations for perspective space. Movement occurs as each form shifts in space relative to other forms; therefore the spectator cannot establish for any given form the fixed order of place which is the necessary first step in recognizing a rational sequence of events and is precluded from drawing narrative interferences from the spatial activity of the forms. Analytic Cubism form construction provided Giacometti with a way to animate space while maintaining the anti-narrative effect of the frontal pose.

How Giacometti adapted the rigorous spatial ambiguity of Analytic Cubism to his specialized representational aims is evident in the 1956 painting. When we attend to the painted frame, especially where it touches the image proper, it recedes and appears a neutral field, the primary element of construction onto which the image has been painted. When we shift our eye to the interior, the border, imperfectly perceived on the periphery of our vision, advance to take its place as a working part of the illusion, a frame through which we penetrate the space. When we focus on the interior, it becomes in turn a fresh ground made up of canceled forms onto which the aureole also serves as both field and form, receding or advancing, appearing opaque or transparent by turns, depending on whether we read it as a patch of light or fresh ground. Within the head, Giacometti, with consummate skill, reduces the scale of these relations so that, viewed over against the more open distribution of larger forms elsewhere, the head appears of a piece. But the spatial tensions I have described obtain even among the tiny strokes that comprise the features. From these arrangements we understand the formal necessity for Giacometti’s nearly monochromatic palette: like the Cubists, Giacometti had to avoid problems of chromatic structure, since it would be impossible to adjust the spatial implications of color to tonal organization amid a multitude of shifting forms.

Alberto Giacometti, Bust of Diego, ca. 1956, plaster.


While Giacometti follows the Cubists in maintaining the discreetness of each form in a closely controlled order of spatial ambiguity, unlike them, he never invites the spectator to account them free forms or wholly detached signs. Rather, each form has a double function that helps us account for its shifts in spatial location: it is both an integral part of a naturalistic representation and, under scrutiny, an exposed, separable element of construction. In this way the artist rationalized spatially ambiguous forms for his conception of painting as a direct study of appearances.

I have concentrated on Giacometti’s painting because most writers neglect this aspect of this art and I believe painting is central to the formation of his later style as a whole. He often painted his sculptures and also used them as models for paintings, and the deformations of mass in his sculpted portraits to translate directly into clay extreme tonal contrasts usually reserved for painting and thereby rationalize the deformations as perceived phenomena. The problems in representing fronality also apply to sculpture: although it possible to reproduce the mass of the head, if the head is not turned to help the viewer grasp some aspect of the sides from the main view and comprehend the projection of the whole form in space, the sculpture, like naive frontal painting, will tend to appear lifeless. As in his paintings, Giacometti overcomes this difficulty by exploiting our tolerance for apparently unresolved vestiges of preliminary construction to vitalize the work with asymmetrical shapes that appear to shift in space and draw our eye along the form without conjuring the idea of action or expression for the subject. Similar reasoning helps to explain the famous attenuation of his standing figures. Just as in his portraits, both painted and sculpted, he needed to enliven the face without explicit reference to expression or movement of the head, so Giacometti needed to animate the figure without reference to anatomy. The highly irregular, almost illegible surface he used for that purpose could best be unified by the fusion in a dominant vertical thrust.

I am aware of having stressed frontality and Cubism (and I would like to thank Meyer Schapiro for suggesting that I look to Cubism for some features of Giacometti’s style). A fuller treatment of Giacometti’s art would take account of other and equally important aspects of his art and of his connections with other artists.

But here I wish to show that Giacometti’s figurative painting and sculpture, far from showing a contempt for modern art, take full account of its accomplishments and build securely on them, however fragile his figures may appear; and that the characteristic features of his style have the high order of historical and formal necessity which is the first condition of larger meaning.

“Alberto Giacometti: A Retrospective” is partly the collection housed in the Kunsthaus Zurich. It appears together with “Three Swiss Painters: Giovanni Giacometti, Auguste Giacometti and Cuno Amiet.” Both shows are sponsored by Alcoa.

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