How did Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) become the superstar sculptor whose spindly statues are instantly recognizable by just about everyone? The exhibition “Giacometti: From Tradition to Avant-Garde” at Paris’s Musée Maillol helps to answer the question with an ambitious show tracing the Swiss artist’s development from traditional artist trained by leading French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle through his flirtations with Cubism and Surrealism to his eventual discovery of the style that would obsess him for the rest of his life.
It also places him among a community of artists of his time by comparing his work with his contemporaries, whether friends or rivals, at each stage of the development of his work.
As he moved away from the academic influence of Bourdelle, Giacometti fell under the sway of the Cubists for a time. His chunky abstract “Composition (dites Cubiste) III” (1927) in this vein is contrasted with works from the same period by Ossip Zadkine and Jacques Lipchitz.
Another sculpture probably made the same year, “The Couple,” completely rejects Cubism in favor of inspiration from then-fashionable African and archaic art
The beautiful “Femme (Plate V)” (c. 1929), which flattens the human figure and reduces it to near-abstraction, will come as a surprise to anyone who knows only his elongated statues. It is indeed flat, as sleek as a Brancusi, with only slight depressions to indicate the face and body. Jean Cocteau described this piece as both solid and light, “like snow that has retained the imprint of a bird.”
Giacometti’s interest in non-Western and prehistoric art eventually led him to fall in with the Surrealists. This period, between 1930 and ’35, is pretty much passed over in the exhibition, although we do have the plaster version of his “Walking Woman” (1932), which is a kind of halfway station between the smooth surfaces and abstracting impulses seen in “Femme (Plate V)” and the mature works, with their roughly modeled surfaces.
This “Walking Woman” is tall, slender and elegant, and, like his later statues of women, takes only a small, tentative step forward (later, the female figures tend to stand rigidly with their feet together), unlike his “walking men,” a number of which are on show in the exhibition, who propel themselves forward with long, bold strides. Interestingly, the minimalist “Walking Woman” originally had a cello scroll for a head and arms adorned with flowers and feathers. Giacometti removed these extraneous Surrealist touches in 1936, after he fell out with the Surrealists.
The exhibition continues with his more familiar works and spends a great deal of time on Giacometti’s contemporaries, even presenting biographies of them, especially Aristide Maillol, who had studied with Giacometti in Bourdelle’s studio and never veered too far from academic sculpture. It is instructive to see how radical and original Giacometti’s works look next to the plumpish, smooth female nudes with perky breasts favored by Maillol.
Every Giacometti exhibition leaves me feeling mystified, as if there is a meaning in his spindly statues that escapes me. But then, maybe the mystery is what it’s all about.
Note: The Fondation Giacometti has created a reconstruction of the artist’s studio, which Jean Genet described as “a milky swamp, a seething dump, a genuine ditch.” Online booking required. Click here for more information.Favorite