“Artistically I am still a child with a whole life ahead of me to discover and create. I want something, but I won’t know what it is until I succeed in doing it.” – Alberto Giacometti
In Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure, now on view at the Seattle Art Museum, the internationally celebrated artist suddenly walks towards you. Bent slightly forward, newspaper neatly folded into the pocket of his tidy suit jacket, he makes his way down a street and disappears into the slim opening of a building.
You are being taken inside the cramped, material-strewn Montparnasse studio that Giacometti (1901-1966) lived and worked in for over 40 years, thanks to a 1966 filmed interview with the artist that is projected onto a large screen in the exhibition, the artist’s first-ever in the Pacific Northwest. In it, you’ll also discover over 100 bronze portrait busts, towering statuettes, paintings, sketches, and prints, which all bear the artist’s signature, hand-touched style. Vulnerability, fragility, resilience, and strength—Giacometti’s timeless sculptures reflect his tireless pursuit of a vision of the human form that has inspired countless artists but is nevertheless utterly singular.
You know a Giacometti when you see it–or, it might be more accurate to say, when you meet it, as his works seem to capture the spark that animates a person’s face. Despite these pursuits, Giacometti considered many of his works a failure, assembling and disassembling them time and again.
“What’s so special about his work is that you can see a figure, yet it’s barely there,” says Carrie Dedon, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. “He was so tactile in his work—you can see every thumbprint and every move he made in creating his sculptures, yet they’re always on the brink of disappearing right in front of you.”
Drawing from the stylization of African, Cycladic, and Egyptian art–examples from SAM’s collection are included in the exhibition–the sculptor played with scale, space, and monumentalism with the intention of creating an archetype of the modern human that was both damaged and liberated. He notably went against the historical moment’s interest in abstraction to reassert the importance of human representation. His reaction to the recent collective experience of war and trauma was to reclaim the human figure and a common humanity that eclipses nationalist borders and ideologies. His vision of the figure contrasted starkly with the idealized, muscular bodies championed by totalitarian regimes and embodied very different values: an acknowledgement of the necessity of the individual.
“Giacometti belongs to a generation that had to navigate tremendous loss and devastation,” says Catharina Manchanda, exhibition curator and Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. “Despite all of the difficult circumstances he was working under, he managed to arrive at really visionary ideas of who we are and what makes humanity what it is.”
In addition to Giacometti’s artworks, the exhibition includes numerous photographs of the artist in his studio by famed photographers Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Gordon Parks, and Irving Penn, as well as a video excerpt of a teleplay by Giacometti’s close friend Samuel Beckett. Visitors can also sit down in a small library of existentialist books that inspired the artist.
“What would be my hope is that visitors have a real and personal encounter with his work in our galleries,” says Manchanda. “The themes of humanity and humanness that he explored so long ago were just as relevant then as they are now.”