Sculpting the Soul

Sculpting the Soul

The MoMA opens a comprehensive survey of Alberto Giacometti's work.



Alberto Giacometti

The comprehensive exhibition of Alberto Giacometti's work, on view at the Museum of Modern Art until January 8, opened on the centenary of the artist's birth, to a world very different from that of 1965, when the museum was last given over to it. It hardly needs saying that downtown Manhattan would not have figured greatly in the consciousness of those who saw the earlier show–though interestingly enough it was on Giacometti's mind when he traveled to New York that year. He had been commissioned to design a piece for Chase Manhattan Plaza, and part of his reason for coming to New York was to get a sense of that site. The downtown area was undergoing its great development in the middle 1960s–the World Trade Center was finally approved then–and one can imagine, as a sort of tableau vivant, the celebrated sculptor and his friends, standing like living statues in various different positions on the deserted plaza at night. On the night of this year's opening, Chase Manhattan Plaza was dense with smoke and deep in dust, and everyone who attended the show could think of little but the death and disaster New York had experienced a bare month earlier. But in some way the devastation made the city seem closer to the war-ruined world with which Giacometti's signature work is commonly associated than could possibly have been the case in 1965, when America seemed immune to attack and war was something that took place far away, and on someone else's territory.

The architect of Chase Manhattan's headquarters downtown, Gordon Bunshaft, had envisioned three colossal walking figures, high enough to stand up to the looming office buildings with which the space was surrounded. The prototype of figures walking might have been Giacometti's City Square of 1948, in which four of his archetypically attenuated male figures are shown walking in various directions in a space otherwise empty, save for a single standing woman. City Square is frequently used to illustrate a thesis about European cities, ruined and rubbled by World War II, or, alternatively, about the loneliness and alienation of modern urban existence. As such, it has become a cliché of book-jacket illustration for texts of popular sociology or existentialist philosophy, both of which helped create a cloud of received interpretation, disseminated in courses of Art History 101 wherever it is taught, which still stands almost indissolubly between Giacometti's work and its countless admirers. It is, to be sure, a very poetic vision to imagine four or five Giacometti figures at ground level, something like Rodin's The Burghers of Calais, but among which the supposedly alienated office workers in the world capital of alienation might hurry, in transit from impersonal offices, to sway in crowded isolation on the subway cars that speed them to their anonymous habitats. Rodin's figures are life-size, but if Giacometti's thin bronze figures were of that scale, they would vanish in the Lonely Crowd. The poetry would evaporate except at night, as when the artist and his friends moved about the plaza under artificial light. That is doubtless why Bunshaft proposed that the figures be immensely tall–but that would subvert the poetry as well, and add to the crowd's alleged demoralization. Giacometti himself, in all likelihood leery of the by-then-inescapable interpretations that falsified or at least distorted his work, at first proposed a kind of anthology of his pieces, including Monumental Head; and finally decided on a single standing woman on a scale uncharacteristically large for his work. Scale, however, was deeply limited by his remarkably intimate relationship with his sculptures. To have had a work fabricated by others would have been inconsistent with what at that point one might call his philosophy of art. A Giacometti sixty-five feet tall would not really be a Giacometti at all but an effigy of one–what he would have dismissed as an object. The commission in any case was never executed, and the artist died the following year.

It is not simply for reasons of scale, however, that Giacometti's sculpture was not truly suited to the public spaces of New York. The Burghers of Calais, which was commissioned by the city of Calais to commemorate a heroic episode in the Hundred Years' War, was intended to stand outside the cathedral, where the citizens could tell their children the story of how the town was saved by six of its most prominent citizens, who agreed to sacrifice themselves in order that the populace not starve. It was Rodin's own idea that it not be placed on a pedestal, but on the same level as that occupied by the people of Calais themselves. The figures are not dwarfed by the surrounding architecture. They look like real human beings, with expressions of the sort that ordinary human beings can read as they read one another's. Giacometti's figures have an altogether different character. They are meant primarily to be seen, the way we see figures in paintings. Of course, as sculptures, they are three-dimensional by default. But they are not intended to be viewed from different angles or walked around, any more than the figures in a painting are. Giacometti, whom I knew somewhat when I was a student in Paris, once told me that he thought of himself primarily as a painter, and indeed that even in his sculptures he tried to represent the world in a purely visual way, which he clarified as follows: He wanted to show the world as it would be experienced by someone who had no hands, and whose visual field was not inflected by other modalities of sense, such as touch.

This curious view is confirmed by Jean-Paul Sartre in a brilliant essay, published under a title he appropriated from Balzac–La recherche de l'absolu–in Les Temps modernes. Giacometti, he writes, is the first to sculpt a man as he is seen, that is to say, at a distance. He confers on his plaster personages an absolute distance, as a painter does with the inhabitants of a painting. One gets a feeling for Giacometti's unusual vision from the fact that he once made the attempt to sculpt a figure the way it would be seen at a distance, in the evening, on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. The MoMA catalogue tells us that Giacometti "later commented that in those days he had not yet understood that such things could only be painted." Sculpture of course necessarily exists in real space–but Giacometti's effort was to sculpt figures that incorporate a distance of their own. Sartre put it this way: "He creates a figure 'ten steps away,' 'twenty steps away,' and that remains the case no matter where you stand." In other words, if you were to stand ten steps away from one of the figures represented as ten steps away, then real distance and represented distance would be identical. But if you were fifty steps away, the object would still be represented as ten steps away–and the distance between you and the sculpture would differ from the distance in the sculpture, which would, in Sartre's terms, be absolute. That may indeed be possible only in painting, but it was what Giacometti was after as a sculptor.

Sartre says something even more striking about Giacometti's figures. "The moment I see them, they appear in my field of vision the way an idea appears in my mind." This is a way of explaining the somewhat ghostly feeling of his figures, as if they were persons whose bodies had been all but erased. Giacometti was legendary for destroying his work–his studio floor would be found littered with broken plaster in the morning, after undoing a night's work. I think this was the result of an impossible effort to eliminate whatever gave them the solidity that belonged to their material condition as sculpture. The almost unreal thinness of his figures gave rise to the belief, entirely false, that they were inspired by the starved inmates of concentration camps. That is not really the kind of artist he was. He was pursuing a way of creating the human body as if it were almost purely a soul. Sartre writes of how these fine and liberated natures rise into heaven–"they dance, they are dance, they are made of the same rarefied matter as those glorious bodies we have been promised." This is a far cry from the ragged stick figures of Buchenwald!

Sartre's essay served as the catalogue text for Giacometti's 1948 exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York, which gave him his sudden great reputation in world art. Perhaps because of Sartre's own philosophical fame as an existentialist, Giacometti was himself perceived as an existentialist by association. Sartre used a vivid, at times a perversely incendiary, vocabulary, and though such terms as dread, anxiety, nihilation, shame and anguish are readily redeemed for quite ordinary terms in philosophical discourse, once Giacometti was identified as an existentialist, it was all but impossible not to see his men, his women and his groups of figures as inflected with the dark drama of death and danger, and as "plagued by such a strong sense of estrangement from both nature and society," to cite an influential textbook. That has made his work seem somehow anchored in a post-World War II mood, which it in fact has very little to do with at all. The art comes, really, from sources within Giacometti's own artistic personality. Giacometti was an exceedingly social person, and in no sense estranged from people. He spent his evenings in cafes, in animated discussion. In the mid-1960s, he was working on a portfolio of lithographs called Paris sans finParis Without End. The famous City Square is meant to be seen as people encountering people. I have the most powerful memory of the first time I saw his wife, Annette, come into the studio. She was very pretty, wearing a sweater and skirt. Giacometti's face lit up with the most intense look of love I have ever observed. Here comes Annette! he cried, with joy.

But there is a respect in which deep resonances exist between Sartre's philosophy and Giacometti's great work of the late 1940s and early '50s, which perhaps explains why Sartre, who was after all not that deeply involved with the visual arts, should have devoted two essays to him. Bear with me as I attempt to say a few words about Sartre's philosophy. In La recherche de l'absolu, he speaks of Giacometti's work as midway between being and nothingness–between L'être et le néant–which was the title of Sartre's early masterpiece. Being and nothingness refer to Sartre's two main categories. Material objects have being. Consciousness is not a material object, and hence is, in a sense, a kind of nothingness, and we, as conscious beings, are a kind of nothingness as well. Sartre characterizes human beings as a futile passion–we have an unfulfillable yearning to possess the solidity of material things and the immateriality of pure consciousness. But it is in our difference from things that our inalienable metaphysical freedom is grounded. Sartre speaks of the effort to escape into the condition of mere things as bad faith. As I'll try to show, Giacometti's attitude toward his art has in fact something of the distinction between being and nothingness Sartre ascribed to his sculpture. But Sartre discovered it there–it was not something Giacometti derived from Sartre's version of existentialism.

The American artist Mercedes Matter records that in reaction to what critics and writers said about the metaphysical content of his work, Giacometti said, "It's a monstrous misunderstanding. To me it's nothing of the sort. It's a purely optical exercise. I try to represent a head as I see it." I can somewhat vouch for this. Giacometti was passionate about philosophical conversation, but mainly about the phenomenology of perception. We used to discuss Bertrand Russell's idea that physical objects are logical constructions out of sense data. He was very friendly with Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who must have explained to him his theories about sense experience–about how the field of perception is everywhere inflected by all of our sense modalities working together in synthesis, of how the world discloses itself to consciousness and how philosophers must learn from artists–from Balzac, Proust, Valéry or Cézanne–rather than from science. Still, even if not an existentialist, he was not an ordinary man, plodding along doing optical exercises like an experimental psychologist. He was an emotionally complex person, with a history of traumas, intensely preoccupied with dreams and with death. These feelings are conspicuously enough embodied in the work for viewers to sense that they are in the presence of meanings at once personal and of great human moment.

Consider The Palace at Four A.M., an object, as he was to call it, made in 1932, when he was part of the Surrealist movement in Paris. It is a kind of symbolic self-portrait–a realization of personal relationships and feelings. The impression it gives of a rickety wooden cage is reinforced by the presence of a skeletal bird–a sort of pterodactyl–fluttering in what may be a sort of tower. In a cage within a cage is a spinal column, carved in wood, which the artist identified as a woman with whom he had had an intense, somewhat claustrophobic relationship. There is a more obviously female figure, standing before what may be three doors, in a long skirt. This he interpreted as his mother. Finally there is a suspended object–a sphere in an elongated spoonlike receptacle, with which he identified himself. Mother, child, love and death–and the bird that perhaps expresses escape–enact one of the defining dramas of human existence.

It was a cleft ball, suspended in a cage, designed to swing over a crescent-shaped object, one edge of which fit the cleft, in a back and forth motion that insinuated sexual intercourse, that first brought Giacometti to the attention of the Surrealists when it was shown in a gallery window. They discovered in him an artist who, without benefit of indoctrination, had spontaneously hit upon exactly the kind of art in which they believed. It was an art that externalized the hidden truths of psychic reality in strange and wonderful objects–a reality that dreams disclosed. Giacometti wrote, "For many years I have executed only sculptures that have presented themselves to my mind entirely completed." Since already complete, as it were, it would have been quite irrelevant who executed them. So it would have been quite beside the point had Giacometti consigned The Palace at 4 A.M. to a woodworker for fabrication. A few years later, he had, according to Mercedes Matter, a revelation about the difference between an object and a work of art:


An object is perfect in itself; a work of art can never be perfect since it represents a particular vision, only one view of reality, while so many others are equally valid. But if a bottle breaks, it is nothing at all; whereas a work of art broken, damaged, so long as it still projects the vision it represents, continues to exist. An object does not represent a vision, it is merely a thing in itself…. My work was not a creation, it was no different from that of a carpenter making a table…. It was necessary to return to the sources and to start all over again.


The distinction between objects and works of art sounds very much like Sartre's distinction between beings-in-themselves–material objects–and conscious beings, or beings-for-themselves. What he meant by a work of art was something as close as philosophically possible to a human being.

Whatever their status, the works Giacometti made while he was a Surrealist project the obsessions and preoccupations that define the sources of his art, and MoMA has done a great service in giving so much of this exhibition over to his Surrealist output. His makeup was that of a true visionary–a Surrealist by nature more than affiliation, given to almost paranormal and near-hallucinatory experiences. What made him turn away from Surrealism is a matter for psychobiographical speculation, but he felt an evident need to turn to reality, and he began by making heads. For this he was literally expelled from the movement by the imperious André Breton, who said, dismissively, that "everyone knows what a head looks like." But Giacometti was interested in something far deeper than what heads look like. He was, rather, concerned with the way a head looks when its owner is looking at an object. "One day when I was drawing a young girl I suddenly noticed that the only thing that was alive was her gaze," he said in 1951. "The rest of her head meant no more to me than the skull of a dead man. One does want to sculpt a living person, but what makes him alive is without a doubt his gaze. Not the imitation of eyes, but really and truly a gaze."

One feels that this is what he sought for the rest of his life, in his paintings and drawings, and in his sculpture. Not how things appear but the way they show themselves as conscious of the world. His tireless effort was to bring clay to life. Nothing but life was art in his view. If all he had succeeded in making was objects, he would have failed. That would have been the deep reason the project for Chase Manhattan Plaza never came to anything. The reason is internally connected with what made him among the greatest of artists.

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