From photos and films of him, I’ve always had an image of Alberto Giacometti as a gentle, mild-mannered man, but the current exhibition at the Institut Giacometti, “Giacometti/Sade: Cruel Objects of Desire,” reveals a darker side of the sculptor famed for his tall, spindly statues of men and women.
In 1930, Giacometti joined the Surrealist movement for about five years and came under the influence of André Breton and his partners in incongruity, who were then in the process of rediscovering the work of the Marquis de Sade (who is, even today, rather shockingly often defended by the French as a mere libertine, even though he was a self-admitted rapist, torturer and pedophile).
Depressed after the death of his father in 1933, Giacometti, on the advice of Breton, delved enthusiastically into Sade’s work. The same year, he wrote two texts detailing fantasies of murder and rape for the magazine Le Surrealisme au Service de la Revolution.
The writings of the marquis on violence and sadism spoke to Giacometti, but even before he discovered them, his sketchbooks and sculptures had shown a fascination with cruelty, notably in his copies of religious art with violent subject matter. In one of his undated notebooks (on show in a downstairs room) is a drawing of a naked man strangling a naked woman. The notebooks also include scenes of torture that he planned to turn into sculptures.
Many of the sculptures from the artist’s Surrealist period on display are symbolic or suggestive rather than literal representations of the sex act (seen as a struggle between the sexes), rape and even murder.
Often their titles are much more descriptive than the work itself, as in “Reclining Woman Who Dreams” (1929; pictured at the top of this page). Another example is a scary sculpture of what appears to be a twisted scorpion, titled “Woman with Her Throat Cut” (1932), which is supposed to represent a woman murdered after being raped and at the same time a female insect about to devour the male of the species.
Much more literal is the obviously phallic “Disagreeable Object” (1931). Tellingly, representations of penises in these works all come to a threatening point, as in “Point to the Eye” (1931-32), in which a long, pointy phallus is about to pierce the eye of a small head.
The piercing of an eye was a theme popular with the Surrealists, most famously in the scene of a razor blade slicing a woman’s eye in the film An Andalusian Dog, made by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.
The curators even go so far as to suggest that the way Giacometti gouged out the clay with a penknife to form the eyes of his later spindly statues and incised their bodies was related to Sade’s slashing of the bodies of his victims. Giacometti subscribed to Sade’s contention that cruelty was natural and hence virtuous.
So much for Giacommeti’s gentle image. You’ll never look at his work in the same way – especially those later statues of women in cages – after seeing this surprising and disturbing show.