Under the skin of Giacometti
The Swiss artist stripped away details of his subjects until they no longer resembled themselves, and in doing so, captured the realities that weren't otherwise seen. A new exhibition in Quebec City does the same for him
Saturday, March 10, 2018 – Print Edition, Page R3

QUEBEC CITY -- No artist gets the last word on the meaning of his or her art. Even so, it's striking how little the most common view of Alberto Giacometti's art has to do with what he thought he was up to.

Giacometti, who died in 1966, is best known for his tall, spindly bronzes of solitary figures.

After these were shown at a few high-profile exhibitions in the late 1940s and 50s, he was hailed as one of the few post-Holocaust artists capable of dealing with the horrors of the 20th century.

A British critic celebrated him in just those terms three years ago, during an exhibition at London's National Portrait Gallery.

A career-long retrospective at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (MNBAQ) offers a very different view. The 160 works on display, and the perceptive commentaries in the exhibition catalogue, show an artist more engaged with personal obsessions than with the troubles of the larger world.

Giacometti's father was a successful naturalist painter, and for a while it seemed that his son would follow a similar path. He veered toward a more modern way of describing what could be painted or sculpted after leaving the ItalianSwiss village of his birth and setting himself up in Paris at the age of 21.

"You never copy a glass on the table, you copy the residue of an act of seeing," he said in a 1962 interview that appears in the catalogue. But that residue would not ultimately be expressed through colour and light, as in the works of Turner and the impressionists. It would come more through the sharp line of a pencil or fine brush - or the fingernail with which, in a 1964 video shown at the exhibition, Giacometti defines the eyes of a sculpture in progress.

In the mid-1920s, he fell in with surrealists such as André Breton and Salvador Dali. Giacometti's constructions and sculptures from this period, the first works to bring him fame, are suggestive material fantasies that are often playful, erotic or violent. Disagreeable Object could be a barbed phallus, a tooth from an extinct giant cat or an example of the sportive geometric impulse that also fuelled Cubism.

Other pieces, such as Spoon Woman, reflect the craze for the "primitive" that swept through the studios of many European artists in the early 20th century. Three remarkable busts of the artist's father show the face first as a threedimensional construction, secondly as a flat drawing on a head-like block and finally as a mask that could be related to some ancient ritual.

Giacometti split with the surrealists in 1935, but their interest in the symbolic currents flowing from the unconscious remained a feature of his art. He went back to working with live models and cultivated a practice that tended to reduce the human face or figure to a set of resonant, stylized traces.

Sometimes, these traces recalled artifacts of art history or archeology. As curator Catherine Grenier points out, many of Giacometti's standing female figures adopt the flattened pose of classical Egyptian sculpture.

His sculptures took on a rough, handmade appearance, unlike the smooth finish of pieces such as Disagreeable Object. Many of his later sculptures have heavily worked surfaces that resemble magma or corroded metal dug up from ages past. For the rest of his life, he made room in his work for the archetypal and the primordial.

That may have been a form of ballast for his self-declared mission: to pursue realities he said were too evanescent to be captured fully. "The more you approach, the more the object retreats," he said. His works were "failed copies," mainly because his goal was impossible by definition.

"Before the war, I had the impression of the stability of things," he said in the 1962 interview.

"Today, not at all."

That sounds dire, and maybe political, but he immediately went on to express his increasing wonder at the ever-changing world. Solidity, for him, was an illusion, much as he seemed to reach for it in busts whose tiny heads, in a series of fifties sculptures of his brother Diego, rest on mountainous torsos.

In all media, he pared down to what mattered, even when the results baffled and terrified him. He spent the war years in Geneva, where his sculptures shrank to the size of a finger joint. He promised himself to defend the heft of his material against the need to whittle it down, but as the figures grew tall again, they became thin as twigs.

One irony of these twig men is that the most famous - Walking Man and Pointing Man - are also atypical of Giacometti's work in that they show figures in motion. Most of his figures are static, as if the artist wanted us to contemplate only their being, not their doing.

Giacometti retrospectives have tended to focus on his bronzes as the "finished" versions.

His real sculptural medium, however, was plaster, which he sometimes painted. The MNBAQ exhibition includes many original plasters, whose fragility and intimacy convey a different feeling than the sturdier, more public bronzes.

The other great revelations of this show (a larger version of which was seen last summer at Tate Modern) are the paintings - some 50 canvases and works on wood, including one cut from the wall of his Paris studio. Giacometti seems never to have moved toward a heavy surface texture in painting as he did in sculpture.

His most powerful gestures are made with a brush as fine-tipped as a pencil, in linear strokes that suggest the volumes and hollows of the face, especially the eyes. He gives a demonstration in the video loop, swiftly outlining a facial topography that is surprisingly academic.

Another artist might have buried these signs of analytic life drawing under layers of facial modelling. In Giacometti's portraits, they're on the surface, streaked with luminosity. Around the eyes, they focus the sitter's gaze to a mesmerizing degree. Caroline in a Red Dress, one of many portraits of the young girlfriend of his final years, has an intensity and presence that has to be experienced to be believed.

Giacometti was proud of his skill as a draftsman, and that was perhaps his defining trait in all media. His emaciated sculptures, some of them little more than humanoid spikes, resemble line drawings in space. His last portraits are all about lines, and finally about the two points of the eyes, defined and dramatized through that magic with the fine-tipped strokes. Everything else is background, devoid of careful definition or of almost any colour but grey.

He lived in Paris almost all his working life, but remained a villager in his habits. He seldom travelled, except back home, and saw close friends such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (who also posed for him) every day.

Even when he became well-off, he stayed in his tiny studio - less than 25 metres square - like a village bootmaker. He and his wife, Annette, slept in a room next door, and Diego, also an artist, had a studio across the street.

He made dozens of portraits of Diego, Annette and friends whose faces never ceased to fascinate him. He even paid for one Japanese pal to fly back from Japan so he could park him in a chair for many more hours of posing. Giacometti's relations with another of his sitters were dramatized last year in Stanley Tucci's film Final Portrait, starring Geoffrey Rush as the artist.

Why so many portraits of the same people?

Working with a known face gave Giacometti a history of reference, allowing him to go deeper into the mystery of the ever-changing face. With so much variety visible in just one, to open up to more varied subjects in a bigger studio might have brought far too much world into his field of vision. "You can't do anything without confining yourself to a small domain," he said.

He also said: "When my wife poses for me, after three days she no longer resembles herself."

That may be the best description of his art: He made portraits of people who did not resemble themselves. Of Giacometti, however, the MNBAQ's beautifully installed show offers a very convincing resemblance.

Alberto Giacometti, a project of the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec and the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, continues in Quebec City through May 13 ( Another iteration opens at New York's Guggenheim Museum on June 8.

Associated Graphic

Sculptures and paintings by Alberto Giacometti will be on display at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec until June.


Contrary to popular analyses of the artist, the 160 works and the perceptive commentaries in the exhibition catalogue show an artist more engaged with personal obsessions than with the troubles of the larger world.

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