For admirers of the work of Alberto Giacometti (1901–66), the Swiss sculptor best known for his figures of standing women and walking men so slender as to resemble lines drawn in space rather than three-dimensional objects, the last few years have been exciting ones. In 2016 the Kunstmuseum in Basel mounted “Beyond Bronze,” an exhibition of Giacometti’s work in plaster, which demonstrated in depth for the first time that the material was central to his practice rather than, as it is for most sculptors, an intermediate stage in the casting process. I didn’t see the show, but the catalogue quickly took its place as an indispensable part of the literature. Last year Tate Modern mounted a retrospective, which, though grievously flawed (it was poorly installed, portrayed the artist’s post–World War II figurative work as so many emblems of existentialist angst, and attempted to position him as a kind of aesthetic godfather of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst), was notable in one respect: several plasters from the Women of Venice series that Giacometti made for the 1956 Venice Biennale, constituting a kind of culmination of his decades-long obsession with the theme of the standing female nude, were on display for the first time since their creation, having for decades been too fragile to move.

Installation view of “Giacometti” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: David Heald.

This year has been even busier. The spring saw the release of Final Portrait, a feature film starring Geoffrey Rush that was based on A Giacometti Portrait, James Lord’s seminal 1965 memoir of sitting for the artist. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened “Giacometti,” a comprehensive survey of the artist’s work that includes a number of plasters from the Fondation Giacometti in Paris, many never or rarely seen before.1 A new biography by Catherine Grenier, the foundation’s director and a former co-director of the Centre Pompidou, appeared—the first since James Lord’s in 1985. Finally, in late June the foundation opened the Giacometti Institute, its headquarters and a public exhibition space in Paris, the highlight of which is a reconstruction of Giacometti’s studio, long one of the most storied locales in the history of modern art. All this adds up to a watershed moment in Giacometti studies, a time of fresh insights and experiences, with the promise of more to come.

At the Guggenheim, the artist’s work looks resplendent spiraling up the museum’s ramp. This is a large show, with nearly two hundred works of painting, drawing, and sculpture, and a triumph of installation. Indeed, if there is a textbook example of how thoughtful display can illuminate an artist, this is it. Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture is famously hostile to the display of art, all but straitjacketing paintings and sculptures in the bays that line the ramp. The co-curator (along with Grenier) Megan Fontanella and the exhibition designer Aviva Rubin had the brilliant idea—why has nobody thought of this before?—to break the tyranny of the bays by extending purpose-built platforms onto the ramp. This permitted a fully three-dimensional experience of the sculptures, something especially critical for a work like Four Women on a Base (1950), a roughly two-foot-tall bronze of standing female figures on a block-like support, so slender and reduced they seem more like so many smudges in space than representations of humanity. It is a quintessential work from Giacometti’s figurative period, deriving from his revelation in the cinema in 1945 that the figures captured “realistically” on the screen in front of him were nothing more than two-dimensional ciphers, whereas what was truly real was his perception of the nearby audience members, connected to him through his vision and their position in a shared space. The remainder of his career would be dedicated to capturing that reality. For this sculpture to work, the viewer must believe, as the artist did, that he is looking at the barely perceptible, evanescent image of four women in the distance just coming into view and seen in the vastness of space. Set in a bay, it might have read as a relief sculpture. Out on its platform about two thirds of the way into the show, its figures generate a palpable awareness of the space around them, and so the sculpture registers hypnotically.

It is only with this exhibition that I have come to understand what an awkward fit were Giacometti and Cubism.

It is only with this exhibition that I have come to understand what an awkward fit were Giacometti and Cubism. He had embraced the style in the 1920s as a route into Modernism, but he never seems to have understood what it was really about. He didn’t open up and fragment forms but instead combined large, cube-like forms in an effort to suggest personages, as in Composition (Cubist I, Couple) of 1926–27. His sensibility was too visionary and inward to be comfortable with the analytical, formalistic aesthetics of Cubism, which may be why his most successful effort in this vein is at once his most and least cubist work. Entitled Cube and dating from nearly a decade later (1934), it is a broadly faceted vertical monolith that exudes a powerful, quasi-figural presence. It would seem to be an evocation of his childhood experience of a large stone encountered in the countryside and anthropomorphized into “a living being, hostile, threatening.”

From his very beginnings as an artist, there had been a tension in Giacometti’s mind between creating and making, the former equated with discovery, the latter simply executing a preconceived idea. So it is paradoxical that one of his greatest works, The Palace at 4 a.m. (1932) (represented here by his painting of it), should have been created precisely in that way, the image of it having come to him (so he said) fully formed in a dream and requiring little time to realize in three dimensions.

Alberto Giacometti, Suspended Ball, 1930–31, Plaster, painted metal & string, Fondation Giacometti, Paris.

Nonetheless, one does notice a split in the works of Giacometti’s surrealist period between the “made” and the “created”—what you might call the pro forma and the inspired. In the former category is Disagreeable Object (1931), a long wooden phallus with spikes at its tip. Little more than an illustration of Surrealism’s aesthetic of sex and violence, it reads more like a schoolboy prank than a work of art, something anyone could have made. At the other end of the spectrum is an array of masterpieces all produced within the space of just a few years: besides Palace, these include Flower in Danger (1932), Point to the Eye (1931–32), No More Play (1931–32), Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object) (1934), Woman with Her Throat Cut (1932), and Suspended Ball (1930–31). This last consists of a metal cage from whose top is suspended a sphere with a cleft underside that appears about to brush or be penetrated by the sharp edge of a melon-slice form on the platform below. It has been given wonderful film noir lighting that dramatically intensifies its aura of mystery and menace.

These works are suffused variously with an atmosphere of looming threat, imminent danger, or wanton sexual violence. At the same time they are charged with a potent ambiguity, their expressive power all the greater because specific meanings are impossible to parse or pin down. Unlike Disagreeable Object, their sources are uniquely Giacomettian: childhood memories; private fears and obsessions; daily life in Montparnasse; study of the art of the past. The formal vocabulary is not drawn from any pre-existing style but is original, sui generis, and, except for the cage motif that later would be taken up by the Abstract Expressionist sculptor Herbert Ferber, wholly unrepeatable.

Other than Auguste Rodin in his work on the Gates of Hell, no modern sculptor has made such creative use of plaster as Giacometti.

In the end, Giacometti resolved this tension between creating and making with his return to figuration and working from the model in the mid-1930s, since it required him to confront reality—the motif—anew each time he sat down to work. Although perhaps “resolved” isn’t the right word, since it set him down a road of torturous self-doubt about the outcomes that would dog him to the end of his days.

In an exhibition that has already seen many highlights, this section, featuring work from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, is surely the apogee. In its mix of works in plaster and bronze, it gives us a clear picture of how important this former material was to Giacometti and what far greater range of expressive effects he was able to realize in it than in bronze. Indeed, other than Auguste Rodin in his work on the Gates of Hell, no modern sculptor has made such creative use of plaster as he.

Take Tall Figure II (1948–49), a nearly six-foot-tall painted-plaster female nude. Though larger, it is similar to the bronze Four Women on a Base (1950). But the differences are more telling, the former being more physically and perceptually present, thanks to the vigorously fingered material and the use of paint, particularly around the eyes. They seem to fix on you with the intensity of a Byzantine mosaic. Head on a Rod (1947) is a shocking work. Its rough, almost violent handling of surface and mass is as critical to its expressive effect as the image itself. And in a vitrine containing some half-dozen small painted plaster portrait heads, Giacometti, whose standing figures so often evoke ancient deities and idols, here seems to be going even further back, to geological time. They are like rocks whose indentations, points, and hollows are the product of accident, the objects themselves things the artist happened to pick up on a walk after espying in them the face of a familiar. In these and the other plaster works there is a greater engagement with the material for its own sake than in the bronzes, and Giacometti seems to be challenging himself to reconcile opposites—the plastic and the perceptual.

Alberto Giacometti, Head of a Man on a Rod, 1947, Bronze, Gift of Mrs. George Acheson.

This tendency manifests itself in a series of bronze and plaster busts from the mid- to late-1950s, in which Giacometti seems to be overturning—or at least questioning—the very premises of his art. These trace their lineage to the fraught output of World War II, the sculptures of pin-sized figures on equally small bases. “Fraught” because, each time, Giacometti had started out trying to make a large figure in his hotel room in Geneva, only to find his sculpture dwindling in size under his fingers. The effect, though, is powerful—of a figure seen at a great distance. Something like that happens here, but with a twist. In Bust of a Man (1956) the head is tiny and seems far away. Yet it is poised atop a torso of such thickly and heavily worked matter that Giacometti undercuts his perceptual illusion by loudly calling attention to that portion of the sculpture as a tangible object. The work of the remaining decade, such as the series of busts of Giacometti’s wife and model, Annette, so reminiscent of Matisse’s Jeanette series, is very much in this vein—richly material and heavily worked. The earlier slender crusts of form are now replaced by lumpier, even more monumental figuration. The artist has taken the first steps on an entirely new path. How one would like to know what would have come after.

Rarely does one have the impression reading a new book that it has been written as a point-by-point rebuttal to an earlier one on the same subject. Yet that is exactly what I felt reading Catherine Grenier’s Alberto Giacometti: A Biography.2 My hunch was reinforced when I got to the references to Lord near the end of the book. After calling his Giacometti Portrait “remarkable,” she goes on to say, “After Giacometti’s death, Lord was to author an exhaustive if less inspired biography, an inextricable mix of attested facts and romanticized interpretations.” Ouch.

The truth is, though, that there has long been a need for a new life of Giacometti, for the more one reads the Lord book the more its flaws stand out. Granted, a biographer must like his or her subject, but Lord veers between being witness for the defense at the bar of history and out-and-out hagiography. Annette comes across like one of the shrieking harridans Picasso painted. And despite quoting Giacometti’s denial that his art was an expression of existentialist philosophy, Lord takes a distinctly existentialist approach in discussing the life and work (“Giacometti’s drawings convey . . . the importance of an achievement which is confirmed by the evidence, so to speak, of its failure”). And some of his readings of individual artworks are all but incomprehensible. His strength, as you would expect from the author of A Giacometti Portrait, is the creative process. His description of the artist’s travails in Geneva is unforgettable, and worth quoting:

Sack after sack of plaster was hefted up the circular staircase, but neither the size nor the number of acceptable works increased, while the accumulating residue gradually transformed the little room into a bizarre wilderness. Chunks and crumbs and flakes and dust of plaster settled upon every surface, clogged every crevice, filled every crack, seeped through every seam of the room itself and of everything in it, including the man whose efforts had brought into being this weird, ancillary spectacle, by which he himself was transformed. His hair, his face, his hands, his clothes were so penetrated with plaster dust that no amount of washing or brushing could eliminate it, and for five hundred yards around the Hôtel de Rive the streets bore the ghostly imprints of his footsteps.

Grenier’s biography is very much the anti-Lord. There is a notable absence of Lord’s sturm und drang, and the author has taken it upon herself to dispel myths—even those fostered by Giacometti himself—and correct misperceptions. For example, she is careful to note that it is only “according to legend” that Giacometti transported the fruit of his Geneva labors back to Paris in September 1945 in six matchboxes. She is excellent on the work—an entire, illuminating chapter is devoted to The Palace at 4 a.m. Perhaps the greatest difference between her book and Lord’s is in the portrayal of Annette, who emerges as a flesh-and-blood person, a loyal if long-suffering companion. Grenier and those she quotes use words such as “joyful,” “adaptable,” “good-natured and always calm and content,” and “patient” to describe her.

But Grenier’s would not be the valuable life it is were it only a riposte to Lord. She also greatly enriches and adds to our understanding of the artist. Accounts of the influence of his painter father Giovanni have generally been limited to pointing out that he let the young boy paint and draw alongside him in his studio, guided his art education, and insisted he move to Paris in 1922 to widen his horizons. In Grenier’s account, Giovanni emerges as a much more important influence than previously known, decisively shaping his aesthetic: “For Alberto’s father, the question of representation was central. The organic bond between art and nature was the essential lesson he was to inculcate into his son, though he left him free to take up his own aesthetic position.”

Besides himself, his brother Diego, Annette, and his mother, the other great “character” in Giacometti’s life was his studio.

In addition, she is excellent on the pivotal episodes in Giacometti’s life. Her account of the 1945 epiphany in the movie theater is the best I have read. Just as valuably, she clarifies—hopefully once and for all—the exact relationship between Giacometti’s art and Existentialism as well as its place in the historical context of post–World War II Europe, when his figures tended to be seen as depictions of ravaged humanity. They are about something larger: stillness, timelessness, and presence. Or as Grenier says, quoting Jean-Paul Sartre, “Giacometti was seeking a truth that exists outside of history’s grasp.”

Besides himself, his brother Diego, Annette, and his mother, the other great “character” in Giacometti’s life was his studio. His living and working space for some four decades, it became as legendary as Brancusi’s—visited, filmed, and photographed and meticulously recreated for the film Final Portrait under the watchful eye of the Fondation Giacometti. It was famously small—only about fifteen feet square—filled with works in progress, completed works, drawings on the walls, and the materials of creation. And it was just as famously Spartan: “[E]xterior communal toilets, no bathroom, a simple portable stove that did not allow for cooking, an old coal stove for heat. The pipes froze in winter and the leaks in the roof grew so large that [Giacometti’s dealer] Pierre Matisse had to send them tar paper from New York to seal the gaps,” Grenier writes at one point. Oh, and “a plant sprouting through a crack in the wall that he had let grow into a small bush.”

Giacometti’s reconstructed studio at the Giacometti Institute in Paris. Photo: Financial Times.

And the studio is, now, the first thing you encounter when you visit the Giacometti Institute, literally, for it sits just inside the front door on the right. It is an extraordinary experience to be in the presence of the real thing after seeing so many photos of it and reading of its centrality to Giacometti’s art and life. On the far side are the two original studio walls, the two near “walls” being edge-to-edge, floor-to-ceiling glass panes. Inside in the nearmost corner is a long table covered with brushes, paints, and other paraphernalia of the painter. Diagonally across in the far corner is a single bed with one of the artist’s coats thrown across it as if he had just come in. Between are a sculpture stand on which rests a version of the portrait he was working on at his death, his easel, and his chair. Next to the chair a low table with his ashtray—filled. The famous drawings are visible on the far walls, and there is sculpture of all kinds and from all phases of his career everywhere, among them a group of standing figures, some with their armatures exposed in one corner; under the table a plaster version of No More Play and other surrealist works; on the other side of the room a plaster of Cube, a tall Standing Woman, and shelf upon shelf of smaller sculptures.

Small it is, but it doesn’t feel small. (In typical Giacomettian fashion, he once told someone that “The longer I stayed, the larger it grew.”) Rather, it feels sufficient to the needs of someone whose art is based on close proximity to and scrutiny of the living model and who, whether painting or sculpting, always had his work within his arms’ reach.

In that regard, the whole thing powerfully evokes the presence of the artist and, without sensationalism or artifice, makes you something of a witness to the creative process. There is a window seat on the short wall, and if you sit there and position yourself behind Giacometti’s chair you find yourself exactly at the height, and with the same sightline to the easel, as he would have had. It’s hard to think of another environment that offers such a vivid, direct connection with the artist.

Fifty years after his death, Giacometti today seems as alive and available to us as ever. One wonders what the artist, who famously believed his every effort had ended in failure, would have made of that.

Installation view of “Giacometti” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: David Heald.

1 “Giacometti” opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, on June 8 and remains on view through September 12, 2018.

2 Alberto Giacometti: A Biography, by Catherine Grenier; Flammarion, 335 pages, $40.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 1, on page 32
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