Keep walking: an edition of Alberto Giacometti's iconic bronze sculpture "Man Pointing" (1947) is at the Guggenheim, part of a nearly 200-item retrospective of the Swiss-born artist. Photo: Val Castronovo
BY VAL CASTRONOVO
Not since 1974, eight years after his death, has the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum hosted a comprehensive show dedicated to Swiss-born artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), who painted, drew and sculpted obsessively in a tiny, unpretentious studio in Montparnasse, Paris, for 40 years. An exhibit of this magnitude was last staged in the city at the Museum of Modern Art, in celebration of the artist’s 100th birthday in 2001.
Now, Giacometti is being celebrated both in a film — “The Final Portrait,” starring Geoffrey Rush — and in the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed rotunda, where nearly 200 paintings, drawings, sculptures and archival items line the ramps in a steady chronological climb to the top of the museum without a roof. Wear walking shoes.
The majority of the works are on loan from the Fondation Giacometti in Paris, which just opened a re-creation of the artist’s studio near the famously cluttered original atelier in Montparnasse, which Giacometti once likened to the “inside of his skull,” the Fondation’s director, Catherine Grenier, recently told ARTNEWS.
The setting here is stark, the art even more so. The cratered, elongated figures from Giacometti’s postwar period — reed-like walking/pointing men and ramrod-straight women — mix with dark, scratchy portraits of family and friends and smooth, trippy Surrealist sculptures from the early 1930s with none-too-subtle sexual references, humor and violent imagery (e.g., “Woman with Her Throat Cut,” 1932, an abstracted female figure splayed on the floor that looks more like a bug than a human; and “Disagreeable Object,” 1931, a spiky phallic objet).
From 1928 to 1934, Giacometti embraced the Surrealists and let his unconscious be his guide. As an emerging artist, he also drew inspiration from African, Oceanic, Cycladic and Cubist art — and Brancusi. One of the first major works we encounter on the spiral is “Spoon Woman,” both the early plaster (1927) and the later bronze (1926-1927; cast 1954).
The small abstracted head is dwarfed by an enormous concave form below the bust — an inverted pregnant belly? — that playfully identifies the figure as female and fertile. The piece riffs ceremonial ladles, called “wakemia,” carved by the Dan peoples of West Africa.
Giacometti ultimately resisted the pull of the Surrealists and gravitated to “the real” in 1935, with a particular emphasis in the last two decades of his career on the head, mobile men and tall immobile women, the latter a pose he adapted from ancient Egyptian statuary.
He suffered a decade-long creative dry spell, however, until the end of World War II allowed him to return to Paris from Geneva, where he was forced to wait out the hostilities. He was blocked. Shortly before and during the war, “the uncertain and agitated artist whittled down medium-size figures to miniatures, and often into oblivion as the plaster crumbled into dust,” art historian Valerie Fletcher writes in the catalog. (See “Small Bust on a Double Base,” 1940-1941, and “Silvio Standing, Hands in Pockets,” 1943.)
In Paris, a reunion with existentialist-friend Jean-Paul Sartre and brother Diego — the latter his studio assistant and frequent model — together with his marriage in 1949 to Annette Arm, another frequent model, reinvigorated his practice. But the horrors of war were acutely felt and left an indelible effect on the art.
The postwar figures loom larger, more expressive and skeletal. Per the wall text, “Giacometti was unflinching in his portrayal of humanity at its most vulnerable.” The plaster “Head on a Rod” (1947) has sunken cheeks and appears to be howling.
He explored the themes of alienation, isolation and voyeurism in a series of multi-figure works, one in an urban setting, another in a forest, and yet another in a cage. In “City Square” (1948), for instance, the four walking men and lone static woman are overwhelmed by the sculptural base, which may be a comment on man’s trifling place in the world, Fletcher notes.
The men seem to be walking in the direction of the woman, who may be an object of desire or a symbol of an ideal, such as Beauty or Justice. But, as Fletcher writes: “Curiously, none of the men’s trajectories lead precisely to her, perhaps a metaphor for the futility of aiming for an optimum goal that is never quite reached — which was, in fact, Giacometti’s philosophy.”
The exhibit, while organized chronologically (start at the bottom), immediately departs from the timeline in the High Gallery, off Ramp 1, with three large sculptural works that the artist created around 1960 for the plaza of the new downtown headquarters of Chase Manhattan Bank.
Architect Gordon Bunshaft tapped him for the project (other artists were also invited to submit proposals), but he declined to proffer a plan in the end because he had never visited the site. In brainstorming for the competition, however, he returned to those three motifs that had consumed him for decades, producing “Monumental Head,” “Walking Man” and “Tall Woman.”
And yes, in case you were wondering: an edition of the bronze sculpture “Man Pointing” (1947), which sold for $141.3 million at Christie’s in 2015, is here. Keep walking.