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Holding The Void – A Review of ‘Giacometti’ at the Guggenheim Museum



Alberto Giacometti’s first solo exhibition in America was unsuccessful. The art dealer in charge of the 1934 event, Julien Levy, admitted “almost nobody liked the Giacometti sculptures.” They were priced at $150 to $250. Over 170 sculptures and paintings are now well-received by the crowd lining the Guggenheim Museum’s signature curling walls for its summer retrospective open until September 12, “Giacometti.” It is the Guggenheim’s first retrospective of the artist since 1955, which Giacometti never saw. He had just returned from seeing his works shown in London and was worried “the New York exhibition would have the same effect on me.”

It is hard to speculate what Giacometti (1901-1966) would think of this exhibit. Perhaps he preferred his sculptures as seen in his 240-square-foot Paris studio, which had no working water and eventually a tree growing through it. But nestled in the Guggenheim’s bays, the sculptures and paintings are provided the perfect space needed to observe each one. There is no academic revisionist theory in the wall texts, but just enough background information to let the pieces speak for themselves.

And they speak loudly. The sculpture Head on a Rod (1947), whose anguished face tilts upward with the mouth agape, gives the effect of holding a conch shell to your ear. A rushing, roaring scream is seen, echoed only in the mind. To create the effect of sound without actually making a noise—that is talent.

Image: “Dog”, 1951, Bronze Statue, Archives Fondation Marguerite and Aimé Maeght, Saint-Paul de Vence (France)

“I cannot simultaneously see the eyes, the hands, and the feet of a person standing two or three yards in front of me,” Giacometti said. “The only part that I look at entails a sensation of the existence of everything.” He was born in Switzerland to an artistic family: His father was a post-Impressionist painter, one brother became a successful architect. In 1926 he moved to Paris, where he worked in his cramped studio with another brother, Diego. His most recognized works are the elongated, thin sculptures of nude women and striding men. Whether standing alone or together, they reflect the experience of existence, comparing isolation and community.

Before he became enamored with such Surrealist figures, Giacometti was captivated by Cubism. The Spoon Woman (1927) emphasizes a blend between Cubism and figuration, with her smooth, curved base and boxy bust. But his sculpture Suspended Ball (1930-31) knocked Giacometti out of Cubism and into Surrealism because of its clear sexual implications. In a cage, a peach-like ball hangs down, just barely touching what looks like a banana at the base. Surrealists were almost cult-like, with André Breton at the helm. Giacometti was already close with Salvador Dalí, but it wasn’t until Breton paid him a visit that he was considered a part of the group.

When the Nazis occupied Paris, Giacometti went to visit his mother in Geneva. He was denied entry when he attempted to return to Paris, so he began to work and live in a hotel room in Geneva. His sculptures became smaller and smaller, until they were as slim and tall as a cigarette. While he was in Geneva, he met his wife Annette Arm. She moved back to Paris with him in 1946, and Giacometti went back to lengthening his figures, inspired by urban environments and the interaction, or lack thereof, of the people.

“In the street people astound and interest me more than any sculpture or painting,” Giacometti said. “Every second the people stream together and go apart, then they approach each other to get closer to one another. They unceasingly form and re-form living compositions in unbelievable complexity.… It’s the totality of this life that I want to reproduce in everything I do.”

The elongation of the figures Giacometti sculpted somehow emphasizes their isolation, which is further emboldened when the walking figures are placed on the same base, such as in City Square (1948). Independence is highlighted by the figures’ placement near one another, forming a composition that embodies the motions one sees every day in a city. Giacometti is carefully able to create a work that exposes simultaneously both individuality and togetherness, a play on existential questions asked by his friends Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Are we each isolated? Is our sense of shared experience an illusion?

Some of Giacometti’s pieces call to mind the disturbing novel and movie A Clockwork Orange. His use of cages and intensely sexual objects are meant to bestow discomfort: Walking Woman and Woman with Her Throat Cut were both created in 1932. The latter is a captivating composition, ribs slash through the air, and the “head” is attached by a simple loop. This condemnation of violent death is a disturbing image meant to make the viewer uncomfortable. Disagreeable Object (1931) achieves the same. You could tell your child it’s a porcupine trapped in a banana, but it’s more obviously a dildo used as a torture device.

Giacometti dances with themes of torture and sex, isolation and community. The Nose (1964) is another condemnation of violence. Giacometti saw his traveling companion die and was plagued by nightmares he echoed in this sculpture. The haunting face, hung from a rope, has a nose like the barrel of a rifle that reaches out of its surrounding cage. Like Head on a Rod, the mouth is open in anguish. At the Guggenheim, these intense sculptures are buffered by several boring paintings.

“Oh, gosh, wow, incredible!” a woman exclaimed, beaming at one of Giacometti’s paintings. She tugged her bottom lip. “Would you just look at that?” she said to her companion. “Absolutely breathtaking.”

I went to look at the painting after she was able to pull herself away. It was gray, very gray. I could make out Annette sitting in the studio (as I was guided to see by the title). It looked like what could have once been a colorful painting that somehow survived a house fire.

But among the monochrome paintings, there are some that still manage to intrigue. Another portrait of Annette, Black Annette (1962), is piercing. Her face rises out of a smoky background, sketched in manic, squiggly lines of black and white and more gray. Her eyes are intense, the main focus of the painting. They glare at the viewer with quiet confidence.

Those eyes sent a shiver down my spine. There was something spooky about the whole collection of grim works. What was Giacometti trying to get across? I recalled how I felt when I would read a particularly grisly scene in a Dostoevsky novel.

Giacometti can sway his audience’s emotions with ease, a product of all his labor to confront the surreal through art. He successfully took the word ominous and gave it a physical form. Hands Holding the Void (1934) is the epitome of Giacometti’s Surrealist exploration. The face gives the impression of a fish out of water, gills flicking up and down in panic. The feet are pinned down to the base by a sheet of bronze, and as your eyes travel up to the hands you wonder what they are hoping for. It evokes a moment when panic finally melts into tranquility, by an act of will or against it.

Such strange and contradictory elements are the essence of Giacometti’s sculpture, like someone who finds light by crawling through a murky tunnel.

“I have the feeling, or the hope, that I am making progress each day,” Giacometti said. “That is what makes me work, compelled to understand the core of life.”

By: Emily Ferguson
(Washington Free Beacon)

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