The Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti is best known for his sculptures. Like one of his great influences, Constantin Brâncuși, he brought a powerful vision to bear on physical form, testing its expressive limits by seeking its fundamental properties. Like many of his contemporaries in interwar and post-war Paris, he drew inspiration from the stark simplicity of antiquity. The intense and meditative Giacometti plumbed these depths through a process legendary for its slow pace and refusal to flinch from the most radical reimaginings of the work at hand.
The Guggenheim Museum’s new show, Giacometti, which opened in early June, delves into the best-known works of the sculptor and investigates his lesser-known work as well, including his powerful portraiture. We spoke with the show’s curator, Megan Fontanella, about the artist and his life and the concept of the exhibition.
Fontanella took pains to point out that Giacometti came from a background where art enjoyed a place of prominence. “His father, Giovanni Giacometti, was a post-Impressionist artist, in a more painterly tradition. We see Alberto Giacometti and his brother Diego as well really taking up this family tradition of art-making. He was born in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, but he comes to Paris in the early 1920’s to pursue this more classical training.” This move proved to be crucial for Giacometti. As Fontanella observed, “it's there in this seat of modernism that he encounters the work of Lipchitz, Picasso, and others who are working in a more Cubist idiom. It's transformative for his practice. Constantin Brâncuși's work, I would say, in particular changes the direction of Giacometti's own work. He really embraces sculpture and experiments in these early years with Cubism, starts to work in more of a surrealist vein. It's when his work is shown in 1931 in Paris that André Breton, the leader of the Surrealist group, famously encounters Giacometti's Suspended Ball on view there and invites him to officially join them.”
But his influences did not solely come from the heady atmosphere of Paris between the wars. He looked to the talents that paved the way for his own work, too. “Even as he's really trying to articulate his own personal style,” Fontanella says, “Paul Cezanne and other earlier, older masters were a strong influence. Giacometti later said something to the effect that every young artist should begin by copying an apple. I love this idea that Cezanne was this underlying influence and presence in his work. Giacometti himself would go on to make a number of still life with fruit. But even just in the way his sculpture and painting takes form.” He also looked to traditions outside his own for inspiration and guidance. “Giacometti is visiting the ethnology museum in Paris during these early years,” Fontanella says. “He's an avid reader of the avant-garde magazines, Cahiers d'Art and others, that are reproducing and displaying any number of ancient Western art forms. African art, Oceanic art, ancient Greek art. And it's these forms, again, that Giacometti is bringing into his own work and experimenting with in the 1930’s. By that time we see him with works like Spoon Woman, which we have here in the Guggenheim's collection.”
The show itself, Fontanella says, feels very of its moment. She noted that Giacometti’s mature work comes out of the difficult, anxiety-laced world as it recovers from the catastrophes of the Second World War. The isolation many thinking people felt then has a descendant in our hypertechnological era. “I do think Giacometti translates and continues to have relevance and to provoke discussion, particularly his mature post-war work which was created in this time of post-World War II anxiety and alienation. In today's world we are so connected with so many technological advances that you, in seconds, can be in touch with anyone really. And yet that has reduced our personal relationships in some ways. Giacometti was very interested in this idea of crowds and how we move on the street, how one can feel alone in a crowd. I think that's an interesting concept that will have relevance, that some of our museumgoers will connect with his work in that way. At his core, he's deeply interested in humanity and connecting with individuals.”
As for the specific timing, Fontanella noted that there hasn't been a retrospective of Giacometti’s work in the U.S. in more than 15 years. She sees this as “an opportunity for a new generation of museumgoers to encounter his work. It's also, for us, a really exciting opportunity to collaborate with the Giacometti Foundation in Paris. They are our co-organizers and collaborators on the project. The bulk of the exhibition will be paintings, drawings, and sculptures from their holdings. I think what's always quite fascinating is how an emblematic artist of the 20th century can feel really fresh and relevant to 21st-century audiences.
This collaboration added another important dimension to the show: allowing museumgoers to acquaint themselves with Giacometti’s more obscure works. “It was really quite extraordinary,” says Fontanella, “to be able to mine their collections and show some works that haven't been seen in this country at all, or have been very rarely seen. In particular, some drawings and sketch books as well as unique plasters. With Giacometti, I think audiences are more familiar with his works cast in bronze, sometimes decades after they were produced. It's exciting for us to be able to present his work across these different media.”
There is also a long and powerful history between the institution and the artist, Fontanella pointed out. “In 1955 the Guggenheim presented — at a temporary location, because the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda building was still under construction — the first museum exhibition of Giacometti's work. That was under our second director, James Johnson Sweeney, who was close with the artist and saw an opportunity there to bring sculpture into the Guggenheim's collection. Peggy Guggenheim was another very early supporter. She presented his work in 1945 in New York at her museum gallery. It's something that links us with our sister institution in Venice. They have six works in their collections today.”