Man as Hero: The Sculptures of Giacometti

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Dec. 20, 2001 at 12:29 PM
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NEW YORK, Dec. 20 (UPI) -- The tall, spindly bronze sculptures of men and women by Alberto Giacometti have crept into the world's consciousness as symbols of heroism, not bad symbols to have around in our present era of terrorism, tragedy, and war.

The first retrospective of the Swiss-born artist's work in nearly 30 years at the Museum of Modern Art couldn't be timelier, although it was in the planning years before the events of Sept. 11. To view it is a profoundly moving experience, not unlike a visit to a place of worship for a moment of meditation or a whispered prayer.

Majestically placed in the all-white world of MOMA's galleries on two floors are 90 sculptures, many life size and some only a few inches high, 40 paintings and 60 drawings with special emphasis on works produced from 1929 to 1934, the artist's so-called Surrealist period, and 1947 to 1951, known as his classic period. They cover his entire career until his death in 1966.

Many of the paintings and drawings are being publicly displayed for the first time and draw attention to the artist's outstanding gifts as a painter and draftsman, a side of his art not as well known as his sculpture. The show has been organized to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Giaciometti's birth and was on exhibit at the Kunsthaus in Zurich, Switzerland, before coming to New York where it will be displayed through Jan. 7.

MOMA was the first museum in the world to purchase a work by Giacometti. That was in 1932 when the then-director, Alfred Barr, fell in love with "The Palace at 4 a.m.," the artist's surrealist masterpiece which is a centerpiece of the exhibit. A slender construction in wood, it contains a woman's figure, a spine-like object, a ball in a shell, and a pterodactyl-type bird flying above them.

Giacometti worked out of a cramped studio in Paris' Montparnasse, of which there are pencil sketches showing it full of works in progress. It was there that he began turning out essentially abstract sculptures in the late 1920s that catapulted him into the forefront of the Parisian Surrealist avant-garde. The plaster and bronze figures for which he is best known, modeled from nature, occupied him completely after the devastation of World War II and marked a complete break with surrealism.

Forming what British artist Lucien Freud once described as "a whole new tribe of people," these figures of rigidly erect women and walking men are frail but self-confident, impossibly elongated, and bear the marks of the artist's original molding in clay over wire armatures in their kneaded, gouged and animated surfaces.

The viewer can almost feel the pressure of the artist's fingers in a work as blobby and agitated as "Lotar," showing his friend, photographer Elie Lotar, kneeling and gazing out, not at the viewer, but at some reality beyond. This inspired depiction of a man at the end of his life was Giacometti's last sculpture, completed in 1965.

Giacometti used the same rough surface technique in sculpting portrait busts, often using his wife, Annette, and his brother, Diego, as models. The powerful presence of these busts is epitomized in a 1954 work, "Large Head of Diego," depicting a man's head emerging from a ruff-collared garment, mouth gaping, nose broken, and crowned by a coxcomb thrust of hair.

The artist's earliest work on display from the mid-1920s are cubistic in style and reduce the human figure to planes, as in his seminal work in plaster titled "Torso." The filament-thin standing figures with the appearance of two-sided reliefs began to make their appearance in 1928 singly and in groups anchored to bronze and marble bases and reflecting Giacometti's interest in Cycladic, Egyptian, and African art.

Giacometti called these abstracted forms, including a man and woman having sex, "objects" rather than sculptures, and they soon attracted Surrealist artists and writers, including Salvador Dali, who admired works like "Woman With Her Throat Cut," an arrangement of skeletal body parts in bronze designed to be placed on the floor without a base.

Dali noted that Giacometti had turned his vision inward to created "objects of symbolic function" that were products of the unconscious, memory and dreams. The artist himself credited hallucinatory experiences to his 1947 breakthrough into his best-known attenuated style, which he created from a new psychological viewpoint that reflects anxiety and alienation in the post-war world.

Giacometti began as a painter (his father was a successful Post-Impressionist) and there are a number of early family portraits and self portraits in the style of Paul Cezanne on exhibit, notably a boldly composed 1921 oil of himself at work, the last painting he would do for many years. When he began painting again in 1937, it was with a more sculptural approach and after 1949 painting and sculpture occupied his interest with equal intensity.

Typical of these later paintings is his 1956 oil in gray-brown with a touch of pink titled "Annette With Chariot", depicting a small figure seated in his studio, squeezed in by larger sculptures including "The Chariot," an elegantly slender female figure rising above two Egyptian chariot wheels. Despite the cluttered background there is an eerie sense of space defined by criss-cross lines of paint scrubbed into the canvas.

A portrait of playwright-novelist Jean Genet, based on an Egyptian sculpture of a scribe in the Louvre, has even a stronger feeling of space, a sense which carries over into the many pen-and-ink and pencil sketches included in the show. Giacometti drew prolifically throughout his life, making studies for his sculptural work and portraits of family and friends.

The artist was never satisfied with his work and obsessive in his reworking of sculptures, paintings, and drawings, which show many erasures for purposes of effacing unwanted imagery as well as to create the effect of radiant shafts of light. Very few artists have used the white of the paper on which they are working so effectively to energize drawing, which in Giacometti's case consists of virtual webs of delicate lines.

A book, "Alberto Giacometti," has been published for this occasion with 255 illustrations, 112 of them in color (Harry N. Abrams, 296 pages, $65, softcover $35).

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