Alberto Giacometti may seem like a known quantity, but clever curators can still find ways to surprise us. That will be a constant challenge for the Fondation Giacometti, which opened a new space last year in a gorgeous Art Deco building in Montparnasse. The current exhibition, “Alberto Giacometti: Histoire de Corps (Narrating the Body)” is a great example of this curatorial intelligence, offering visitors a new perspective on the artist’s approach to the nude.
Although he played with various forms and subject matter at the beginning of his career and hooked up with the Surrealists for a while during the first half of the 1930s, Giacometti was primarily interested in representing the human body, the ultimate universal form harking back to prehistoric art, and he did so obsessively until the end of his life.
The exhibition demonstrates how his two favorite – and closest to hand – models, namely his wife Annette and his brother Diego – became the prototypes for most of his sculptures and paintings.
A roomful of drawings of nudes – some of them sketched on blank pages in books he was reading – from throughout his career makes a charming and intimate introduction to the show. The drawings of Annette on the walls clearly depict what became the archetypal body type for Giacometti’s female sculptures, with widespread breasts, narrow waist and generous hips.
There were few other models available to Giacometti, one of the curators explained, because it wasn’t easy to sit for him. He was highly demanding and easily became annoyed if the model didn’t hold the pose properly or long enough. Annette was familiar with his ways and was patient with him, but after a while, there was no longer any need for her to pose, since Giacometti knew her body by heart.
Was Giacometti a bit OCD? Perhaps. Not only did he portray the same models over and over, but after 1948, he settled on repetitions of his three favorite forms: standing women, walking men and heads. There were variations, of course, in size, materials, colors and treatments, but the female figure always stood in a rigid frontal pose, while the dynamic walking men strode energetically forward (earlier walking women just took baby steps).
In spite of their familiarity, Giacometti’s spindly figures can still be amazingly effective, depending on how they are displayed. Years ago, for example, I was struck by the sight of a monumental walking man all alone in an enormous glassed-in space behind a pink beaded curtain in the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland. Or, in this exhibition, three monumental standing women, of different styles, sizes and colors, are grouped together under a skylight.
One of them, “Grande Femme II” (1958), restored for this exhibition, was the outgrowth of a commission for the Chase Manhattan Bank, a project for which Giacometti worked on large versions of his three preferred forms. Frustrated by his inability to visualize them in the public square in New York, he finally aborted the project. It wasn’t a total loss, however, since the plasters still exist.
Do pay a visit to the foundation, not only to see this lovely exhibition but also to appreciate its beautifully restored home, which is worth the trip in itself.