Why You Should See The Seattle Art Museum’s New Giacometti Show

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Review of the exhibition

Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures of tall, elegantly emaciated humans loom large in people’s minds. The Italian-named Swiss artist (1901-1966) lived in Paris for most of his adulthood and is known for his larger-than-life, incredibly slender and bumpy-textured bronze figures. These sculptures – with stripped-down titles like “Standing Woman” and “Walking Man” – have been collected by major museums around the world, meaning many, many people have seen one or two of these unforgettable solitary giants.

And yet, as a major new exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum proves, most of Giacometti’s artistic life was devoted to much smaller explorations of the human form. If you’re visiting the show (and you should), you might be tempted to run through the galleries to get to the iconic “Walking Man I” (almost 6 feet tall) and “Tall Woman IV” (at more than 8 1/2 feet high) at the end of the exhibition.

But these two works date from the 1960s, when Giacometti had been working with this reductive approach to the human figure for 25 years. Think about it for a moment. Over 60 sculptures are on display, but only a handful of human poses and forms. These simple poses – standing, sitting, kneeling or, very occasionally, striding – are repeated over and over again.

Giacometti also applied his modernist technique to the age-old form of portrait heads and busts. Essentially, aside from the occasional, startling landscape painting or engraving of an interior, there is only one subject: the human figure.

But perhaps it is more accurate to say that Giacometti’s subject was actually the question of subjectivity: how each of us, as individuals, relates to the world around us and acts within it. For decades, Giacometti focused on rendering the human body in order to reveal – or discover – something about the human condition, very often his own.

If this all sounds existential, you’re right. Giacometti was deeply influenced by the philosophical ideas swirling in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, his friend, the French writer Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote two essays on Giacometti’s art.

This expansive and captivating exhibit allows you to channel your inner existentialist, slow down, and reflect on how you – as an individual body – perceive each sculptural body in the space around you both.

Admire the tiny face and stick-like arms of a 10-inch-tall dark bronze human figure, which rises from a disproportionately large base that rests on an oversized white table. Does something within you yearn to recognize something in him? Have you noticed how each sculpture is so similar to the others but also quite unique in its composition, texture and patina?

If you foresee something like that, Giacometti might have been happy. He spent weeks, if not months, sitting in his cluttered little studio watching the friend or family member who posed for him – most often his wife, Annette, and brother, Diego. He looked back and forth between the person in front of him and his work in progress, pinching, pressing, adding or subtracting pieces of clay or plaster to and from a metal frame.

Each re-presentation of reality was a profound challenge in this era of modernist questions about art. Giacometti had moved to Paris in 1922, when Europe was still reeling from the man-made disaster of World War I. Modern artists and writers wondered if art could still represent humanity or reality in a way that felt authentic. The surrealists Giacometti hung out with proclaimed that art should spring from the irrational inner world – rather than trying to recreate the so-called rational and observable outer world.

What makes Giacometti so extraordinary in the history of modern art is his efforts – his struggles – to do both. You can feel the struggle, the work, in each sculpture, in the pushed, torn and sliced ​​surfaces, in the abstract faces. The eyes are often blurred and without pupils.

Like many modern artists, Giacometti searched beyond Europe for alternative ways to create art. This exhibition, co-curated by the Seattle Art Museum and the Paris-based Giacometti Foundation, features some ancient Mediterranean, Egyptian, and sub-Saharan African artworks from SAM’s collection, similar to the type of forms that Giacometti drew inspiration from. . It’s also worth taking a walk down the hall to visit SAM’s Egyptian Gallery to see other small figurines that resonate so strongly with Giacometti in terms of scale, composition, stillness and timelessness.

Most of Giacometti’s works in this exhibition date from after World War II, when his art became even more expressive. It is tempting to say that the numbers are more tortured. Some viewers — then and now — have aligned his elongated, almost skeletal bodies with the horrors of the Holocaust.

More broadly, many viewers find a loneliness within the characters, who often exist as solitary beings on massive grounds. When multiple characters share a base, they never face or even look at each other.

But Giacometti shies away from such interpretations. Instead, he spoke of his post-war art as part of an ongoing search for how to merge self-expression with a representation of fellow human beings. Speaking metaphorically of this kind of encounter, he once said: “I met a person and I went home, I succeeded in creating it, I felt it as me, as myself, as my beliefs and I felt at that moment in a mirror. .”

As a whole, the exhibition constructs a vision of the restless and relentless artist, creating sculpture after sculpture, drawing after drawing, groping towards a kind of synthesis just beyond his reach.

To flesh out this image of the artist and his quest, dozens of photographs of Giacometti by some of the most famous photographers of the time: Brassaï (who was a close friend), Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks and Richard Avedon, to name just a few of them.

Through their lenses, we see different visions of the artist in his studio, surrounded by his attempts to capture something solid yet intangible about humanity.

“Alberto Giacometti: towards the ultimate figure”

10am-5pm, Wednesday to Sunday, until October 9; Seattle Museum of Art, 1300 First Avenue; $19.99 to $32.99, free for SAM members and children 14 and under; 206-654-3100, seattleartmuseum.org


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