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.”
Giacometti is at least as well known for his attention to and obsession with process as he is for his works themselves; the merciless re-approaches he made to his paintings and sculpture are part of what endow them with such power. “He really reworked and reworked his surfaces,” Fontanella says. “You see that across all media, whether it’s the sculptures or the paintings or drawings, the way he’s building up his forms with lines, not the smoother surfaces of a Brâncuși sculpture. He would at times work for hours on a sculpture and then take it apart and start over again. You see this really deep investigation, this struggle, if you will, to capture — particularly in his figurative work— that essence of humanity. He was so focused on this idea of the gaze and how one encounters the work.”
That is in large part what gives him a unique place in the constellation of modern artists. “He is so emblematic of 20th-century sculpture,” says Fontanella, “yet he’s so distinct. I do think he has this very singular practice, that he takes quite far. And he does die quite young, in fact, at the age of 65. He undoubtedly could have taken it even further. Early in his career, he is connected to Cubism and he is connected to the Surrealist group, but he’s also one of those artists who’s on the periphery and doing his own thing. Again, he’s Giacometti.”
The physical space he occupied formed an important part of this practice, Fontanella says. “Giacometti comes to Paris as a young man. By the mid-1920’s he moves into this 23-square-meter studio, and he never leaves. It’s the same studio he inhabits until the end of his life in 1966. That is a really fascinating part of the story, especially when you see the photographs of the studio. There’s materials everywhere. There’s pallets. There’s brushes. There’s sculptures in various states. But it really forces him to be literally knee-to-knee with his sitters. I think there’s something about that that he didn’t quite want to escape from. Diego, his brother, joined him in the studio and was his studio assistant, as well as an artist in his own right, and his most frequent model. So there’s something about that familiarity and repetition of both his space and the models that’s certainly really essential to his story.”
She argues as well that he enjoyed as deep associations with writers as he did with his fellow artists. “Jean Genet and Isaku Yanaihara,” she says, “these are all his subjects. These are the people who are sitting with him for hours and hours, days and days. Yanaihara, a Japanese existentialist philosopher, sat with him for something like 230 days. These conversations are happening as he’s making the art. He’s telling his sitters to sit quite still and yet saying ‘Let’s talk. Let’s have these conversations.’ Those conversations are making their way into his artwork. Especially in the post-war era, existentialist philosophy was quite influential on him. That post-war climate of isolation and anxiety was manifest in his work. I think so many people know his sculpture, if nothing else, and these iconic works like Walking Man and the elongated tall standing female figures. But his paintings, I think, are quite, quite interesting — they tell a rich story of who he was encountering and who he was influenced by.”
As for the show itself, Fontanella recommends both the lesser- and better-known works it contains. “I’ve really delighted in the quiet moments in our exhibition, the hidden gems,” she says. “I think his work in small scale — his works from the 1940’s depicting his nephew Silvio, for instance — are really quite wonderful. There are also some paintings of his wife, Annette, that are more intimate in scale but quite extraordinary in the way he’s building up her face with these lines.
But for her, most powerful is the tableau of three works that that came together as a commission for the Chase Manhattan Plaza in lower Manhattan — the Walking Man, the Standing Woman, and the Monumental Head. “This was a commission that Giacometti was invited to submit a proposal for in 1958. Giacometti himself had never come to this country at that point, though he had had a rich career here. Those are his iconic works, the works that everyone knows. But when they come together in a single tableau, it sets the tone at the beginning of the exhibition. It’s a moment to step out of the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda into this space. And together they create this conversation about what might have been in lower Manhattan — the commission ultimately didn’t happen. Giacometti withdrew from the competition in 1961. And he recreated this tableau of these pieces later at the Venice Biennale. With this monument, he would have permitted audiences to enter his world — world where trees are women, these tall elongated figures. Where stones are heads. Where these walking men traverse space.”
To understand the compositional philosophy that produced these almost alien forms, Fontanella recommends listening to the artist himself. “He once said something to the effect that he tried to make them broader, but they just got narrower and narrower. Sometimes he plays things off as almost accidental. He comes to a small scale in the years leading up to the war because he’s just working things, reworking, reworking — and suddenly something that started much bigger is now small. It almost seems accidental, but at the same time it’s not. Concerns of scale and perspective are paramount in his work. He’s an artist who’s looking back to the Renaissance, looking back to ideas about perspective and thinking about how that translates to both his painting and his sculpture.”