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Harry Cooper

Alberto Giacometti, From an Egyptian sculpture: Sésostris III; after Cézanne: self-portrait, 1937, pencil on paper, 12 7⁄ 8 × 10".

FOR ALL THE GLORIES of the Alberto Giacometti survey at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York (which was organized by Megan Fontanella and Catherine Grenier), for all the sculptures both classic and little known (borrowed for the most part from the Fondation Giacometti in Paris), what caught my eye and has stayed in my mind was something much more humble: a framed sketchbook page, smudged and slightly crumpled, hanging near a bathroom in one of those right-angled detours that periodically interrupt Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral. With rapid, assured strokes of a pencil, the artist has described two heads by two other artists on a single sheet: a sculpted pharaonic portrait and, below it, a self-portrait by Paul Cézanne.

Quite a pair of progenitors to lump together! And they weren’t just lumped, but were carefully aligned in a visual simile. With searching contours and bold hatching, Giacometti simplified each subject into its principal volumes. Cézanne’s bald dome rises from the cloud of the beard covering his mouth and a wave of hair behind his ear, while the perfectly oval face of the pharaoh is set into the faceted frame of his hexagonal headdress. These are the sketches of a sculptor. Both heads are dimensional, strongly carved by light and shadow, even though only one of them was originally a sculpture and Giacometti, no doubt, was studying both of them flat, in photographic reproduction. (He seems to have drawn them almost simultaneously, so similar are his touch and attack in each, and it is unlikely that he could have seen both works in the same gallery or even the same museum.) And yet, despite the flatness of their sources, the sketches leaped off the page and grabbed me.

Cézanne is gazing intently to his left, the pharaoh to his right. Part of what makes their looks so sharp is that each has only one eye—the one closer to the viewer—while the other is lost in profile or shadow. Each eye is set firmly in its orbit, Cézanne’s framed by an arched, self-appraising eyebrow, the pharaoh’s by a high cheekbone. Taken together, they make a pair of eyes, a single glance, or so I imagine. I recall Giacometti talking about the difficulty of fashioning an eye, and how the success of his sculpture depended on capturing a gaze.

Which head is more naturalistic? Which is more volumetric? And who is the “primitive” here?

Let’s go back to the juxtaposition itself, that blithe jump across culture and history. We know that Giacometti venerated both ancient Egypt and Cézanne. By coincidence, in 2008, there was a Giacometti-and-Egypt show at the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, and a Giacometti-and-Cézanne show at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art near Copenhagen. Yes, but to have them both on the same page? It is tempting to speak here of a deliberately staged confrontation of modern and primitive, of Western and non-Western, of naturalistic rendering and hieratic formula, of the secular and the religious, of painting and sculpture. That would be the textbook approach, certainly. But these polarities, it seems to me, are exactly the ones that Giacometti rejects, the wires that he crosses. Which head is more naturalistic? Which is more volumetric? And who is the “primitive” here, the isolated painter who attempted to hunt every mark back to its first cause in a visual sensation, or the sculptor working within a complex culture and its elaborate systems of power and belief? The sketch exerts a leveling influence, one that reflects Giacometti’s levelheaded fascination with art of all kinds. I never get the feeling that he is looking at non-Western art and artifacts with the kind of fevered excitement about the exotic common to so many of his colleagues. No, he is just looking.

His looking, as we know, is intense and obsessive and repetitive, which leads me to yet another dichotomy that Giacometti defeats, or ignores entirely, that of insider and outsider. He was the ultimate insider, thoroughly trained and connected to more movements and -isms, more cultural figures and intellectuals, than perhaps anyone else in Paris. And yet he lived and worked in a tiny, cramped, filthy studio, described by Jean Genet as “a seething dump, a genuine ditch,” obsessively staring down his models as he subtracted plaster from his figures. He comes across as determined, relentless, a little crazed. Not unlike the two figures on this page. Maybe everything we need to know about Giacometti is here.

Harry Cooper is curator and Head of Modern Art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.