Alberto Giacometti. A retrospective

This exhibition surveys four decades of production by Alberto Giacometti (b. 1901; d. 1966), one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. More than 200 sculptures, paintings, and drawings make up a show that offers a unique perspective on the artist’s work, highlighting the extraordinary holdings of artworks and archive material gathered by Giacometti’s wife, Annette, now in the Fondation Giacometti in Paris.  Giacometti was born in Switzerland to a family of artists. He was introduced to painting and sculpture by his father, the renowned Neo-Impressionist painter Giovanni Giacometti. Three heads done of him by the young Giacometti are seen on display here. In 1922 Alberto Giacometti moved to Paris to continue his artistic training, and four years later he set up what was to remain his studio until the end of his life, a rented space of just 23 square meters on the Rue Hippolyte-Maindron, close to Montparnasse. In that tiny narrow room, Giacometti created a very personal vision of the world about him. The human figure is a fundamental theme in this artist’s oeuvre. Over the years, he produced works inspired by the people around him, especially his brother Diego, his wife Annette, and his friends and lovers. The artist said: “For me, sculpture, painting, and drawing have always been means of understanding my own vision of the outside world, and above all the face and the whole of the human being. Or to put it more simply, of my fellow creatures, and especially of those who for one reason or another are closest to me.” Giacometti’s ideas on how to approach the human figure were to become crucial questions of contemporary art for the following generations of artists.


THE ENCOUNTER WITH CUBISM IN PARIS. In 1922 Giacometti moved to Paris to study with sculptor Antoine Bourdelle at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. He soon discovered the Post-Cubist works of Jacques Lipchitz, Henri Laurens, Constantin Brancusi, and Pablo Picasso, and this prompted him to abandon his classical training and adopt the formal vocabulary of Neo-Cubism with a very personal style centered on the human figure.  The ancient Greek statuary from the Cyclades that Giacometti saw at the Louvre inspired him to explore the relationship between sculpture and plane. He was also a frequent visitor to the Ethnographic Museum and an assiduous reader of avantgarde journals like Cahiers d’Art and Documents, which reflected the taste of the period for non-Western art. In 1927 these influences came together in Spoon Woman (1927). Made in plaster and afterwards cast in bronze, it is the most monumental and totemic of the works from this period. Giacometti here interprets the geometry characteristic of Cubism, the stylized forms of African art, and the formal simplicity of European modernism. With a large concave abdomen suggesting a female uterus, the sculpture, a tribute to fertility, is inspired by the anthropomorphic ceremonial spoons of the Dan culture of Africa. Giacometti’s sculptures grew increasingly abstract and complex until they culminated in flattened, volumeless forms whose polished surfaces are lightly sculpted or engraved. This is appreciable in Gazing Head (1929), a flat piece of plaster that presents a subtle, almost imperceptible cavity evoking an eye. These pieces were exhibited in Paris in 1929 and aroused the interest of prestigious artists and intellectuals like Georges Bataille, André Breton, and Salvador Dalí.


SURREALISM. Surrealism, an artistic and literary movement that emerged in 1924 and remained active until the end of World War II, had its epicenter in Paris. Among its premises was the eradication of modern rationalism through the power of the imagination. Influenced by psychoanalysis and myth, the Surrealists believed an exploration of the unconscious can reveal complex interior worlds centered on sexuality, desire, and violence. Giacometti embraced the investigation of the language of dreams that was propounded by the Surrealists, and became an official member of André Breton’s group in 1931. The Surrealist influence soon took shape in dreamlike creations and strange images representing interior worlds. Giacometti’s intensely personal style drew the interest of prestigious artists and intellectuals. Dalí considered Suspended Ball (1930–31) to be the prototype of the Surrealist “object functioning symbolically” with a violent or erotic content. Disagreeable Object (1931), the most emblematic sculpture within this tendency, fits perfectly with the fantasies of brutality that recur in the writings of Georges Bataille.  Woman with her Throat Cut (1932) clearly shows Giacometti’s affiliation to Surrealism in the early thirties. The artist was interested in the movement’s strategies for entering the subconscious, introducing complex themes like the antagonistic states of pain and ecstasy, the human and the non-human, and motifs that generate attraction and repulsion at the same time, such as insect forms.


THE “CAGES” AND THE DELIMITATION OF SPACE; THE STREET AND THE PLAZA. In 1935, Giacometti distanced himself from the Surrealist movement and went back to working from life models, such as his brother Diego and professional model Rita Gueyfier, who posed for him every day. The sculptor explored various molding techniques, and moved from working with geometrical facets to a more expressive treatment. In the 1940s, during World War II, Giacometti started to make thin, elongated figures with blurred outlines suggesting the human form seen from a distance. He said that full figures seemed false to him, and that only when represented as long and stylized were they faithful to his vision of human beings. Giacometti returned to the motif of the box in numerous works of the early 1950s, such as Figurine between Two Houses (1950). The box is a graphic allusion to various concepts related to existentialism, such as confinement, isolation, and anguish, which can be linked to existence itself. The same idea underlies his works on the theme of the “cage,” with which he had already experimented during his Surrealist phase. This can be seen in The Nose (1947), whose tip literally pierces the surrounding frame and protrudes to the exterior. In The Forest (1950), various elongated figures anchored to a base are assembled by Giacometti in such a way as to resemble a forest. They are standing straight, like trees, and close to one another, but they do not touch. The relationship among these long tree-like figures is created through the negative space they share. This and other similar pieces, either with single figures or groups, express the ideas Giacometti was reflecting on at that moment, including his conviction that we can feel isolated even in an open-air space packed with people, such as a street or a plaza.


EXISTENTIALISM: ELONGATED THREADLIKE FIGURES. Sartre defined Giacometti as “the perfect existentialist artist, half-way between being and nothingness.” From 1945 onwards, Giacometti created his best-known works. These were extremely stylized and elongated figures that reveal his new concerns regarding space and the distance between the model and the artist. He had returned to Paris, and the change of scale allowed him to express the anguish caused by the trauma of the war. “After the war, I was sick and tired of it all, and I swore to myself I wouldn’t let my statues shrink by even an inch. And then this happened: I managed to keep the height, but the statue was left very thin, like a rod, threadlike.” The exhibition stresses the artist’s predilection for moldable materials like plaster and clay. While many artists use plaster only as an intermediate material in the production of a scupture (after modeling the object in clay, and before casting it in bronze), Giacometti often used it for both the initial form and the final piece. When Giacometti was chosen to represent France, his adopted country, in the 1956 Venice Biennale, the artist reflected on how his work could be shown in such a space. He decided he would make new pieces to be exhibited alongside earlier ones, and created the series he entitled Women of Venice. This is an exceptional opportunity for visitors to view the whole set of eight sculptures made in plaster, and some painted, which have been housed since last June at the recently inaugurated Institut Giacometti in Paris.


MINUSCULE SCULPTURES AND DRAWINGS. Between 1938 and 1944, the scale of Giacometti’s sculptures shrank, and the distance from the viewer increased. Giacometti moved during the war to Switzerland, where he spent a great deal of time with his nephew Silvio, teaching him history while sculpting him again and again in the hotel room he had turned into a studio. There he created sculptures like Small Bust on a Double Base (1940–41), and figures taken from life like Silvio Standing, Hands in Pockets (1943). Years later, Silvio recalled the process he observed while he posed for his uncle, sometimes for fifteen minutes and sometimes for an hour at a time. The artist would make a figure one day and return to it the next, working it down to half its original size until it was just eight or ten centimeters tall. We thus have a first-hand account of how Giacometti discarded or reduced his works to synthesize them in smaller forms. The artist explained: “Working from life, I ended up creating tiny three-centimeter sculptures. I did it despite myself. I couldn’t understand it. I started big and ended minuscule. Only the minuscule struck me as a resemblance [to the model]. I understood it later: a person is not seen as a whole until one draws away and the person grows tiny.” On display in this gallery are various studies of heads drawn in ink on paper in the early 1960s. These drawings allow us to appreciate Giacometti’s practice in his obsessive reworking of the face, trying incessantly to capture the gaze, the spark of life in the eyes of each individual. For him, the gaze, and the way it can penetrate the viewer’s space, is crucial. After experimenting with Surrealist or abstract drawing techniques, the artist returned to the more traditional medium of painting from life, which he continued to practice until his death. The sketches he compulsively produced each day are an exercise in the quest for truth in representation.


PAINTINGS. Giacometti’s painting consists predominantly of portraits centered on the people closest to him, such as his brother Diego, his wife Annette, his last lover Caroline, and some of his intellectual friends. When posing for him, his models were subjected to long sessions in which he made them remain absolutely motionless in his fruitless search for the greatest possible likeness. From 1957, he painted his portraits by accumulating layers of color and brushstrokes, resulting in works suggestive of sculpture. Nevertheless, the artist still thought his representation of reality was a failure: “My paintings are unsuccessful copies of reality. And in my work, I realize that the distance between what I do and the head I want to represent is always the same.” This frustration led Giacometti to concentrate on his work with obsessive intensity, sometimes destroying or remaking his pieces. His friend, poet Jacques Dupin, describes the process in the following way: “[the face] is certainly mine, but also that of another person who emerges from the depths in the distance and moves away as soon as we try to catch them. In the end, the tireless analysis of the model strips it of everything recognizable about it to reveal the unknown, that unknown which is released by the depths.” Generally speaking, Giacometti’s portraits have an eerie stillness, with backgrounds in earth colors and grays, an unfinished appearance, and verticals and horizontals that traverse and frame the works, an allusion to the sculptural lines of the cages and so to confinement. “I had the feeling,” Giacometti said, “that all events existed simultaneously around me. Time was becoming horizontal and circular, it was space at the same time, and I tried to draw it.”


RESEARCH INTO SCALE. On view in this gallery is a set of works that summarize the different scales in which Alberto Giacometti worked from 1938 onwards. Before his Surrealist period, he had explored numerous variations in the form and dimensions of the bases of his sculptures, which are integral to the work itself. In 1957, he further pursued his investigation of scale and the human figure with The Leg (1958), a monumental piece perched on an enormously high pedestal. Its size and its fragmented state recall ancient sculpture, and this influence recurs in his series of steles with high, column-like bases crowned by male busts, as in Large Head (1960). Walking Man (1960) is Giacometti’s best-known work and one of the most famous sculptures of the 20th century. In the 1930s he had created Walking Woman, a female figure taking an exquisitely sketched step forward, and his attention had been focused from that moment on the representation of this gesture, inspired by the tradition of Egyptian statues. The artist was aware that he saw the woman only as a disproportionate and immobile statue, an idol of existence, while the man is in motion, advancing with a firm stride. In 1959 Giacometti revisited this motif—that he had first introduced in his work in 1947—on the occasion of a commission for the plaza of the Chase Manhattan Bank’s New York headquarters. The project, which never saw completion, included Walking Man, a Large Head, and a Tall Woman over 2.5 meters tall.

19 ottobre 2018 – 24 febbraio 2019
Guggenheim Bilbao
Abandoibarra Etorb., 2, 48009 Bilbo, Bizkaia, Spagna

Image: Spoon Woman (Femme cuillère), 1927. Plaster, 146.5 x 51.6 x 21.5 cm, Fondation Giacometti, Paris © Succession Alberto Giacometti, VEGAP, Bilbao, 2018