Kimball, Roger, New Criterion
"Alberto Giacometti" at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. April 18-October 18, 1998
Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) was an artist often held captive by his enthusiasts. In Paris in the late 1920s, after creating totemic Cubist fantasies like The Couple (1926) and Spoon Woman (1926-1927), the Swiss-born artist was taken up by Andre Breton and the Surrealists. Some of Giacometti's works from those years--Reclining Woman Who Dreams (1929), Suspended Ball (1930), No More Play (1932), Le Vide-Poche (1930), The Palace at 4 A.M. (1932)--instantly established themselves as Surrealist icons. Looking back on them today, however, what seems most striking about them is their plastic expressiveness. Surrealism proposed to unlock the unconscious by exploding the rational. But these works strike the viewer as eminently conscious and deliberative. They are not accidents. They are works of art.
Giacometti's filiation with the Surrealists came to a noisy end when, following the lead of his art rather than Breton's ideology, he returned to sculpting human heads from a live model. Breton publicly confronted Giacometti with his apostasy from Surrealist orthodoxy; for his part, Giacometti dismissed his commitment to surrealism as a mere "transitional exercise" and a form of "masturbation."
Giacometti's break with the Surrealists pushed him back into obscurity. He reemerged in the 1940s, this time as a hero of Existentialism, thanks largely to Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote an essay called "The Search for the Absolute" when Giacometti exhibited his work at Pierre Matisse's gallery in New York in 1948. All at once Giacometti's extraordinary elongated sculptures--the walking men, the women standing at hieratic attention: doubtless his best-known works--were hailed as symbols of Man's Lonely Confrontation with the Abyss, etc.
Well, perhaps they are. But they are also unforgettable sculptures, moving in ways unconnected with expostulations about Being and Nothingness, the "upsurge of freedom" and so on. It might be said that, when it comes to art, hell is other people's theories. As Giacometti's biographer James Lord put it, "Seeing, not believing, is what he cared about. …