The Thin Man

Alberto Giacometti gets a long-overdue reappraisal that will startle the public and influence a new generation of artists

Alberto Giacometti is an artist many people mistakenly think they know well. His attenuated bronze sculptures of human figures are among the instantly recognizable icons of the 20th century, along with Picasso's distorted women and Andy Warhol's soup cans. Yet for the past generation or so, Giacometti's work has been inexplicably absent from New York, epicenter of the art world. His last solo exhibition in a Manhattan museum was held at the Guggenheim in 1974, almost a decade after the Museum of Modern Art retrospective that the ailing honoree struggled to attend just three months before his death in 1966.

Although never really out of fashion since he gained international recognition after World War II, the Italian-Swiss master has not been particularly in vogue as of late. His lack of exposure in the United States has reinforced the cliché of Giacometti as the Michelangelo of Anomie, maker of sad, solitary effigies that speak of the isolation and futility of contemporary existence.

In fact, although Giacometti was achingly afraid of death, his art is valiantly life-affirming, as will be made clear to those who visit the magnificent survey of his career in its surprising totality, on view at the Museum of Modern Art this season. Given its enthusiastic reception in the artist's homeland earlier this year by critics and general viewers alike, this roundup of his sculptures, paintings, and drawings seems destined to be a hit here as well.

The reason Giacometti connects so directly with the public was clear to the poet Robert Wallace, who had this to say of the sculptor's 1951 bronze Dog, one of the most memorable canines in art and a highlight of his latest show: "It's not this starved hound,/ but Giacometti's seeing/ him we see./ We'll stand in line all day/ to see one man/ love anything enough."

Mounted to mark the centenary of Giacometti's birth, this show might seem like yet another example of what has been called a "calendar exhibition." But the commemorative pretext aside, it is high time for a penetrating look at this curiously underappreciated titan. Having been taken for granted for too long, Giacometti needs to be restored to a more central place in the popular consciousness. Along with his signature striding men and standing women, this overview (organized in conjunction with the Kunsthaus in Zurich, home of the Alberto Giacometti Foundation, the greatest collection of his art) brings together more of his gripping yet rarely seen early work than ever before.

Unlike his friendly rival Picasso, who took a liking to the younger artist until he and the late-blooming upstart had a falling out, Giacometti was not consistently productive. Often paralyzed by self-doubt, he once spent an entire winter reworking sketches of a skull, and sometimes produced next to nothing for years on end. But after he experienced one of his visionary epiphanies—which could be triggered by the most mundane of daily experiences, like seeing the figure of a man walking at a distance or the particular tilt of a waiter's head—he erupted with sustained creative energy. Thus most of the works in the new retrospective come from the twin peaks of that sporadic career: his Surrealist heyday of 1929-34, and his Existentialist efflorescence of 1947-1951. The results of those intense spurts were so radically different from each other that they might have come from two completely different artists.

In the first years after he moved to Paris, in the early twenties, Giacometti had yet to find a distinctive approach. Then, electrified by tribal art like many of his avant-garde contemporaries, he embarked on his first major sculpture, Spoon Woman. That imposing, nearly five-foot-tall bronze transformed the ceremonial utensils of the Dan people of West Africa into sensuously swelling forms—the modern equivalent of an archaic female fertility figure. Its inventor knew that monumental impact was not a matter of mere size. "Large sculpture is only small sculpture blown up," he declared. "The key sculptures of any of the ancient civilizations are almost all on a small scale."

That cross-cultural borrowing worked so well because Giacometti instinctively understood the nature of the African fetish object, which was not meant to mimic something else, but rather was revered as a repository of magical powers. The ability to invest his sculpture from then on with that same profound feeling was central to Giacometti's art. And when he found that essential quality lacking in his work, he destroyed it. Such rigorous self-editing left him with a relatively small oeuvre for someone who would attain such a secure place in the annals of art history.

Giacometti's sensation-making works of the late twenties brought him to the attention of the poet André Breton, ringleader of the Surrealists. Breton asked the rough-hewn Swiss émigré to join that oddball group of experimental poets, writers, and painters who wanted to do away with old-fashioned representation in art. Instead, they sought to tap directly into the subconscious realm of dreams and desires, spurred by the recent discoveries of Freud and exemplified by the paintings of Salvador Dali and Max Ernst.

What the Surrealists had lacked until then was a top-rank sculptor, and in Giacometti they discovered their heavy hitter. They also found in him the unpolished original of their fantasies, the homme sauvage who gave innocent credence to their rarefied theories. But though he looked disconcertingly like Chico Marx and spoke French with an Italian accent, Giacometti, despite his humble roots, was no Alpine rube. Well-educated, schooled in five languages, including Latin, and a lifelong autodidact, he could hold his own with Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, and other intellectuals who befriended him in the literary cafés of Paris. You patronized this country boy at your peril, for he was no one's fool (with one late-life exception).

Giacometti's enigmatic Surrealist sculptures, tumescent with sexual energy and aquiver with raw emotions, short-circuit rational analysis and aim straight for the psyche. Woman with Her Throat Cut, a violently contorted bronze floor sculpture from 1932, alludes to the shrieking abandon that the French recognize when they call an orgasm la petite mort—"the little death." He could also be playfully perverse, as with Caught Hand, a 1932 wood-and-metal contraption in which a stylized forearm is snared in the gears of an infernal machine, an all-too-clear metaphor for the dehumanization of modern life. Yet he was also capable of unexpected tenderness, and his Flower in Danger, of a year later, brings to mind the sprightly but menaced Surrealist compositions Joan Miró was creating around the same time, in response to the worsening political situations across Europe.

Yet when Giacometti dared to work in a more conventional manner, producing a series of realistic portrait heads, Breton summarily expelled him from the Surrealists' charmed circle. By then, however, the artist no longer depended on the promotion of that coterie. In 1936, Alfred H. Barr Jr., the prescient founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, put Giacometti on the international map by buying his prewar masterpiece, The Palace at 4 A.M. (1932), the first purchase of his work by any institution. Star of the first half of the current show, this fragile, scaffoldlike sculpture of wire, wood, glass, and string sums up Giacometti's development, emotional as well as artistic, to that point. Part architectural model, part dream image, the suggestive construction is a diagram of its creator's inner life, sheltered within that most archetypal of human artifacts, the house.

As Giacometti explained in an art journal at the time, the obviously phallic form rising up at the center of the sculpture stands for himself. It is flanked by a prim figure symbolizing his mother and by a suspended spinal column signifying his then-girlfriend, "a woman who, concentrating all life in herself, transported my every moment into a state of enchantment. We constructed a fantastical palace in the night . . . a very palace of matches; at the least false movement a whole section of this diminutive construction would collapse; we always began it all over again." That lovers' game—whether we take his words literally or as code for the sex act—led to The Palace at 4 A.M., a meditation on the artist's relationships with women from infancy to manhood, as well as on the delicate balance between life and death.

The skeletal, pterodactyl-like bird that hovers above Giacometti's primal cast of characters in The Palace alludes to the dread of mortality that was never far from his thoughts. Among the boy's earliest drawings were morbid depictions of Snow White in her glass coffin. At the age of 19, he went on a hiking trip with a friend old enough to be his grandfather who died en route of a heart attack. That horrifying event shook the young man so deeply that for the rest of his life he could not sleep without a light on. The death of his father in 1933 pushed him to a breakdown, and after his mother died many years later, the already-ill Giacometti gave up his will to live.

In the late thirties, a car ran over Giacometti on a Paris street, leaving him with a permanent limp. The catastrophe of World War II further accentuated his anxiety and galvanized his shift to the human body as the focus of his future work. While fleeing Paris just ahead of the Nazi invasion, he witnessed helpless civilians being strafed by aircraft, and came across a severed arm on the roadway. As if to exorcise that gruesome memory, he sculpted one of his most evocative postwar works, The Hand, in 1947. That same year, with such depictions of individual body parts as Head on a Rod and The Nose, it was as if he was beginning to piece together his mastery of the figure bit by bit.

Those searching efforts culminated in the majestic yet coolly detached figures of Giacometti's second great flowering. Fascinated since childhood by the art of the Egyptians, Giacometti gave the now-celebrated sculptures of his mature style the frontal posture and hieratic gravity of Pharaonic statues. Yet these were far from inert copies. No sculptor before or since Giacometti has ever had a better sense of placing the figure in space, annexing the air around it to become an active participant in the composition. And when Giacometti put several figures together, as he planned to do for a never-executed commission for the plaza of the Chase Manhattan Bank headquarters in lower Manhattan—one of the saddest might-have-beens of public art in the last century—the dynamic tension among the components could be mesmerizing.

A stupendous presence emanates from two works that implicitly contradict the static nature of sculpture. Made during the war, Giacometti's Woman with Chariot is the prototype of his late efforts. He set that nude with her arms at her sides on a dolly that allowed him to move it around his studio in its plaster state, but eventually decided to incorporate the wheeled platform into the finished piece. Taking that concept a giant step beyond, The Chariot of 1950 places a slender female with open arms atop a cart supported by huge wheels of gilded bronze, perhaps the artist's most splendidly triumphant expression of the life force in all its tentative hopefulness.

A formula soon evolved: Giacometti's men walked and his women stood still—an old-school typology of the active male and passive female. But there are other possible interpretations. Giacometti had many obsessions, among them prostitutes. "When I'm walking on the street and see a whore from a distance with her clothes on, I see a whore," the artist once confessed to the writer Jean Genet. "When she's in a room and naked in front of me, I see a goddess."

As Giacometti approached the age of 60, he picked up a prostitute named Caroline in a bar not far from his Montparnasse studio, and proceeded for the next six years to paint an exhaustive series of portraits of her until his death. He also showered the girl with money, to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife, whom he kept on a short financial leash despite the large sums that rolled in as his fame grew, after decades of near-poverty.

About this period in the artist's life the fine exhibition catalogue grimly states, "For Caroline's sake Giacometti endures in his last years any number of sordid experiences." (On one occasion she was tossed into jail, and her frantic admirer nearly went out of his mind for three weeks trying to find her.) It has been suggested that Giacometti's male figures are on the prowl for the waiting poules, and indeed the outwardly flattened breasts of his female sculptures do resemble those of a woman lying on her back rather than standing upright.

Despite his soaring reputation as a sculptor during the fifties and sixties, Giacometti craved equal recognition for his paintings. Those turbulently outlined compositions—which provide vivid evidence of this born sculptor's quest to achieve three-dimensional form within the two-dimensional confines of the picture plane—were usually executed in spectral tones of black and gray.

Though Giacometti's pencil sketches can be wonderful (his drawing of an infirm Henri Matisse still making art is particularly affecting), he tended to work his portrait oils to death, smothering their spontaneity in ever-thickening webs of black paint. A documentary film of him creating one such picture indicates that he sometimes didn't know when to stop.

Curator Christian Klemm, of the Kunsthaus Zurich (the principal organizer of the show, along with his colleague Tobia Bezzola and MoMA's Carolyn Lanchner and Anne Umland), reports that Giacometti's watchful mother, Annetta, was critical of those monochromatic pictures: "She thought he should use more color." The look was quickly knocked off by such second-rate fifties artists as the British painter Graham Sutherland. And Giacometti's occasional street scenes of his beloved Paris, executed in the same nervous, spiky hand, seemed to provide the basis for the kitsch cityscapes of the awful Bernard Buffet.

At the 1962 Venice Biennale, Giacometti was accorded a special one-man exhibition of his work in both mediums. But he received an award only for sculpture, not the grand prize that would have honored his entire output. The London art dealer Leslie Waddington overheard an official breaking the news to the artist, who gruffly retorted, "On me fait cela aussi" ("They do this to me, too"). The inscription on his tombstone got the order right:

ALBERTO
GIACOMETTI
SCULTORE PITTORE
What artists today will make of Giacometti's work is the most interesting open question of the new exhibition. The increasing attention paid to Surrealism by present-day theorists is sure to raise Giacometti's stock in academe. Indeed, his Surrealist sculptures from the thirties make similar work by Isamu Noguchi and Louise Bourgeois seem more calculated than his own heartfelt outbursts. Surprisingly, Giacometti even has a fan in Frank Gehry, the sculpture-savvy architect well-known for his collaborations with Claes Oldenburg and Richard Serra. Gehry, who has always tried to keep alive the immediacy of his initial drawings in his executed buildings, admires Giacometti's ability to do the same thing in his sculptures.

"It's hard to sustain the feeling of life from a first model to the final work," says the architect, who famously did so in his titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. "Henry Moore got into trouble taking his reclining figures from wood to bronze, like De Kooning did when he took his Clam Diggers from clay to bronze. I've faced the same problem in making titanium look as spontaneous as a sketch, but Giacometti just got it. It's all about surface, and it takes a lifetime to know how to do it. And Giacometti figured it out."

ALL IN THE FAMIGLIA
Alberto Giacometti's close-knit family and their tiny village of Stampa, in an Italian-speaking valley of the Swiss Alps, were his touchstones, and it is impossible to overemphasize his deep psychic dependence on them. Giacometti's father, Giovanni, was an important Post-Impressionist painter in Switzerland, and both he and his wife were second cousins of Augusto Giacometti, a noted Symbolist artist. Influenced by the staccato brushwork of Cézanne and the vibrant palette of the Fauves, Giovanni produced accomplished works that have stood the test of time well enough to still be permanently displayed in the Kunsthaus in Zurich, where his most famous son's current retrospective was first exhibited this spring. Among them is a loving oil portrait of the bambino Alberto embraced by his mother, which hung over his parents' bed all their lives.

Recognizing Alberto's prodigious talent early on, Giovanni encouraged him to become an artist, too, though such a chancy livelihood was far from the norm in their rural backwater. After his father's death, Alberto remained exceptionally devoted to his tradition-bound mother, Annetta, a strong-willed matriarch of whom he was more than a bit afraid. He visited her in Stampa regularly until she died, in her nineties, just two years before he did. Though this otherwise unconstrained bohemian lived with his much younger future wife, Annette (paging Dr. Freud!), for years before they married, only after they finally wed did he dare to bring her home to meet mama. Both of Giacometti's parents, as well as his spouse, frequently sat for his sculptures and paintings. One of his most telling efforts was a highly abstracted marble bust of his father, the broad, flattened features of which look more like Alberto than its subject, family resemblance notwithstanding.

But in many ways Giacometti's closest relationship was with his brother Diego (a year younger), his confidant, frequent collaborator, model, and selfless assistant. In Paris in 1930, Man Ray introduced the siblings to the modernist decorator Jean-Michel Frank, who commissioned them to create lamps, vases, and wall ornaments for his haut monde clientele. That income helped the Giacomettis through the lean years of the Great Depression, and today their interior-design objects are avidly collected and widely reproduced. Regrettably, the present show includes no examples of that intriguing sideline to the subject's career, which now calls out for a decorative-arts exhibition of its own.

After World War II, Diego went on to design thin-lined metal furniture reminiscent of Alberto's sculptures from that period (top right), and continued to supervise the casting of his brother's clay sculptures, first into plaster and then bronze. In one final act of devotion, the day after Alberto died in Switzerland, Diego rushed back to Paris to heat the sculptor's studio and thaw out the frozen rags around what was now his last clay figure. The bronze version of that haunting work, a man staring out into the void, now marks the artist's grave in his birthplace of Borgonovo, near Stampa.

Contributing editor Martin Filler wrote about the revitalization of British museums in the July/August issue of Departures.

The retrospective "Alberto Giacometti" opens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (its only United States venue) on October 11 and runs through January 8, 2002. The exhibition catalogue, published by MoMA and distributed by Abrams, is available for $65. 11 West 53rd Street, New York, New York; 212-708-9400; www.moma.org.