New York

Alberto Giacometti

This exhibition of Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures and paintings from 1926 to 1965 made clear that from the mid ’30s on Giacometti embraced the notion that art was an expression of human experience rather than a construction of autonomous objects with their own internal logic. Even though such famous Surrealist works as Woman with Her Throat Cut, 1932, and The Invisible Object (Hands Holding the Void), 1934, are clearly figurative and vigorously expressive—the former of a fearful hatred of woman, the latter of an ironic worship—they are still abstract constructions before they are expressive figures. Disagreeable Object to be Thrown Away, 1931, makes the point succinctly: though it can be read as the vestige of a female torso—the residue of an act of violence against the phallic mother—it is ultimately an eccentric, abstract shape.

Then, suddenly, with sculptures like the Bust of Isabelle, 1936, and Head of Rita, 1937, and above all the painting of The Artist’s Mother, also 1937, there is a marked shift. Giacometti abandons the avant-garde enshrinement of art for art’s sake, as if he realized that, however ironically, it epitomized the inhumanity and impersonality of the modern world. The contrast between the realistic, identifiable, very human heads of the later works and the anonymous, robotic quality of Cubist Head, 1934, or the “primitivism” of Head of a Woman (Flora Mayo), 1927, makes clear how much this flirtation with Surrealism and Cubism was only an interlude in Giacometti’s development.

As has been amply documented, what Giacometti increasingly grappled with in his work was the difficulty of relating to other people without either sacrificing himself or violating their reality. For Giacometti art became a via media between himself and those so intimate he partially identified with them. It is no accident that he produced his most moving works in response to his brother Diego and wife Annette. They are perpetually modeled and remodeled by his consciousness, rather than depicted as if they were nothing but figments of his unconscious, as they were in his Surrealist salad days. He comes to prefer his real family to the emotionally exploitative pseudofamily of the Surrealists, with whom he eventually definitively broke.

Giacometti’s figures are presented frontally and always at a certain respectful distance. Though clearly and aggressively handled by him, their thinness and seeming inaccessibility suggest that for Giacometti they exist at the end of the corridor of his consciousness, that is, they recede into the infinite inner space of his introspection. Indeed, the number of rapid, very conspicuous, subtly differentiated traces of his touch suggest not only his feeling of intimacy with them but also his attempt to control them. They are not only his introjects, but also voodoo dolls he can emotionally manipulate. Generally depressive, Giacometti used his art to work through his relationship with the internal and external objects closest to him.

In other words, Giacometti seems to be struggling to achieve a balance between detachment and intimacy: he demonstrates an anaclitic dependence on his mother, brother, wife, and friends, but also artistic independence from them. The seeming isolation of his figures is a projection of that independence, but also of envy. Giacometti, after all, desperately needed those he modeled to complete his own humanity, but, as his art showed, he never sensed that their need of him was the same.

Donald Kuspit