The enduring art of Alberto Giacometti gets a home in Paris and a starring role in New York this season.
The film Final Portrait (directed by Stanley Tucci), released in theaters this spring, depicts the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti as a chaotic, self-doubting genius. Based on James Lord’s 1965 memoir A Giacometti Portrait (published by The Museum of Modern Art, New York), the film tells the story of Lord (played by Armie Hammer) enduring an 18-day sitting for an aging Giacometti (played by Geoffrey Rush). Working on what is considered his last great painting (Portrait of James Lord, 1964), the artist, who today is known more for his sculptural work, is engaged in a complicated dance between his outsized ego and his insecurities. While many filmic depictions of artists juxtapose the ease of creativity with the drama of life, this portrayal shows how harrowing the creation of a work of art can be for an artist—and how hard Giacometti was on himself. He described his Sisyphean relationship to art making thus: “All I can do will only ever be a faint image of what I see and my success will always be less than my failure or perhaps equal to the failure.”
Regardless of his feelings about failure, when looking through the lens of the art world at large, Giacometti is the epitome of success. He is, for one, the most expensive sculptor in history. When his celebrated bronze L’homme qui marche I (1961) sold for $104.3 million at Sotheby’s London in February 2010, it was not only the first sculpture to sell for more than $100 million, but also the most expensive work of art sold at auction up until that time if the price is expressed in British pounds. Five years later, L’Homme au doigt, a 1947 bronze by the artist, set the new record for sculpture at auction, selling for $141.3 million. But the artist was never a poor performer in the auction room—at Sotheby’s in the early 1980s, Chariot fetched approximately $1.4 million, a price that wasn’t a record but was extremely high for sculpture at the time (it sold for $101 million in 2014). These days, the vast majority of Giacometti’s work commands eight figures.
But sales aren’t the only indicator of his success. A film is certainly one, but so is the large number of exhibitions popping up around the world. Last year, the Qatar Museums Authority paired Giacometti in an exhibition with Picasso, the Tate Modern held a hulking retrospective of the artist (the first in the United Kingdom in two decades), and the Swiss pavilion at the Venice Biennale staged an exhibition dedicated to its countryman. Since then, the Giacometti Foundation, led by Catherine Grenier (a former director of the Pompidou Center), has been busy co-organizing exhibitions at the Musée National des Beaux-Arts de Québec (closed May 13), the Beyeler Foundation in Basel (through September 2), the Musée Maillol in Paris (September 14–January 20, 2019), and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (October 19–February 24, 2019).
On June 21, the Foundation puts down some roots of its own, opening the Giacometti Institute in Paris. The Institute will stage shows in its permanent exhibition space that draw from the Foundation’s rich collection of 350 sculptures, 90 paintings, and 2,000 drawings, as well as etchings and decorative art objects. The space also has a reference library that will make the vast archives and ephemera in the Foundation’s collection accessible to scholars and the public alike.
The Giacometti Institute is housed in an early 20th-century townhouse in Montparnasse, the same neighborhood where the artist had his studio. The Foundation called upon the architect Pascal Grasso to redesign the space, which had formerly been the studio of the Art Deco furniture designer Paul Follot. With this project, the Institute has done something Tucci also did in Final Portrait—it has recreated Giacometti’s studio as it was in the 1960s. As in the film, the result is a chaotic, artistic bunker of sorts. Giacometti’s studio, which was a diminutive 65 square feet, was replete with a mess of art materials, sculptures and drawings. After his death in 1966, his widow, Annette Giacometti, conserved it as it was. Photographers such as Robert Doisneau, Sabine Weiss, Gordon Parks, and Ernst Scheidegger also liberally documented the space, effectively creating a blueprint for the Giacometti Foundation to use as a guide. The re-imagining of the space will feature over 70 sculptures in plaster, clay, and bronze, many incredibly fragile and never before seen by the public. The last clay pieces Giacometti was working on prior to his death will also be on view. Additionally, the re-creation includes the artist’s furnishings, as well as the renowned murals he painted on the studio walls.
The Institute’s inaugural exhibition, “The Studio of Alberto Giacometti by Jean Genet,” examines the relationship between the Swiss sculptor and the French writer, with the studio as stage. The exhibition, which runs through September 16, is named after the text Genet wrote about the many hours he spent at Giacometti’s home base. After being introduced by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1954, the two luminaries began to hang out there regularly. In Giacometti’s studio their admiration for each other grew, and the artist wasted little time before he began painting the writer’s portrait. In Jean Genet (1954 or 1955), an oil on canvas in the collection of the Tate, a seated Genet emerges through rusts and blacks. Small, fitful brushstrokes detail a roughly hewn portrait-bust-like depiction of the writer. Texturally, it resembles the sculptures Giacometti is so famous for.
The artist stars in another type of blockbuster this month: an exhibition in the rotunda of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Opening on June 8, “Giacometti” is another ambitious co-production with the artist’s Foundation. It will put more than 175 sculptures, paintings, and drawings on view, as well as archival photographs and ephemera (through September 12). It is in some ways a family reunion, with series of elongated standing women, striding men, and bust-length portraits coming together for the first major American museum exhibition of the artist in some 15 years.
Underscoring this notion is the museum’s long relationship with Giacometti. It was his work that furnished the Guggenheim’s earliest significant exhibition of sculpture. The show was staged in 1955 at a temporary location and was also Giacometti’s first-ever museum presentation. A posthumous retrospective ran in the museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building in 1974, less than a decade after the artist’s death. Works by the artist entered the collection in the ’50s under the auspices of director James Johnson Sweeney. Beating him to it, however, was Peggy Guggenheim, Solomon’s niece, who began amassing a personal collection in the 40s that is now part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.
The Guggenheim’s exhibition in New York spans the artist’s career, which effectively began in Paris in the 1920s when he himself was in his 20s. He came from an artistic family (his father, Giovanni, was a painter, his brother Diego became a furniture designer and his model and studio assistant, and his brother Bruno became an architect) and was encouraged early on. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and the École d’Arts et Métiers in Geneva and traveled throughout Italy before settling in Paris and studying at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière between 1922 and 1925. Sculpture was what Giacometti became most drawn to, and he studied classical sculpture, the Cubist idioms, and the work of Constantin Brancusi. He studied and sketched prehistoric female figures in the collections of Parisian museums.
African art, which was widely exhibited in Paris at the time, became a prevailing influence for Giacometti, as it was for many artists of his generation. This inspiration led to one of his first mature works and a highlight of the Guggenheim’s exhibition, Spoon Woman (Femme cullière, 1926, cast 1954, bronze). Based on a type of anthropomorphic spoon carved by the Dan people of West Africa, the totemic sculpture depicts a female figure as a symbol of fertility. The figure’s large oval curvature is representative of both the concave area of the spoon and a woman’s womb. The art historian and theorist Rosalind Krauss wrote, “By taking the metaphor and inverting it, so that ‘a spoon is like a woman’ becomes ‘a woman is like a spoon,’ Giacometti was able to intensify the idea and to make it universal by generalizing the forms of the sometimes rather naturalistic African carvings toward a more prismatic abstraction.” Elements of the piece jive with Giacometti’s Western influences of this period, as well: the sculpture’s sense of abstraction, though very much like African art, recalls Brancusi, and its block-like head, chest, and feet nod to the geometry of Cubism.
Another work in the show, Surrealist Composition, a circa-1933 ink on paper, is representative of both Giacometti’s drawing practice and his links with the Surrealists. He began participating in André Breton’s Surrealist group activities in 1929 but was acrimoniously cast out of the circle six years later because his depictions of models were too “realistic.” Still Nose (Le Nez), a 1947 bronze wire, rope, and steel sculpture and another touchstone of the exhibition, seems to hold on to some remnants of Surrealist tendencies. In the sculpture, a head hangs by a string from a crossbar in a rectangular cage. The head’s long, protruding nose and long neck form the shape of a cartoonish, yet menacing gun. The work’s expresses a caged yet threatening sense of violence and virility. The figure’s mouth is agape, as if in the midst of a scream that goes nowhere, a notion that fits well within the context of the postwar existential angst described by Giacometti’s friend Sartre.
It was around this period, in the years immediately following World War II, that Giacometti began creating the signature form of expressionist sculpture for which he is most popularly known. His elongated, erect figures, almost skeletal in their thinness, became largely symbolic of the horrors of war and the disaffection of postwar life. Intensifying their eerie appearance, Giacometti shrouded the figures in layers of matte gray or brown paint. Their resonance with modern life feels equal to their acknowledgement of classical art—the walking man like the striding kouroi of Greece, the standing woman like those of Egypt, the bust like the portrait busts of Rome. Three Men Walking (Large Square) (Trois hommes qui marchent [petit plateau]), a bronze from 1948 in the exhibition, shows Giacometti early in this practice. The sculpture’s three figures, which are affixed to their platform with the artist’s signature large feet, are all striding in each other’s directions, threatening to collide. Yet, so seemingly intent on their own path, they fail to acknowledge or even notice each other. Walking Man I (Homme qui marche I), a 1960 bronze, made by an older Giacometti, almost appears to be an older, less vigorous figure. He is portrayed mid-stride, and yet he seems to be going nowhere.
In Caroline in a Red Dress (Caroline avec une robe rouge), a circa 1964–65 oil on canvas, the artist, very near to his death, depicts his young girlfriend. Caroline, sat for Giacometti frequently during this period, as in Figure I (Caroline), a 1962 oil on canvas. Both paintings are strikingly similar in composition, but in Caroline in the Red Dress, the figure’s face is darkened and nearly scratched out. What can be seen of her eyes shows them widened, and what can be seen of her mouth revels almost a vortex or black hole. The figure, whose body is constrained by brush strokes as if in a straightjacket, seems quietly in anguish.
By Sarah E. Fensom