|Caroline II (1962). (Museum of Modern Art, New York)|
| Reaction #3: What a confused
attitude toward women
You can never call Giacometti's figures warm. The human figures are stilted, stiff, and extreme. The heft of female sexuality is absent. You can barely tell women's breasts from the other slaps of bronze that make up her skin. The feet are bigger than her hips or thighs. "Tall Figure" (1947) and "Tall Figure" (1948) stand with their legs clamped together, arms ramrod straight at their sides. Feminine roundness has been transformed into phallic linearity.
James Lord, Giacometti's biographer, says the artist was "violently ambivalent" about women. "He both adored and despised them," writes Lord. "They were goddesses to be worshipped from afar, but they were also fallen women deserving to suffer. He entertained fantasies of rape and murder. The seemingly insurmountable distance which he saw between himself and others might, he felt, be overcome by violence. From an early age he had conceived of the sexual act as a battle." (Giacometti had sex for the first time with a prostitute in Rome; he had taken her home with the intention of drawing her. When he climaxed, he burst out, "It's cold! It's mechanical!")
Certainly, the men and women in Giacometti's works never seem to see eye to eye. In "The Cage (Woman and Head)" (1950) and "The Forest" (1950), the man is a thick lump of shoulders with a spindly head, while the woman is as straight and slender as a Lombardy poplar. In "The Forest," the full-length women-trees look off in the same direction as the man, though their line of sight is well above his. In "The Cage," the woman's line of sight is above the man's, but this time she is also facing perpendicularly away from him. While the man in "The Forest" sees the backs of the women, the man in "The Cage" sees even less: only the thinnest line of a lean woman's profile.
One could argue that Giacometti's art reflects his belief that men and women are not equals. But it's hard to hate Giacometti because he has a tenderness for both his women and his men--emerging as they do, their skin lacerated from some ashy apocalypse. Furthermore, whatever his personal attitude toward women, Giacometti depicts them in his art as complex beings. If stereotype dictates that women must be round and men must be vectors, Giacometti doesn't reach for these easy characterizations. Nor are his women weak. They hold their thin shoulders proudly and aren't about to break that authoritative vertical line to fetch your slippers.
Giacometti also changes his mind. "Standing Nude without Arms" (1954), "Nude after Nature" (1954), and "Standing Nude 3" (1953) are not like his earlier, anorexic depictions of women. These women have clouds of hair, thicker breasts, and full bottoms.
The scarred surfaces of all these sculptures imply tenderness and attention to the lives of his creatures, rather than any sort of hard-line take on hard lines. The texture invites touch and tells us that sculptures like "Tall Figure" (1947) are unique; the dents and pocks of her skin are hers alone, as individual as a fingerprint. Running your hand over this woman's body, of course, makes for a strangely distant sort of adoration. The figure seems not to acknowledge or feel the pleasure of a caress. But the desire to reach out means that Giacometti's figures, above all, evoke sympathy.
Giacometti's artistry prevents him from being easily dismissed as a misogynist. That is not to say that Giacometti's personal life--including his unflattering views of women--should be ignored. The story of his desires is sordid, but also sweet, and above all throws a great deal of light on his work. If his art is complex, his life is even more so. Giacometti, after all, didn't live by strict rules. If he enjoyed women most at a distance, he was also popular with them--though often these women were prostitutes, like the love of his later life, Caroline.
Reaction #3: What a confused attitude toward women