Alberto Giacometti did not start making the sculptures he is famous for until he was in his mid-40s. Born in Switzerland in 1901, he had had a long and varied career: he flirted with Primitivism, experimented with Cubism and regularly exhibited with the Surrealists in bohemian Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. He spent the second world war in Geneva, where he endlessly whittled away at plaster busts and figures that were small enough to be carried around in matchboxes.
After the war, Giacometti returned to a Paris pockmarked with ruins and haunted by the survivors of concentration camps. He soon fell in with a group of existentialist philosophers and writers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Genet, who were busy questioning the meaning of existence in the face of unfathomable suffering and the emptiness of modern life. The next 15 years or so would be the most prolific period of Giacometti’s life, as he filled his cramped and dusty studio with elongated sculptures of men and women. Modelled aggressively in plaster and cast in soot-dark bronze, these pieces vibrate with a melancholic solitude, whether they are presented alone or in groups. Reedy, impressionistic and as slender as whippets, they evoke both the horrors of war and its fraught aftermath.
Many of these sculptures can now be seen at the Guggenheim in New York, which is hosting a retrospective of Giacommeti’s work. It is an impressive show, even if there is little new to say about a man who enjoyed tremendous success in his lifetime, and who has hardly fallen out of favour since he died in 1966, aged 64. The immediacy and singularity of Giacometti’s work has made him a reliable big-ticket item at auction; his bronze figures are now the top three most expensive sculptures ever sold. (Included in this show is “Man Pointing”, a six-foot-high work from 1947, which sold for $41m in 2015.) Yet this exhibition is a marvel, not only for the timelessness of Giacometti’s talent, but also for the timeliness of his vision. In this strange geopolitical moment, when the peaceful alliances of the postwar order are under threat, and twitchy world leaders send menacing messages about nuclear warfare in tweets before breakfast, Giacometti’s forlorn, emaciated figures offer a quietly grim reminder of the human consequences of conflict.
“Spoon Woman” (1926-27)
The precocious elder son of a painter, Giacometti happily worked with his father in his studio as a child, and then headed to Paris to continue his artistic studies in 1922. But he soon tired of the conventions of realism, so he plundered the imagery of African and Oceanic tribal sculptures in search of a more exotic aesthetic vocabulary. “Spoon Woman”, which stands around a metre high, is a particularly arresting result. Giacometti borrowed heavily from the human-shaped spoons used by the Dan tribe from north-west Africa. The sculpture’s intriguing shape juxtaposes a sensually concave, spoon-shaped bottom with a more harshly geometric bust and head.
“Suspended Ball” (1930–31)
Given the seriousness of Giacometti’s famous postwar sculptures, it has been easy to overlook his more amusing and often provocative Surrealist works. Giacometti’s sense of humour is evident in “Suspended Ball”, which marries his preoccupations with sex, violence and the unconscious in unsettling ways. This simple, playfully titillating sculpture caused a sensation when it was displayed in the window of the Galerie Pierre in 1931. Everyone who saw it “experienced a strong but indefinable sexual emotion relating to unconscious desires,” wrote Maurice Nadeau in “The History of Surrealism”, published in France in 1945. “This emotion was in no sense one of satisfaction, but one of disturbance, like that imparted by the irritating awareness of failure.”
“Woman with Her Throat Cut” (1932)
This alarming sculpture may be the most famous of Giacometti’s Surrealist works. It is certainly the most shocking. The woman in question looks like a terrifying insect writhing in pain. The artist requested that the piece be displayed on the floor without a pedestal, which enhances its creepy otherworldliness. Perhaps it is not surprising that Giacometti had an uncomfortable relationship with sex and women. A childhood illness left him infertile, and his problems with impotence were cured only by sex with prostitutes. Still, in 1949 he married the patient and loyal Annette Arm, who became his companion, muse and regular model (along with his younger brother Diego) for the rest of his life.
“Three Men Walking (Small Square)” (1948)
Giacometti’s return to working from models led to his break in 1935 with the Surrealists, who believed the only subject worthy of art was the unconscious. After the war, he found the existentialists’ bold questions, grim worldview and general sense of godlessness more inspiring. He developed a close friendship with Samuel Beckett, with whom he regularly took long, silent late-night walks up and down the Boulevard Raspail. (He designed a skinny plaster tree for Beckett’s re-staging of “Waiting for Godot” in 1961.) Giacometti was fascinated by the dynamism and alienation of modern urban life. His figures here (left) are at once purposeful and fragile. They move among each other but remain alone.
“The Nose” (1949; cast 1964)
Phallic, sadistic and startling, this sculpture has the weird and assertive feel of a nightmare. Critics have long seen it as a commentary on postwar anxiety and despair, and also as a reference to a traumatic experience Giacometti had as a young man when his travelling companion suddenly died. (In an article published in 1946, he described the man’s haunting transformation: “His nose lengthens, his cheeks grow hollow.”) With its skull-like head, gun-barrel neck and awkwardly confining cage, this piece incorporates a number of Giacometti’s visual themes.
“Caroline in a Red Dress” (c.1964–65)
Giacometti often lamented the impossibility of capturing a true likeness of anyone. The energy of his sculptures and paintings belie a process that was often long, painful and, in Giacometti’s eyes, Sisyphean. In his small studio in the rue Hippolyte-Maindron in southern Paris, he would obsess over every brush stroke and agonise over every pinch of clay. He demanded patience from his sitters as he was never satisfied with what he was doing. “The more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it,” he declared to James Lord, his biographer, who chronicled his own lengthy experience sitting for Giacometti in his charming book, “A Giacometti Portrait” (which was recently made into a film starring Geoffrey Rush as the tortured artist).
Giacometti’s studio was strewn with unfinished pieces, as he was forever blotting out his work to start over again. (The words of Beckett come to mind: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”) Given the intimacy and interminability of these sessions, it makes sense that Giacometti’s most regular sitters were devoted to him. They included his brother Diego, his wife Annette and his last mistress Caroline, the subject of this painting, who posed for Giacometti in the evenings from 1960 to 1965. The Guggenheim’s curators note that Giacometti typically presented Caroline from a restrained distance, whereas he saved his more intrusive (but often affectionate) close-ups for his wife.
Despite enjoying success and fame, Giacometti spent his final decade toiling into the small hours in the same studio where he began his career. Though he was often cursing his limitations, his tenacity remains inspiring. “I have the feeling, or the hope, that I am making progress each day,” he once stated. “That is what makes me work, compelled to understand the core of life.”
Giacometti Guggenheim until September 12th