|The Palace at 4 a.m. (1932), by Alberto Giacometti. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)|
Art for anxious times
The man looks like he's been through hell--emaciated, gouged, scarred, and vulnerable--but he's still putting the right foot in front of the left. It's for sculptures like "Walking Man" (1947) that Alberto Giacometti is best known. And it's for this "whole new tribe of people" that existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre favored Giacometti's work. The figures know no easy escape route; their thick feet, which seem to have more mass than their entire bodies, anchor them firmly to the ground. The woman of "Tall Figure" (1947) has survived something awful and, like a figurehead on the prow of an adventuring ship, braces for the next cold wave to hit.
But if this is the Giacometti that springs first to mind, the retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art (October 11, 2001 to January 8, 2002) is determined to showcase the Swiss-born artist's entire artistic development. The curved plaster blocks that make up "Torso" (1925) remind us that Giacometti understood Cubist principles early on. "Woman with her Throat Cut" (1932), a twisted bear-trap of bronze made in his surrealist phase, shows how Giacometti was exceptional even before he made his best-known works. The curators complement the main attractions with paintings, which include an early CÚzanne-esque self-portrait and later, scratchy oils of Giacometti's wife, Annette Arm.
One of the main impressions you come away with after seeing the exhibition is that Giacometti was a thinking man. A lot of care and contemplation went into these works--which is perhaps why they inspired people like Sartre and Samuel Beckett, and perhaps why I ended up spending two hours in the galleries on a recent visit.
Actually, I had meant to go the Metropolitan Art Museum. In the midst of events that seemed to get uglier and uglier by the day and a city that was full of ashes, I wanted to see something beautiful. In my mind, I was directing myself to the Renaissance galleries, where some rosy, oversize cherubs might be swinging with golden cloth, and to the Northern Song Dynasty scrolls, where blissfully translucent mountains, more shadow than substance, might fall away gracefully into the sea.
As much as I like modern art, it is very suspicious of any ideal of "beauty." You can't paint Venus emerging from her half-shell these days without giving her a wart for comic effect. Anger and anxiety often drive ámodern art; to disturb and undermine are often its imperatives. I usually love the subversion at work in these works, but I've been looking for something else recently. The enjoyment of seeing a conventional still life upset by a elephant-nosed gas mask has diminished, now that I can walk outside and see Mr. M's Discount Center trumpeting its wide selection of American, Russian, Chinese, and British gas masks at "great prices!"
So I set out that day looking for relief and ended up, unexpectedly, at the Giacometti exhibition. (It was Monday; other museums were closed.) The best kind of art changes the way you look at the world; the best kind of exhibits encourage you to learn more about the artist and his or her times. MOMA's Giacometti exhibit does both.
Art for anxious times