Sunday, June 17, 2018

Giacometti at the Guggenheim


Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City

June 8, 2018 - September 12, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Photos by Anne Lloyd 

One of the first sculptures on display at the Guggenheim Museum's new exhibit of the lifework of Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) is entitled Walking Man I. It is one of Giacometti's signature pieces, a notable example of the gaunt, featureless beings that have come to symbolize the post-Auschwitz, nuclear-weaponized world which emerged from the carnage of World War II.

The Giacometti exhibit at the Guggenheim is little short of sensational, with nearly two hundred works of art on view, sculptures, drawings, paintings. The works of art are mostly from the collection of the Fondation Giacometti in Paris. Among these generous loans, Walking Man I is a "standout" in many respects.

The significance of Walking Man I extends beyond the apocalyptic years of the Second World War back to the sculptor's youth. It is worth pausing a brief moment from reviewing the marvelous exhibit at the Guggenheim to look at an incident vividly described in the great biography of Giacometti by James Lord. 

Giacometti was a precocious fifteen year-old student at a elite Swiss boarding school when the event occurred. On the way home for the Christmas 1915 holiday, Giacometti stopped in a bookstore. He chanced upon an illustrated volume about the artwork of Auguste Rodin. The sight of the pictures of Rodin's sculptures filled the young Giacometti with awe. He bought the expensive book, even though this left him short of money to get home.

Clutching his book on Rodin, Giacometti trudged the final ten miles home over a mountain pass on a freezing, snowy night to his hometown of Stampa in rural Switzerland. That perilous journey set the tone for the rest of his life.

Striding forward, trudging onward, advancing against the winter winds, Giacometti became the Walking Man he would later sculpt. Rodin, himself, early in his career, had sculpted a figure with the same title. It is quite likely that there was a picture of this Rodin statue in Giacometti's book. Giacometti eventually became the new Rodin, an art traditionalist with a revolutionary vision. 

Giacometti painting in his Paris studio, 1958. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger 

As if that legacy were not enough, Giacometti took on the role of the Walking Man for all of Western art.  Making our way up the ramps of the Guggenheim Museum, we are given the privileged opportunity to explore the course of Giacometti's engagement with ideals of art going back to the ancient Egyptians and the Cycladic art of the very earliest Greek cultures. We are enabled also to join in Giacometti's dialogue with other great artists and thinkers of the twentieth century.

A friend of Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet, Giacometti was in many ways an existentialist figure. However, Giacometti denied aiming to create definitive Existentialist art works. The same role had earlier applied to his short-lived Surrealist career during the early 1930's. Giacometti was and wasn't a new Rodin, was and wasn't a Surrealist or an Existentialist artist. 

Why the seeming contradictions?  Giacometti held to a singular, individualistic course of art that precluded him from ever joining, much less leading, a school of art, a new "ism."

"I am very interested in art but I am instinctively more interested in truth," Giacometti declared. "The more I work, the more I see differently.”

Giacometti was haunted by anxieties and nightmares that surfaced in his art. These were both personal and prophetic. Death, the negation of life and art, was a hovering specter. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit
Giacometti's The Forest (1950) appears in front

Giacometti feared that his oeuvre represented the final chapter of the great age of Western art. This disturbing reflection, brilliantly explored in James Lord's biography, was not founded upon an arrogant self-regard. Instead, by the 1950's, Giacometti believed that the dominant creed of modern art, Abstract Expression, was headed in the direction of a cul-de-sac.

James Lord quotes Giacometti around the time of his MOMA exhibit in 1965, a year before he died.

How can one talk here about copies of works of art, frail and ephemeral works of art that exist here and there on continents, works of art that decay, disintegrate, that wither away day after day, and many of which - among them those that I prefer - have already once been buried, hidden beneath sand, earth, and stones? And they all follow the same path.

Frail and ephemeral are appropriate words to use in describing many of the works of art created by Giacometti. His favorite medium for creating statues was initially clay, but switched to using plaster in his later years. When he was satisfied with an image (Giacometti was very exacting), his brother Diego would then cast the statues in bronze which we encounter in museums all over the world. Six versions of Walking Man I were cast in 1960; the one on view in the Guggenheim exhibit was done later in 1982.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit
In the foreground, is Giacometti's Woman Leoni, 1947-58

The Guggenheim exhibit features a massive array of Giacometti's works in all media. The plaster originals are much in evidence and it is a special treat to be able to study so many of them in one showing. In the case of several of these delicate plasters. These include Woman Leoni which curators restored, using laser technology to remove the layer of shellac which was applied during the casting process. 

Now we can see these "frail and ephemeral" and spiritually forceful works of art exactly as Giacometti saw them before instructing Diego to begin casting them in bronze. In their finished state, Giacometti's sculptures seem to exist in several time periods at once. 

Giacometti's The Chariot (1950) is a key example of the "time-bending" nature of Giacometti's art. After a visit to an archaeological museum in Italy, Giacometti became intrigued with ancient Egypt. The thin wheels on The Chariot replicate those of Egyptian war chariots from the New Kingdom. Yet, nothing in Giacometti's art can be reduced to a single element or influence.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Alberto Giacometti's The Chariot (1950)

Giacometti stated that a memory of pharmacy cart which he saw during a stay in the hospital played a role in the creation of The Chariot. He also declared that he aimed to create a work of art with a figure posed in empty space "in order to see it better and to situate it at a precise distance from the floor."

The answer to the source of The Chariot would therefore seem to be "all of the above." Yet, I cannot help but think that there is a spiritual level still waiting to be exposed after we peel away all the other layers of explanation. 

The Chariot was created in 1945 after Giacometti had spent the war years creating sculptures of tiny figures, mostly women, positioned on massive bases. These small figures are imprisoned by their bases while the female driver of The Chariot seems poised to launch into space. There is a real sense of awakening to freedom here which is rendered even more brilliant by the effect of the shadows cast by the chariot wheels and by the queen or goddess driver. She stands ready to command the vehicle forward in a bid for liberation.

I spent a lot of time looking at The Chariot. This incredible work of art was first displayed in the U.S. in 1950 at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. It's only a "slight" exaggeration to say that I would not have been surprised to look back and see its gallery space at The Guggenheim vacant and Giacometti's magical cart on its way down the Guggenheim's ramp toward the door to Fifth Ave.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit
at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum, New York City

Truthfully, the "magic" of this sensational exhibit has much to do with the Guggenheim's design and the history which the museum and New York City shares with Giacometti. This is the third major exhibit of his work at the Guggenheim. The first took place in 1955 before the present Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building was constructed. The second was a major retrospective held in 1974. Along with the trailblazing Matisse Gallery show in 1950 and the 1965 MOMA exhibit, New York City's role in the Giacometti story is second only to that of Paris.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit
Three of Giacometti's Women of Venice sculptures are shown here.

The special "magic" of this Giacometti exhibit is due to the fact that the spiraling ramp of the Guggenheim rotunda is the perfect display space for a retrospective emphasizing sculpture. The numinous shadow effect, mentioned in relation to The Chariot, appears and reappears. And often, due to the superb lighting, spacious display area and reflective surfaces of the display cases, we glimpse an interaction between museum goers and works of art. Anne caught such a unique moment with this picture of City Square (1948).

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Alberto Giacometti's City Square sculpture (1948)

When I mentioned how impressed I was with the Giacometti exhibit to the Guggenheim curator, Megan Fontanella, she paused for a moment and replied, "Sculpture sings at the Guggenheim."

When you look closely at key Giacometti in the exhibit, you cannot help but agree. Viewing Spoon Woman, influenced by the Cycladic art of early Greece, creates an atmosphere where the resonance of ancient ritual and music is almost palpable.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Alberto Giacometti's City Spoon Woman (1927)

If Spoon Woman "sings" then a full chorus is needed for Suspended Ball. In its shimmering case, Suspended Ball is one of the most animated and articulated of Giacometti's works on display. The only thing "suspended" about it is the string that holds it up in its supporting frame. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit 
Work at center is Giacometti's Suspended Ball (1930-31).

"Suspense" rather than "suspended" is a more meaningful adjective to apply to Suspended Ball. The work exist in the millisecond before action takes place, while we wait anxiously and at the ready. The next moment, the ball in its crescent-shaped support will start "rocking" like a baby in its cradle. 

That is an irrational concept. Indeed it is a surreal thought. AndrĂ© Breton, the "Pope of Surrealism" sought a meeting with Giacometti after seeing Suspended Ball. Giacometti, open to new experience, joined the Surrealist movement, but it was to prove a brief association. Giacometti, like almost all of the first-rank artists involved in Surrealism, could only tolerate Breton's doctrinaire ideology and insufferable manipulation for so long. This is one of the themes of the recent book, The Lives of the Surrealists by Desmond Morris.

Giacometti is in many ways the ultimate "Surrealist" because his works transcends tangible reality. Deeply moved by dreams - and nightmares - Giacometti often drew-upon the unconscious to inform and inspire his work. 

Giacometti's Surrealist period produced one of his key, transitional works, Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018),Details of Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)

In 1934, he created the plaster original (now in the collection of the Yale University art museum) of the first length human statue. Giacometti was partly influenced by the art of the Pacific Islands, but the face was modeled on a World War I gas mask and the eyes from Byzantine mosaics.

While pointing toward his later statues, Hands Holding the Void remains a Surrealist work. There is a nightmarish quality to this remarkable sculpture. The figure seems trapped by the setting which appears to be some sort of chair with a prie-dieux or "kneeler" as you find in chapels. Is this a protest against the confining structure of organized religions or perhaps, slyly, the "religion" of Surrealism?

Giacometti did not, would not, cut his ties with the immediate world around him. As the world in 1945 revealed images of concentration camp survivors - emaciated, gaunt, blank-eyed - Giacometti responded with works that utilized the people and objects in his immediate orbit to create universal statements on life. 

Giacometti's portraits were the primary means by which he depicted ultimate realities of the world after World War II. He posed his brother Diego, his wife Annette, luminaries like Simone de Beavoir and now-forgotten acquaintances to create existential icons - and for once the term "icon" is not misused.

Giacometti's portraits are so fascinating - and involved - that I am going to treat them in detail in a later, focused review. The Giacometti exhibit at the Guggenheim, truly one of the best I have ever seen, defies a single review. There are too many worlds of experience here, calling for our attention.

For now, I will conclude with a reflection on Man Pointing from 1947. If there is one, essential, Giacometti work of art, i believe that this is it. I feel that a lot of art lovers would agree, though perhaps for different reasons.

Man Pointing was created during the grim aftermath of World War II and the equally grim opening round of the Cold War. Giacometti's "thin man" gestures toward the sky and points earthward. This sculpture is an embodiment of the basic contradictions of life. It reminds me of the title of the medieval philosophy treatise, Sic et Non, by Peter Abelard. Yes or no. 

Abelard, during the twelfth century, sought to reconcile conflicting points of religious doctrine. Giacometti, with his persevering search for truth, endeavored to do the same for the arts and society during the twentieth century. However, there is only so much reconciling, so much negotiating that people can do in life before we become the slaves of expediency. Ultimately, a choice must be made.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit
Art work is Giacometti's Man Pointing (1947).

That is what Man Pointing "said" to me as I confronted him at the Guggenheim gallery. Reaching toward heaven, Man Pointing pointed at me. 

"Make your choice", Man Pointing declared. "The choice is yours."


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of Anne Lloyd and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City 

Introductory Image:    
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Alberto Giacometti's Walking Man I, 1960 (cast 1982) Bronze: 71 1/16  x 10 5/8  x 38 3/16 inches  (180.5 x 27 x 97 cm). Collection Fondation Giacometti, Paris. # 2016.177

Ernst Scheidegger (Swiss, 1923-2016) Giacometti painting in his Paris studio, 1958. © 2017 Stiftung Ernst Scheidegger-Archiv, Zurich Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Giacometti Exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. Giacometti's The Forest (1950) appears in the foreground.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018)  Photo of Giacometti exhibition at at the Guggenheim Musseum. Statue is foreground is Woman Leoni, 1947-58.  Plaster:  66 15/16 x 7 1/2  x 16 9/16 inches  (170 x 19 x 42 cm). Collection Fondation Giacometti, Paris. # 2016.10513

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Alberto Giacometti's The Chariot, 1950. Bronze on wood base: 65 3/4 x 27 3/16 x 27 3/16 inches (167x 69 x 69 cm) Denise & Andrew Saul # 2016.144

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit at the Solomon R, Guggenheim Museum, New York City

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit, showing three of the Women of Venice statues, dating to the 1950's. On view at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum, New York City

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Alberto Giacometti's City Square,1948. Bronze: 8 1/2 x 25 3/8 x 17 1/4" (21.6 x 64.5 x 43.8 cm) Private collection. x 2016.10647

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Guggenheim Exhibit showing Alberto Giacometti's  Suspended Ball,1930-1931 (version of 1965). Plaster, painted metal and string: 23.7/8 x 14 x 14.3/16 in. (60.6 x 35.6 x 36.1 cm) Collection Fondation Giacometti, Paris. # 2016.92

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Alberto Giacometti's Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)(Detail), 1934 (cast ca. 1954-55).  Bronze:  59 7/8 x 12 7/8 x 10 in. (152.1 x 32.7 x 25.4cm) Museum of Modern Art Louise Reinhardt Smith Bequest # 775.1995 © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Alberto Giacometti's Man pointing, 1947 (cast by 1949).  Bronze, 70 1/16 x 37 3/8 x 20 1/8" (178 x 95 x 52 cm) Tate Museum, London. # 2016.136

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