Modernism with Its Throat Cut

John Haber
in New York City

Alberto Giacometti

Alberto Giacometti has a problem with women. In a revealing retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, he keeps returning to them as to a bad dream. Yet these dreams live as day-to-day materials in a baffling ordinary world.

They lie on the floor with their throat cut. In that final agony, they can no longer hide the protective armor and sprawling, piercing stingers of an insect. In the palace at 4 A.M., they wait in silent accusation. They stand like thick matrons or gaunt, sexless children. They sit with their mouth wide open, knees tautly together, genitals spread like tight lips or the shallow bowl of a spoon. In more ways than one, they cannot keep their trap shut. Spoon Woman (Museum of Modern Art, photo from Artists Rights Society, 1926–1927)

Sculptor's block

Of course, Giacometti has a problem with men, too. They swing from the palace rafters. They walk hunched over in the rain. They face one another without recognition in village squares bare of the trappings of humanity. In Giacometti's paintings, nearly monochrome interiors offer little more by way of support.

The men keep striding, but their effort and pain come equally without pride. Their sexual parts have a way of sprouting up when one least expects it. But then his female eyes may turn into breasts and back again, too. Has the same museum, in a group exhibition not long ago, spoken of Modernism's objects of desire? Giacometti's own title, Unpleasant Object, sounds more fitting.

This artist worries to death the gendered, human body. In fact, his care for physical being and its psychological necessity makes him a quintessential modern artist. For all the nightmares, Giacometti wants to know how one can still represent the world without escaping it. The puzzle drives some surprising twists and turns in a long career.

The son of a painter, he starts with plenty of self-confidence. Early self-portraits, in his native Switzerland, look comfortably modern. Like much painting in southern Europe after the heyday of Cubism and Futurism, they go for garish tones but downright conservative forms. In his drawings from that time, of himself and his parents, short, slightly curvy hatch marks move evenly across the surface, like marks of a burin. They have a traditionalist's faith in objectivity and shadow.

Still, one can already see some unusual choices of subject. When he draws his own face, he stops at his hairline. When he draws female nudes, they make angular containers for empty space. Only flesh matters, and women stand opposite the male presence as inviting, threatening, but never firmly embodied.

The tensions erupt almost at once, even before he settles in Paris for life. He scratches a hunched-over male body into a rectangular slab, and he gets his first masterpiece with the frontal Spoon Woman. Sure, he has a problem with sex, but also with objects in a material world of three dimensions. The heavier they get, the more they depend on cuts into flat sheets of plaster or stone quite as much as molded form. They echo a printer's plate, as occupying insecure middle ground between sculpture and work on paper. Instead of writer's block, this is sculptor's block.

Object, studio, and dream

In Paris, Giacometti finds the Surrealist circle—and his most intense creations at "the Surrealist table." I have alluded to just some of his modernist icons, and the Modern itself owns more than a few. Woman with Her Throat Cut still looks vulnerable and frightening. The greater her death sprawl, the more stable and more encompassing her pose. In The Palace at 4 A.M., forms suspended from an attic wire could stand for male suicide or genitals. Unpleasant Object serves as a challenge and an antidote to conservative outcries over art today

Again the sculptor is finding power in creating form in space, a vision that still influences young artists in a show called "A Disagreeable Object." The palace's open, three-story wooden construction has the ingenuity and fragility of a child's toy. Sex looks like nothing more than a proverbial bump on a log. Like other Surrealists, Giacometti spoke of objects rather than sculpture. The term sounds like a rejection of fine art or formal, self-referential abstraction of later decades. For Giacometti, though, even those sound insufficiently real.

Two sketches of his studio have a startling matter-of-factness. The most daring objects lie around in a perfectly ordinary interior. They do not escape from this world or even distort it. They transform and extend it without ever leaving home. As for such contemporaries as Marcel Duchamp, Meret Oppenheim, and Man Ray, art's dreams pack a wallop because they have entered a waking world.

In Invisible Object, a woman still kneels in supplication, even while withholding from sight her unseen power. Yet already one should ask how literally to take all that male wallowing in self-pity and the demeaning of women. If men and women can stand next to the art object in this world, then they can look on at the sculptor's fears—or the viewer's. Those fears become part of the problem, part of the puzzle of the visible and invisible, and part of art's psychological interest. The male has to look on at his own helplessness, like the matronly woman awake before dawn. Like Freud himself, this art embraces sexism and neurosis. However, its objectivity turns on them both, too.

Giacometti's concern for the physical anticipates his sudden break with Surrealism in the early 1930s. The loss of an anchor when his father died must have made doctrines about modern art a little less convincing. In turn, marriage to a younger woman must have made them feel a bit too much like complaining. Above all, however, he wanted to refresh the puzzle of human form. He had been working on it all along.

His sculptural output fell off for a few years, though painting and drawing continued. He turned back to real people—his wife, his mother, his brother—and to external appearance. At the same time, Giacometti takes more conscious account of what it means for objects to become real and to become art.

Noses and shadows

Before, he carved as often as molded. Now he builds his molds by hand, painstakingly, in small, rough pieces of clay. The more clumsy and awkward the represented shapes, the better. Heads, hands, and feet grow larger and flatter. Noses grow more pointed, to the point that James Ensor might have loved them. Limbs get longer and thinner.

For the rest of his career, Giacometti pretty much recycles striding men, clinging women, stand-alone heads, and village squares. He liked his achievement so much that, at the very end of his life, he wanted to combine them all. He hoped for a public commission of one each—a large head, man, and woman. He never got it.

Still, he became famous. Just as earlier images had made him the darling of Surrealism, his unaccommodated man seemed tailor-made for an existential crisis. Jean-Paul Sartre himself wrote the essay for an important catalog. I may never love Giacometti, perhaps because talk of existential anxiety gets on my nerves in a real crisis. Or perhaps repetition before Andy Warhol seems way too easy.

The subject of gender differences helped feed his reputation. An existentialist self needs an Other, and Giacometti happened to have one handy. Never mind that in Sartre's own writing men cannot just stand and stare. For him, one has no consciousness apart from the Other. One exists only with others, whether in one's own head or in society. But I suppose one should never ask philosophy to rule out one's own sexual anxiety.

The trappings of sexism and sexual difference extend to paintings. Men look outward, while women gape with their eyes buried in dark outlines. Only men, curiously enough, seem to cast shadows. Even their clown noses make them more solid. The artist knows men as rooted in life, woman as merely imagined.

At the end of his career, the differences soften somewhat, but at the expense of a gradual lessening of impact. Sitters become more individualized, but a little too handsome. Giacometti has become a man with a famous style and famous friends. The background washes take over, and the cross-hatching grows more routine. So many of the late sketches go on sale that I need this show, to remind me what came before.

Pedestal, chariot, and village

When Giacometti leaves Surrealism in the 1930s, he adds more than images. In part, he returns to more transparent representation, like pre-Modernism with existential overtones, a hunger for ritual that still motivates artists and critics. In part, rough clay makes the transparency of representation more of an issue than ever. He anticipates, though just barely, American abstraction and European sculpture like that of Jorge Oteiza after all, just as he did Jackson Pollock's macho underside and terrible vulnerability. One can see it in the bumps.

I think of myself trying to solder, back in science labs, only to bury wire in gobs of lead. However, Giacometti did not deposit metal lumps. His brother cast them, from their negative in clay. The roughness takes one further from fine sculpture compared even to his Surrealist phase. They foreground art's texture and sheer existence. But they also represent roughened bronze, as one convention among others.

One is seeing the transformation of Surrealist object into art object, but with the emphasis still on object. Before, art had come down off its pedestal and lay on the floor, with its throat cut. Now the pedestal returns as part of the work and the image. Constantin Brancusi had pulled that trick before. Giacometti gives it endless, witty variations.

A tall, clumsily layered base dwarfs the thumbnail person, for once making it hard to pick out the gender. A broader base stands for the village square. Heads wheel on chariots or threaten to collide on swings. Even now, Dennis Oppenheim has nothing on this. Unfortunately, the Modern hides the effect by putting works on pedestals of its own making. Their obstacle course spreads visitors out so badly that I thought of Giacometti's own village squares.

The paintings get something of the same play with the medium. Obsessive, wiry black and white lines cover loose brown and gray wash. Jacques Derrida speaks of words as speaking to one under erasure. One might translate the French almost as well as "crossed out." Art here crosses itself out, but it keeps on speaking of what it has lost.

Giacometti's sexism—like much of high Modernism—can seem at once trite, dismaying, and persistently moving. Like the museum and the installation, it has become an institution even before one gets to all those celebrity portraits. Could it be that his art, too, knows to speak under erasure? At the very least, it lies with its throat cut.

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Alberto Giacometti ran at The Museum of Modern Art through January 8, 2002.


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