Rodin in his time: Biographical materials saved from the Web
Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)
For biography see: http://www.alberto-giacometti.ch/en/film/biographie/index..html
Aspects of the art of Alberto Giacometti
Text archive copy of http://www.alberto-giacometti.ch/en/texte/nzz_artikel/26021967..html
Neue Zürcher Zeitung Feb. 26, 1967
Artworks, and this includes contemporary artworks, if they are not to be misinterpreted owing to a falsely understood notion of avant-gardism that renders all its most recent achievements and sensations absolute, require a double mental effort of appropriation - in terms of the historical field and of that of artistic sensibility, which itself changes in the course of time and is defined by contemporary life. In other words, the attempt here is to show that Giacometti's artistic world is more closely and vibrantly related to the early possibilities of sculptural figuration than is usually accepted.
Today there are sculptors who are world famous and whose activities take place before the eyes of the interested general public - a phenomenon that is rarely considered. In the 19th century the key artistic decisions taken were made by painters; sculpture was in an unprecedented state of crisis. In his review of the "Salons" of 1846 Baudelaire included a short section on the sculptures displayed there. Ths section started with a general discussion under the surprising heading "Pourquoi la sculpture est ennuyeuse." This sounds like a programmatic declaration. Baudelaire, as incisive an art critic as he was a poet, was of the opinion sculpture lacked the ability to be "modern". This is a trenchant announcement of the decline of sculpture in the 19th century. Not until Rodin did it become a means of creative expression of its day and age.
The leading role played by painting continued for a long time to be expressed by the fact that it was painters who, as it were on the side, also created the decisive works as sculptors; we need think only of Géricault, Daumier, Degas, or Gauguin - compared with their sculptural designs the "official" sculpture of the 19th century, that which the "professional" sculptors produced can, if viewed as a whole, be considered to have a conventional academic, historical and eclectic face. Even at the beginning of the 20the century, the "avant-garde" painters - such as Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Derain, Modigliani and Boccioni - in good part also defined "avant-garde" sculpture. And in order to gain the significance which it has today in the public eye, sculpture had to first extract itself from the spell of painting. This has been the achievement of sculpture in the 20th century, starting from such diametrically opposed positions as those of Rodin and Maillol.
It is of little import what major currents in the history of modern sculpture we focus on, for, put summarily: be it the preservation of a humanistic image of man with roots in Classical Antiquity, or "concrete" sculpture or the permeation of abstract and somehow figurative constellations - the balance is more opulent than any a critical observer only half a century ago would have ever dreamed it could be: a blossoming of sculpture of an extraordinary quality. The most evident symptom of this upturn is the fact that sculpture, even without official, state support or other forms of funding, has succeeded in creating valid symbols of the basic forces driving our age. This turn of events is primarily the result of efforts of a generation born "around 1900", that has proved to be possibly the most talented. Alongside Henry Moore (born 1898), Alexander Calder (born 1898) and Marino Marini (born 1901) we should first and foremost mention Alberto Giacometti (1901 to 1966).
Woman Walking (Femme qui marche), 1932.
As regards Alberto Giacometti, by contrast, both Sartre and Genet have in their reflections shed light on decisive sides of Giacometti's art, or at least as it has emerged since the 1940s. In other words, assigning Alberto Giacometti's art to the banner of "existentialism" is a legitimate device; the statement that it lends form to a type of existential symbolism of fate, as Werner Hofmann has suggested, may indeed be something to which at a very general level that oeuvre can lay claim.
The work of Giacometti certainly cuts to the quick for the artistically sensitive contemporary, especially the adolescent members thereof, presenting the key traits of "modern" consciousness and a feel for life today visually paraphrased in a manner unparalleled by any other artist of the age. Admittedly, this says little or nothing about the "absolute", enduring artistic ranking of Giacometti's oeuvre; but this does account for its fascinating, decidedly emotive topicality. An artistic achievement is no firmly circumscribed variable, but instead possesses its own historical future in which it gradually reveals its unmistakable essence. Without a doubt, as regards Giacometti's creations there is thus no "objective distance" or "historical distance", as it tends to be called. However, these concepts prove to be pure abstraction on closer inspection; essentially, the older and old art does not remain spared radical fluctuations in evaluation - these fluctuations are identical with the importance attached through time to an artistic phenomena; they are the expression of the liveliness of the artwork itself. The fact that, incidentally, in the case of Alberto Giacometti there are almost no instances of neutral disinterested viewers, and instead negative or positive statements on his oeuvre, depending on the whether they grab the viewer or not was evidenced most clearly by the dispute in Zürich over setting up an Alberto Giacometti Foundation. Be it this way or that, Giacometti's oeuvre shines forth strongly.
Photo: Ernst Scheidegger, ca. 1960, in "Sculpture in the Light of Photography", Benteli Verlag, 1997, Bern.
With this torso, the young Giacometti advanced into an area which marked out the very marrow of modern sculpture. For ever since its deliberate formal use by Rodin the torso signified most overtly the abstract nature of sculpture. In 1925, Giacometti still used the torso as an "absolute autonomous figure" with an essentially "non-fragmentary character" (J. A. Schmoll gen. Eisenwerth), such as had first been adopted by Archipenko; later, in the rod-like over-long figures, it received a decidedly symbolic touch. However, it almost remains the central statement of this art, in line with Giacometti's word: "I view only one part of the body but it creates the feeling that the whole exists."
By means of sculptural formations such as "Femme cuiller" (1926-7) and "Le couple" (1926), constructions made of elemental Cubist corporeal hieroglyphs, which reconquer in nudes by deliberately primitivizing sculpture that ancient domain of the magical mechanical, Giacometti finally arrived at Surrealism - Carola Giedion-Welcker has rightly stated that he was the only significant sculptor in the Surrealist movement. The question how much Giacometti was indebted to Picasso here could only be answered duly in the light of the major Paris Picasso exhibition this winter, which for the first time brought together all his sculptures; the significance, for example, of "Construction en fil métallique" of 1930 on Giacometti cannot be underestimated.
If only by dint of the mainly material substrate used (wood,
plaster, iron, combined materials), the Surrealist epoch (1929-1934) possesses
unity. Surrealistic-abstract elements blend, as in the figuration entitled "On
ne joue plus" (1932) or the "Projet pour une place" (1931) on a joint plinth -
to offer a highly contrasting interplay of corporeal and spatial volumes.
Vaulted protrusion corresponds to trough-like furrow; spherical and conical
formations bring ghost-like life to the scenery of these mysterious sculptural
landscapes that banish any pretentiousness from these still-life-like,
three-dimensional projects for squares. There are historical sources of
inspiration - as has long since been recognized - in a piece such as the
Etruscan bronze liver from Piacenza. This votive offering is a document of the
astrological-Mantic practices: the smooth plate from which these innards arise
as the houses of the gods, is structured in sectors with the names of gods and
refers to stellar constellations so that the regularity of the cosmos appears to
be mirrored magically.
After 1945, Giacometti's works
from the Surrealist years enjoyed a real career in an epoch, if on a different
basis, for which Duchamp's moving apparatuses constructed in the spirit of Dada
as well as certain experiments in the geometric Constructivsm of Naum Gabo were
also so important. To cite one example: Jean Tinguely's "Antimachine" displayed
at the Schweizerische Landesausstellung at Expo 1964 in Lausanne. These and
other mobile montages - there are also sculptural playful movements in light and
water - are typical phenomena in the spectrum of sculpture today, for which
Lessing's purist fixation of the boundary lines of art, one of the foundations
of Classical aesthetics, has lost all validity. They reject, to a far greater
extent than Giacometti's Surrealist works, what sculpture has developed by way
of aesthetically defining factors since its separation from architecture. They
take the stage as ironic presentation and at the same time a travesty of the
world of machinery and technology, precisely as (more or less) "jolis mécanismes
précis qui ne servent à rien". A border-line area of sculpture opens up, not in
the direction of painting but of the presentation of physical processes. The
"mobilization" of three-dimensional structures and the limitless interrogation
of materials run the risk of being reduced in the artworks in art and miracle
chambers. Not only the traditional concept of sculpture, but also the
traditional concept of art seems to no longer be practical. The painter Jean
Dubuffet (someone who should know) has, as a legitimate spokesman, gave the
problem a trenchant twist: "I like it when painting lies on the borders of what
is no longer painting."
This image of the human stands, if considered in terms of its genuineness, alone in the history of Western sculpture. I know of only one literary source for the intellectual Concetto which defines it consciously or unconsciously, namely a passage in the Old Testament, Genesis, Chap. 19, Verses 24-26: "Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; An he overthres those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants ofthe cities, and that which grew upon the ground. But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt." In other words: this miage of the human seems to have gone through apocalyptic catastrophes and come out the other side: it is an endangered relic. This is where it sources its tragically tense seriousness, but also (as shown in the towering verticality) its obdurate resilience. On occasion, especially when confronted by the configurations with group-like aggregations of figures, we may be reminded of bare tree trunks reaching upwards, of vegetation raped by the storms of life - it is not coincidental that one of these groupings is called "La forêt". Indeed, Giacometti repeatedly narrated that viewing a forest gave him a sense of how the vertical growth of fixed tree trunks could be entrancing. Thus, these statues and statuettes can be located in that sphere in which the dead column of salt gradually transforms into an evolving form of vegetation.
Etruscan votive statues (and their formal principle is the anti-Classical trend towards over-extension) strongly influenced Giacometti, or so he stated. Moreover, Jacques Callot's art, which he so revered, may have served to inspire him; in the Late Mannerist spatial tension developed by Callot, who subordinates everything figurative to insect-like swarms, precisely positioned as they are, we find the manifestation of a related artistic vision. Giacometti's figures also bear a phenomenological affinity to some of those Barqoue bronzes of anatomical muscle-men, at least in terms of intention.
With his contemplative approach to the human figure, the factual realization of this basic type once devised was expressed in highly differing solutions. There are the static and the striding single figures, that can dissolve into almost line- or wire-like skeletons - expressive transformations of the deficient form of Rodin's "strider" into some impersonal anonymity, itself a new interpretation of "John the Baptist", of which Rilke wrote: "He walks. He walks as if all the worlds in the world were in him and if he spread them out before him by walking. He walks. His arms speak of this walking, and his fingers spread out and seem to make the sign of walking in the air."
Giacometti subjects the head and the portrait bust to a deformation
similar to that of the figure. Geared to a flat profiled silhouette, face on the
heads seem to be frozen to masks, with a sharp perspectival loss of the fissured
surfaces of the sides toward some unknown vanishing point, somewhere out in
imaginary space. "The distance from the one nostril to the other resembles a
Sahara; there can be no limits, to fixed point, everything slipped away " -
these words of his (from a "Letter to Pierre Matisse", the most famous letter by
a contemporary artist) emphasizes the extraordinary wish to alienate figuration,
as can be seen so passionately at work here. The problem of fragmentation, the
torso, re-appears, most impressively with the "Hand" dating from 1947: a thin,
slightly bent arm ends in a long boney hand that grows out into nothingness with
great suggestiveness. Again we find ourselves referred to Rodin if we ask what
the historical basis for this was: Rodin compiled numerous studies of hands,
initially naturalistic expressive fragments, in part as drafts for the "Burghers
of Calais" - and they were finally lent symbolic-religious meaning in the work
named "La cathédrale" and which, as Schmoll aka Eisenwerth has shown, should be
seen as hands as secularized relics.
Giacometti's spatial configurations with these group-like aggregations of figures enrich 20th-century European sculpture to include a fundamentally new form of statement; on the other hand, they radicalize a problem of representation, for which there are parallels in the European sculptural endeavor. The last sculptor before Giacometti to tussle with similar formal and expressive matters was none other of course than Auguste Rodin. Giacometti's spatial configuration with their group-like aggregations of figures seem like a late response to Rodin's "Burghers of Calais", defined by Giacometti's individual creative approach and the mood in the post-War era. The "Burghers of Calais", that description of an event in the 100-year war between France and England, the voluntary sacrifice of six citizens, constituted a clear rejection of any pathos-laden heroic stance as championed hitherto in the history of monuments, and thus marked the decisive overcoming of the 19th century and its vacuous, individualistically externalized, modish and thus very dated cult of the monument. All means of representation were bent to this end. Rodin's group is a symbol of heroically suffering distress presented with merciless realism, and yet likewise a highly differentiated depiction of the different physical and psychological responses to the shared fate of the circling, complex movement of the six figures. Moreover, in the form of the "Burghers of Calais" we see the negation of declamatory monumental poses, for their is no plinth, no distanced glorifying pedestal. The fact that in Calais itself the monument was initially presented for several decades on a high base for all Rodin's personal intentions merely falsified its underlying thrust: to embed a human drama depicted in art in the midst of everyday reality.
The wish to achieve as close a position to life as possible is combined in the Rodin work with recourse to related formulations from old European art. The bitingly sharp naturalism of the sculptural details of the "Burgher of Calais" has been rendered precise by Donatello and the Late Gothic sculptures of Sluter - these are well-known facts. However, the formal structure of the group as a whole is animated, and Rodin himself pointed this out, by the stylistic principle of the various freestanding versions of Mt. Calvary in Brittany and Flanders as well as the Late Gothic funeral processions and lamentations of Christ - a type of picture that was wide-spread from Late Gothic times through to the Baroque. The paramount pinnacle of this genre was, alongside the oeuvre of Guido Mazzoni, Niccolò dell'Arca's sculptural group "Sepulcrum" in S. Maria della Vita zu Bologna (1463): the passionately agitated, ecstatic lamentation of the dead Savior almost occurs level with the ground, in a proximity to reality such that it does not want to be "art" but physically-defined cultic procession that competes with the religious lay plays, the Sacra Rappresentazione.
Seen in formal terms, for Giacometti, as with Rodin's "Burghers of Calais" and the related older works, the composition is defined by the problem of the human group not constrained by aesthetic limits in the space of everyday human life. In addition to this substantive concurrence there is no other point of comparison, however - it ends at the level of intellectual statement. The "Burgher of Calais" combines joint action and emotion to form a powerful unity of action; Giacometti's figures in "La forêt" and the other spatial configurations, by contrast, are no longer able to order themselves to form a group according to some artistic principle, in other words to become some part of a formal whole, for they are not individual images of humans, but, in metaphorical exaggeration and for all the specter-like remoteness of the figures, but embody the anonymity of modern urban collective life as an inescapable fact, "naked, exposed to the frost of this most unhappy age..." (Kafka, A Country Doctor). However, the loss of figure and of group membership in the traditional sense cannot be separated from a gain: the hallucinatory expression with which the overall figuration is charged. This is the artistic impact of these works.
The referencing of Giacometti's spatial
configurations with their group-like aggregations and Rodin's "Burghers of
Calais" and related old works touches a central nerve and is thus not arbitrary.
It documents, from a new, but comparable angle, the following matter: Giacometti
would have liked (this was one of his preferred topics of discussion) placed his
large sculptures on the streets of cities, above all Paris. There, he wanted
them to live in most direct proximity with the flow of everyday traffic and
passers-by, and to have an impact there. "Qu'on puisse marcher sur la sculpture,
s'y asseoir, et s'appuyer," he wrote in the letter to Pierre Matisse in 1947.
This wish is nothing other than the extreme version of the intention. He failed,
owing to prohibitions by the authorities; but there are some photographs showing
works of his in the midst of city streets, placed there temporarily. They affirm
the immense and intense impact that the sculptures do not have when displayed in
With his drawings, Giacometti has produced works of the highest quality; his drawings are very close to those made by Cézanne, to which they owe much. To this extent, Giacometti's friend Christoph Bernoulli is certainly right when he concedes that he can just about understand that an eye trained in art may not be able to gain much from studying Giacometti's sculptures and paintings. "But I am completely unable to listen to a disparaging judgment on his drawings, as I simply cannot imagine that a homo sapiens with two functioning eyes in his head can actually be blind."
Occasionally in portraits that border on the limits of the physiognomically recognizable and therefore constitute a borderline version of the traditional notion of the portrait, we discern the semi-figure of a human. It is washed over with a dark-gray shadow that falls suddenly and sharply on the picture from outside, almost leading to its extinction, rendering it some shadow-like surface projection, a hieroglyph which, or so Genet claimed, "bears within it the pain of life, and there is no beauty today that does not impressively show the scars of it." In such constellations, Alberto Giacometti's image of the human seems to occupy the most extreme of positions. And Sartre's words apply to it: "Ce personnage peint est hallucinant parce qu'il se présente sous la forme d'une apparition interrogative."
© Neue Zürcher Zeitung
b. 1901, Borgonovo, Switzerland; d. 1966, Chur, Switzerland
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