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Monday, March 2, 2015

Alberto Giacometti at the Pera Museum - Review

Detail of Portrait of Diego, 1918
This show, though not overwhelming in its content, is an impressive and comprehensive retrospective of Swiss artist, Alberto Giacometti (1901- 1966). Expertly curated, the show takes you through his entire career, which was essentially bifurcated by the Second World War. The show kicks off with a plaster bust of his brother, Diego – created when Giacometti was just 13 years old. This bust is a truly touching cornerstone to launch the exhibition, as it foreshadows numerous hallmarks of his lifelong career, namely; sculpture, portraiture and the labored investigation of his loved ones. The show breezes though his early pseudo neo-impressionistic paintings, non figurative sculptures and subsequent brush with surrealism, before unleashing his late period bronze figures and busts. This later, post WWII, section also includes a number of painted portraits, and finally, a collection of lithographs he made in Paris which became, in effect, a sort of final exercise.

Surrealist influences are obvious in this 1950
 work, The Cage.
The retrospective is chronological and leads with the aforementioned bust of Giacometti's younger brother, Diego. Dominating the early career section (1916-1921) are his pseudo neo-impressionistic paintings, mainly portraits, many of them family members. The works are charming in their small scale, bold color juxtaposition and blotchy, spotted application of paint. This application, a take on Impressionism (Giacometti highly praised C├ęzanne), creates a fuzzy affect, not dissimilar to the aesthetic of his later figurative sculptures, which lack smooth edges and resist clear autonomy from their surroundings. From there (1922-1935) we follow his transition away from the figure with more abstracted sculptures, works which where embraced by surrealists, as well as, drawings and writings which he created within and for the surrealist (political) movement. In 1935, Giacometti looked back to the figure and began working from models again, which essentially expelled him from the Surrealist movement. For the figures he said he was, “depicting reality not as it was but as he was seeing it.”1 For Giacometti, this turn back to the figure, was not a turn away from surrealism. Surrealism can be seen in the compositions of some of his most famous works which followed, the bronze figures and busts, notably including the Cage and the Forrest, both from 1950.

My relationship with Alberto Giacometti and his famed bronze figures has been a long one, we are old acquaintances. As an undergraduate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was introduced to Walking Man, 1960 and Tall Figure, 1947, which are part of the permanent collection at the AIC.2 Formally learning about art history for the first time, these sculptures interrogated my 18 year old mind, and in turn, I interrogated them. Is this long lean man searching for something, is he walking to remember or to forget? Is he walking to or from his lover? Or, perhaps, he is he walking home, appearing on the horizon at twilight, the light curling around his body, emaciating his frame. Tall Figure, similarly elongated, stands motionless, yet does not lack for agency. Giacometti's sculptures, weather still or 'in action', are self- possessed. Cast in bronze, they are impossibly thin, some life-sized in height, some larger, they are striding, existing and meditating in the worlds' complicated static. Their frail bodies, undeterred, remain rigid and purposeful. Agitated, with no smooth surfaces to define them, they remain calm. This uneasy delineation creates a magnetizing tension. For 4 years I viewed them almost once a week, on my way to and from class. Thus, entering his late period sculptures at the Pera, I felt a warm relief and pleased recognition, like meeting the extended family of old friends. These bronze figures and busts are his most recognized works and in the opinion of many, his best.
Giacometti's post war investigation of the figure and form ushered in a number of portrait paintings, which are almost monochromatic. In line with his practice, they are all portraits of, or modeled after his close friends and family. Art professor and critic Mark Van Proyan has said (in regards to self-portraiture, but I think it can be equally applied to portraiture), “The key to making a great [self-portrait] is having a very smart realization about how to portray two things at the same time, which is a ‘type’ of person, and a ‘specific’ person.”3 and he praises artists, Rembrandt and Francis Bacon, in this regard. It is my impression that in Giacometti's portraits he shows a specific person, indeed, one can recognize a number of busts from these portraits and vise versa, but that he shows them as his own type of person, creating a sort of self portrait in the process. When taking into account a number of paintings at once, one can see his unique and consistent vision of his subjects.
Portrait of Alberto Gacometti, by Photographer Richard Avedon, 1958
Finally, a set of commissioned lithographs, made in Paris, are included in the show. They are an intimate look at his Paris existence, showcasing scenes from his everyday life, including his studio and the apartments of his wife and intimate friends. Created 'on the spot' with no correcting or reworking, they are the opposite of his laborious sculptures, which are worked and whittled in within, quite literally, an inch of their existence. The lithographs will surely be a delight to printmakers, Francophiles and Giacometti enthusiasts. A successful exercise, but still an exercise more than a movement within his greater body of work, one which does not show the true weight of his obsessive talents. While these 'quick take' drawings are lovely and voyeuristically biographical, I enjoy the fruits of his tedious labor more.
In the vast array of his work on display, his early and late period work resonates the strongest. The experiments of a young artist brought off the page and further into our dimension through sculpture. Seeped in years of intense practice and simmered in Surrealism, his late period bronze sculptures see him back to early investigations, which is to say, the core of his practice.

Beyond representing his work, this show includes a number of wonderful representations of the artist himself, which take the form of video and photographs. A short video, translated into English and Turkish, sees the artist describe his process and obsession with the optical precision of the eye. Also, many excellent photographic portraits of the artist, often in his studio, taken by Richard Avedon and others, sum up the show. At the tail end of my visit, I went back to the beginning just in time to see a group of third graders enter the exhibition. I watched these kids, looking at paintings and busts of children, made by an artist who was himself a child, at that time. Some of these third graders will never encounter the work of Giacometti again in their lives. For others, it will be the beginning of a long relationship. If you have not seen the work of this prolific and passionate artist, and especially if you have, this show is a must see.

A group of figures from his later period, as seen at the Pera.
Visit the Pera Museum website, HERE. The show is up until April 26th.
An almost identical version of this review appears at

1This is from wall text written by the Pera.
2Images or links to images here:tall figure - walking man -

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