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History's Hand

A timely Giacometti retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art suggests that he captured something essential about the last century that's relevant again today.

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The skinny: Giacometti's Walking Man (1947).  

Does the twentieth century have a face? Is there an iconic human image that captures not just the likeness but also the essential character of the epoch? The soulful Giacometti (1901-66) comes closer than anyone else to providing that singular countenance. The heads and figures that he began to make around mid-century seem to emerge from the difficult clay of his era, as if cast into life by the fundamental pressures of modern history. That such an artist should have a retrospective this fall at the Museum of Modern Art seems strangely providential. The millennium is a natural moment, of course, to reconsider the iconic images of the past century. But the destruction of the World Trade Center -- which some observers believe marks a "return to history" after a period of oblivious indulgence -- also gives renewed urgency to Giacometti's art. Perhaps the twentieth century has never really left us.

Giacometti himself chose to leave behind a more playful early approach to art, which was part of the Parisian surrealism of the thirties, in order to make his celebrated iconic figures. In the art world, some people -- especially those who, like me, distrust the earnest -- have actually preferred Giacometti's early surrealist sculpture to his later, more famous work. Giacometti's haunting figures could sometimes seem overloaded with high-flown feeling. They could become a cliché of our culture, something for corny humanists to extol and Gauloise-smoking college students besotted by existentialism to admire. ("I can't go on; I must go on.") But the word that came to my mind, as I looked at them this dark autumn, was undeniable. It doesn't matter whether you love them or hate them. And it doesn't matter if you are indifferent to them. They are part of the imaginative skyline.

At MoMA, the retrospective -- jointly organized by Carolyn Lanchner and Anne Umland for MoMA and Christian Klemm and Tobia Bezzola for the Kunsthaus Zürich -- gives considerable weight to Giacometti's surrealism and paintings. It is installed on two floors, with the first floor dominated by his surrealist sculptures and the second by his painting and classic figurative sculpture. What soon becomes clear in the room of surrealist objects is that the work of the Swiss artist was from the beginning much more serious-minded, less clubby and more in earnest, than that of the Parisian surrealists who befriended him. His bristling Disagreeable Object, To Be Thrown Away displays the kind of charming, campy attitude cultivated by the surrealists. But his great works of the period do not have the look of a café style. They appear more necessary, even needy. Woman With Her Throat Cut is far more disturbing than the erotic crimes dreamed up by most surrealists. It is more truly visceral and less like a parlor game. The bones themselves could almost be knives. And The Palace at 4 a.m. is more than just another dreamy stage set. The careful geometries define the space of thought. The symbols -- a bird, a spinal cord, a woman -- trace the lineaments of the imagination. Giacometti has set the metaphysical table.

In such works, Giacometti struggled to express some essential apprehension of the reality beneath surface appearances. He could finally do so only through touch. Caress (Despite Hands) -- a work as paradoxical as a Zen koan -- is a piece of marble that contains two lightly traced and incised hands on either side of what could be the thrown-back head of a woman, a pregnant bulge, or even a fetal form. In this piece, the desire to hold the ineffable -- to know a touch more intimate than the hand can realize -- is perfectly put. And it was this sensation of reaching for the unreachably real, of capturing the heart of paradox, that Giacometti took with him as he left official surrealism behind in the thirties.

In his portraits of the forties and fifties, Giacometti always sought the likeness -- but did not settle for that simple reality. The head of any friend he depicted would be worked and reworked, sometimes becoming a kind of dense, blackened globe at the center of the image. From the knotty head radiated other lights and spaces in a kind of ever-expanding aura; the mind seemed to open into an endless succession of rooms. Giacometti's palette was dark and muddy, full of smudges, erasures, and scratchings. The paint itself became an earthy clay full of rich intimations -- a plowed and seeded field rather than a harvested crop. Even if he had never made any three-dimensional objects, you would suppose that these were the paintings of a sculptor.

In the celebrated sculptures, too, the space around the figure became a vital part of the work. Giacometti was inspired, in part, by the idea and appearance of people viewed in the distance. The figures he made, whether tiny or large, seemed to capture not just a literal but a metaphorical sense of great distance -- to imply immensities. What pulls, stretches, and elongates the figures? Surely it is those same large spaces that you find pulsing and radiating through the paintings. The sculptures stand out from the paintings, however, because they also appear more than personal. They seem to speak for a civilization, not just an artist, much like the stone heads on Easter Island or the hieratic statuary of Egyptian art. Each of his three major themes in the classic sculpture has an archetypal air. The walking men embody the striving of mankind, the standing women "the other," the busts consciousness itself.

What makes the figures iconic, however, is that they give body to the great questions and paradoxes of modernity. Would you call Giacometti's figures primitive or sophisticated, contemporary or archaic? They are all of the above. The figures, at once immediate and timeless, find eternity in the past yet stride forward into the future or gaze unblinkingly at what lies ahead. (With the exception of Brancusi, no artist has so seamlessly fused the modern and ancient.) Built of dribs and drabs, they are remarkably solid. They are light as air but ungainly. They appear both abstract and representational, spiritual and earth-bound, solitary and part of a crowd. They emerge from the mud of modern history -- the merde of the twentieth century -- but it is not possible to say with what viewpoint. Are these works pessimistic or optimistic? The only answer is yes.

Alberto Giacometti
At the Museum of Modern Art; through 1/8/02.


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