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Fri Jun 19, 2015, 04:08 PM

Giacometti’s Wasted Souls

“It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don't know, I'll never know: in the silence you don't know.”
---Samuel Beckett
“Space does not exist, it has to be created… Every sculpture based on the assumption that space exists is wrong; there is only the illusion of space.”

---Alberto Giacometti, circa 1949

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Walking Man. 1961

It is difficult not to see the incredible outpouring of Alberto Giacometti’s postwar sculptures as the result of considerable intense meditation on suffering, anxiety and feelings of isolation in Europe at the end of World War II. The searing black and white images of emaciated bodies at extermination camps being thrown into burial pits, the collective suffering and near starvation in the occupied countries during the war’s last days, were vivid in the mind of those most closely situated, even in Switzerland (which was neutral during the war) where Giacometti had taken refuge in Geneva after fleeing Paris in 1941. How could the artist not have created these stick figures out of the horrific images of the war’s victims?

Well, except that it isn’t true, according to philosophy/art professor Arthur C. Danto, who knew Giacometti when Danto was a young art student in postwar Europe. Danto recounts the artist’s exasperation at the interpretation. This is not to say that Giacometti wasn’t deeply affected by the war. It must have had a very deep impact on the way he felt about his art. In fact, he emerged into his second phase of art with his sculptures of “thin to the point of disappearing’ pieces. But to see it primarily as a cry of pain and that alone is to undervaluate him as the great artist that he is.

Giacometti was not without his emotional complexities. He had several devastating traumas in his life and was intensely preoccupied with dreams and with death. But he was no recluse. In fact, he was very sociable and went out to cafes every evening with friends and carried on spirited conversations with them.

With the liberation of Paris and the rest of western Europe came the emergence of the existentialism of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Sartre, not usually a commentator on art, wrote two essays on Giacometti. Perhaps, as Danto further suggests, we must rethink existentialism itself: “...the field of perception is everywhere inflected by all of our sense modalities working together in synthesis, of how the world discloses itself to consciousness and how philosophers must learn from artists...rather than from science.”

In other words, existential philosophy proceeds from art, not the other way around! Sartre implies this when he writes about Giacometti’s later works “The moment I see them, they appear in my field of vision the way an idea appears in my mind.”

The Walking Man is not fleeing from the past. he is walking directly toward the future that is to be. We love him for his unflagging courage. In fact, we wish for it ourselves. For all of his gouged, blackened surfaces and thinness to the point of disappearing, the artist has given his walking man strong shoulders, just as he does with his wife Annette, with whom he had a stormy relationship
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Annette 1961

Her pose is motionless, however. But it is resolute. Her husband was irresponsible to the point of cruelty and neglect and reading that history makes me look at her sculpture closely...and it is a long look. It may very well be a kind of stilled existential stance but I don’t interpret her as unable to meet whatever she must.

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Falling Man, 1950, Avignon, Musée Calvet (Depot Musée d’Orsay).

This work appears as a central icon of the Existentialist view of his work. Here is the slightest of Giacometti’s figures, ready to topple from his pedestal and yet with his head is thrown back (“ecstatically,” in one critical piece I read on it). He is meeting his fate even though he falls, embracing the transcendent moment.

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City Square. 1948
In City Square, Giacometti presents a grouping of walking men and one still woman in their midst. This work was also considered a statement on the bombed out rubble of cities in the aftermath of the war’s conflagration. Again, the people he has sculpted are well grounded both in their substantial feet and in the solidly built surface the artist has rested them on. It matters that we are grounded. The artist explains: “In the street people astound and interest me more than any sculpture or painting...They unceasingly form and re-form living compositions in unbelievable complexity...It’s the totality of this life that I want to reproduce in everything I do...” Giacometti again confounds his interpreters...

The figures, as Peter Schjeldahl puts it, ”seem like the ravaged but ultimately heroic victims of wasting forces” and these images recall Samuel Beckett closing words from “The Unnamable”...

”You must go on.

“I can’t go on.

I’ll go on.”
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Arrow 28 replies Author Time Post
Reply Giacometti’s Wasted Souls (Original post)
CTyankee Jun 2015 OP
olddots Jun 2015 #1
CTyankee Jun 2015 #2
edhopper Jun 2015 #3
CTyankee Jun 2015 #4
Jim__ Jun 2015 #5
CTyankee Jun 2015 #6
Jim__ Jun 2015 #7
CTyankee Jun 2015 #8
brer cat Jun 2015 #9
CTyankee Jun 2015 #10
MerryBlooms Jun 2015 #11
CTyankee Jun 2015 #14
edhopper Jun 2015 #18
CTyankee Jun 2015 #21
edhopper Jun 2015 #22
CTyankee Jun 2015 #23
edhopper Jun 2015 #24
CTyankee Jun 2015 #25
edhopper Jun 2015 #26
Coventina Jun 2015 #12
CTyankee Jun 2015 #15
CTyankee Jun 2015 #17
Hekate Jun 2015 #13
CTyankee Jun 2015 #16
mopinko Jun 2015 #19
CTyankee Jun 2015 #20
pangaia Jun 2015 #27
CTyankee Jun 2015 #28

Response to CTyankee (Original post)

Fri Jun 19, 2015, 04:16 PM

1. sadly it looks like Fashion Week in N.Y.C.

 

art looks into the future .

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Response to olddots (Reply #1)

Fri Jun 19, 2015, 04:17 PM

2. so true...

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Response to CTyankee (Original post)

Fri Jun 19, 2015, 04:28 PM

3. Good read

especially the part about the intersection of his art and existentialism.

Seems he knew the artist works from a vision that doesn't necessarily have a conscious meaning. It is often just the visual idea that compels them.

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Response to edhopper (Reply #3)

Fri Jun 19, 2015, 04:32 PM

4. based on what the artist said, that's about it...

I like Danto's art essays a lot...he was a philosophy professor at Columbia and so delves especially into areas where the two worlds meet. Interesting take...

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Response to CTyankee (Original post)

Fri Jun 19, 2015, 04:39 PM

5. One of Giacometti's walking men appeared on the cover of Barrett's "Irrational Man"

My introduction to both existential philosophy and to Giacometti's art

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Response to Jim__ (Reply #5)

Fri Jun 19, 2015, 04:41 PM

6. was the role of Giacometti's art on existentialism discussed?

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Response to CTyankee (Reply #6)

Fri Jun 19, 2015, 04:44 PM

7. I don't think so.

But, IIRC, in either the introduction or the preface to the book they talked about the sculpture on the cover, and a little bit about Giacometti's art.

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Response to Jim__ (Reply #7)

Fri Jun 19, 2015, 04:47 PM

8. I wondered because thinking about the implications of art often change with the times.

There were a lot of years between the time of the creation of Walking Man and Danto's essay in The Nation magazine...

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Response to CTyankee (Original post)

Fri Jun 19, 2015, 05:16 PM

9. I was struck by the size of Annette's hands,

almost like baseball gloves. The palms are facing forward and curved in what appears to me to be a supplicant's pose. Her image is quite haunting, maybe more so since you mentioned that he was neglectful and cruel.

Your art posts are always interesting, and give much food for thought.

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Response to brer cat (Reply #9)

Fri Jun 19, 2015, 05:19 PM

10. I know and I get the big feet on his people (grounding) but the big hands are a

mystery. I did a TON of research on Giacometti before writing this and nowhere were the big hands mentioned...

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Response to CTyankee (Reply #10)

Fri Jun 19, 2015, 05:54 PM

11. Her chin seems to be slightly

jutted in defiance, the eyes seem sad, the brows angry... I think the hands represent internal power/strength.

Great essay, as always!

The highlight of my DU Friday.

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Response to MerryBlooms (Reply #11)

Fri Jun 19, 2015, 06:15 PM

14. Oh, I'm happy you feel that way. I like your interpretation re the hands...

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Response to MerryBlooms (Reply #11)

Sat Jun 20, 2015, 09:36 AM

18. Don't read into it to much

visually, they work. It was probably a matter of sculpting it until it looked right to him.
There is too much interpretation in modern art, when the goal of the artist is largely visual.
Often the artist isn't trying to "say" anything.

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Response to edhopper (Reply #18)

Sat Jun 20, 2015, 11:39 AM

21. I think that was what Danto was saying...that Sartre learned from Giacometti...what

he "saw" and transferred into his own sphere of philosophy. I'm reading Danto's last book "What Art Is" now. And I just love Peter Schjeldahl of the The New Yorker, possibly because he didn't even finish college, he just has a fine eye...

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Response to CTyankee (Reply #21)

Sat Jun 20, 2015, 08:21 PM

22. Yes

I was responding to what MerryBlooms said, rather than Danto.

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Response to edhopper (Reply #22)

Sun Jun 21, 2015, 05:56 AM

23. We all look at (and appreciate) art with our own contemporary minds so it is

unavoidable when we see what we see with our own framework behind it. It is a problem in aesthetics going back to Socrates' question "Do we love the gods because they are beautiful or are they beautiful because we love them?"

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Response to CTyankee (Reply #23)

Sun Jun 21, 2015, 09:28 AM

24. I don't think it is wrong to

interpret art. There are many meanings one can get. Including those the artist wasn't aware of because they were unconsciously responding to their times and culture.
I oppose the idea that "the artist meant" when talking about art. Unless we have a direct quote from the artist about the piece. (And even then there are other things to take from the art)

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Response to edhopper (Reply #24)

Sun Jun 21, 2015, 09:32 AM

25. The reason I like to post these essays is precisely to ask what the artist means...

I often have a feeling about that and an opinion, but unless we know from the artist we can't be sure. It is why the Danto piece is so important. He was refuting what people "thought" Walking Man was about (aftermath of war). Since Danto had actually known and talked to Giacometti he was offering his first hand knowledge.

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Response to CTyankee (Reply #25)

Sun Jun 21, 2015, 09:37 AM

26. That is a good point.

and the response "what I take from this piece" is a preferable way to see it, instead of "what the artist meant".

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Response to CTyankee (Original post)

Fri Jun 19, 2015, 06:00 PM

12. Wonderful piece, CTyankee. And so eerily timely.

I have to assume such a lovely piece had to have been in the works long before the tragic events in Charleston. Or maybe you are an instant genius!
(I'm not)

Giacometti's figures speak so eloquently of tragedy, and survival.

I am so impressed with the way they so powerfully interact with the space around them.
My personal favorite is "Pointing Man" which can be seen in the background of your last image.

Such a frail figure, but activates the space around him so dynamically.

Shows the power of the individual, even in our weakened, ruined state.

Do we use that power for good or evil?

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Response to Coventina (Reply #12)

Fri Jun 19, 2015, 06:17 PM

15. The great thing about art is that it speaks beyond the generations of its own...

and you are right about Pointing Man.

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Response to Coventina (Reply #12)

Sat Jun 20, 2015, 07:01 AM

17. I wanted to say that I changed my essay topic to Giacometti after learning of the

events in SC. The other one will appear in a couple of weeks. I was still working on the Giacometti and I think I could have fine tuned it further, but the point is there.

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Response to CTyankee (Original post)

Fri Jun 19, 2015, 06:05 PM

13. I saw some Giacommettis in person when I was much younger....KnR til I can come back & read this

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Response to Hekate (Reply #13)

Fri Jun 19, 2015, 06:48 PM

16. glad you like them. I look forward to your comments!

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Response to CTyankee (Original post)

Sat Jun 20, 2015, 09:54 AM

19. love him.

the art institute has several of his pieces. super powerful in person. (hint hint)

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Response to mopinko (Reply #19)

Sat Jun 20, 2015, 10:23 AM

20. chicago!

gotta be something at MoMA, too...if I ever get there again (due to health issues my trip there has been cancelled twice)...

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Response to CTyankee (Original post)

Sun Jun 21, 2015, 09:57 AM

27. Oh, so wonderful again.

I have always felt some connection to Giacometti. The way we immediately respond to certain things.
I always found the space around his sculptures as powerful as the sculptures themselves, and that space makes them even more striking.

You relating the relationship between .. art and thought.. in this case, Giacometti and Satre is most interesting....

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Response to pangaia (Reply #27)

Sun Jun 21, 2015, 10:03 AM

28. I was heavily influenced by Danto's piece in The Nation...

I often like to pair up poetry with the visual art I present in these essays. Here it was prose with Beckett but I like finding a thread between the two, such as Emily Dickinson and Van Gogh in an earlier essay. It keeps me sane.

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