03. Oksana Katchaluba On Alberto Giacometti

On February 3rd, 2010, a sculpture by renowned Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) broke the world record price for a work of art at auction, when his cast-bronze figure Walking Man I sold for over three times its high estimate, totalling a staggering 104,3 million US dollars. The exceptional results of this sale made headlines around the world and underlined an upturn in the art market.

In the midst of the economic turmoil, the art market naturally adapted itself to the situation at hand: grandeur and madness were replaced by restraint and modesty, fewer lots were offered, and more reasonable estimates were given. While the economic crisis confirmed Impressionism and modern art’s standing as a stable, investment-worthy category of art, it also accentuated the volatility of other groups such as the post-war and contemporary art market. In 2009, collectors were less willing to speculate and spend millions on artists whose works were fresh out of the studio. It is a well-known fact that in unstable times, society finds comfort in traditional values. In the auction world, this meant buyers and collectors preferred to place their bids on “valeur sûre” figures such as Picasso, van Gogh, Giacometti or Renoir. Taking into account Giacometti’s recent auction history, it’s clear that Giacometti is a “safe bet” where the art market is concerned. In November 2009, as the economic recession showed signs of recoiling, another masterwork by Giacometti, Falling Man, fetched 19,3 million US dollars at Sotheby’s in New York, overtaking the high estimate by 7 million dollars. In what is yet an uncertain economy, this is no small feat.

Giacometti’s phenomenal success at auction has garnered him renewed attention in the media, and interest in his life and work has also undergone something of a resurgence, as evidenced by the retrospective at Musée Rath in Geneva, the city that served as a refuge to the artist during the Second World War. The exhibit focuses on a crucial decade in the artist’s life: Between 1935 and 1946, Giacometti underwent the longest artistic crisis in his creative existence, struggling to transition from his earlier surrealistic work to the elongated figures of his mature style.

The essential, albeit lesser-known, role drawing played in Giacometti’s work is showcased with a selection of over sixty drawings, ranging from head studies and portraits to his various copies of Egyptian and Sumerian art. For Giacometti, drawing represented the basis of all art, an obligatory step in the gestation of any artistic project. The numerous portraits on view present an interesting dichotomy, as they simultaneously reveal incredible strength (assured, powerful dark strokes, clearly underlined features) and uncertainty (evident in the cross-outs and eraser marks).

The experimental years leading up to 1935, a turning point in Giacometti’s career, were marked by the artist’s interest in the various movements within the European avant-garde. His series of mysterious, suggestive “sculptures-objets” made him popular with the Surrealists and he enjoyed the company of André Breton, Louis Aragon, and André Masson. His light, airy constructions from that period bring to mind the works of Jean Arp and Alexander Calder.

Giacometti’s experiment in abstraction was a short-lived one. That style, he felt, did not allow him to capture the essence of life. After his 1935 breakthrough, Giacometti’s artistic concerns would revolve almost exclusively around the representation of the human figure. This new fixation led him to an impasse which would spiral into a full-blown artistic crisis. He found that the only way to realistically represent the human figure was to dramatically reduce it. Giacometti counterbalanced the frailness of the figures by showing them on oversize plinths. The room where these are shown, tiny sculptures on enormous pedestals, afford the visitor an opportunity to contemplate an unexpected and delightful “mise-en-abîme”.

The last part of the exhibition focuses on Giacometti’s iconic “walking men,” a central motif in his work after 1946. One of the first iterations of this icon, Project for a Monument for Gabriel Peri (1946), is on view here. The instantly recognizable figures of solitary men and women, with their long limbs and emaciated, impossibly elongated silhouettes, haunt the exhibition space. The larger-than-life Walking Man dominates the last room of the retrospective. Commonly interpreted as the embodiment of nihilistic alienation, it mirrors the plight of man in the modern world. Giacometti’s personal relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir has resulted in the explicitly existentialist reading of his work, one that dominates most scholarship on the artist.

For all the iconicity of his later sculptures — they are perhaps, alongside Munch’s The Scream, the avatars of the 20th century’s most influential school of thought — they are not embedded in the public consciousness in the manner of Monet, Van Gogh, Klimt and Warhol, whose popularity at auction is exceeded only by their profitability in gift shops. The replication of Giacometti’s images on mugs and t-shirts has been comparatively modest, making his recent success all the more surprising and spectacular.

ALBERTO GIACOMETTI
MUSÉE RATHE, GENEVA
Place Neuve, 1204
November 5 – February 21