Giacometti: walking tall

When “Walking Man 1” sold for £65m in February to become, for a few months, the most expensive work bought at auction, Alberto Giacometti completed a rags-to-riches trajectory only rivalled in art history by Vincent van Gogh.

At the end of the second world war, when the artist was already in his mid-forties, his entire output fitted into a few matchboxes; whatever he sculpted, his urge to reduce was so overwhelming that the work more or less disappeared. For 12 years, he had no exhibitions; then, gradually, he managed to maintain the height of his figures so long as he could keep them thin as a thread, attenuated, eliminating mass and volume. Now the man found the moment: his elongated, etiolated walking men and eerily static standing women embodied, in their projection of isolation and estrangement, existentialism in visual art, and introduced a new sculpture for a shattered postwar world. “He was the first to take it into his head to sculpt man as he appears, that is to say, from a distance,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in the catalogue to Giacometti’s first solo exhibition, at Pierre Matisse’s New York gallery in 1948.

Dealers flocked, and are still competing today, to represent Giacometti. Matisse’s Giacomettis were displayed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 2004-2005. Larry Gagosian, who controls the artist’s estate, showed him alongside Francis Bacon in 2008. Swiss dealer Ernst Beyeler organised a distinguished exhibition in 2009, claiming “Walking Man” as the “veritable trademark of the Fondation Beyeler”. And now this summer comes Giacometti & Maeght, an insider-view retrospective at the Fondation Maeght based on the important holdings of the artist’s Parisian gallerist.

Aimé Maeght built his Fondation beneath Saint-Paul de Vence’s pine-covered hills in 1964 as a memorial to his 11-year-old son Bernard, who died of leukaemia. All his artists contributed – there is a Miró garden and a Braque pool – but seminal to the conception was a large brick and white concrete agora, the “Giacometti Courtyard”. Here the striding yet weightless “Walking Man” and towering “Standing Woman”, arms pinned to the body, feet deformed, look fresh, startling but also as fleeting and fugitive as the passers-by who first inspired them, coming and going in a crowd in which we mingle as participants.

No space shows Giacometti more generously. Here his figures breathe, the space around them and the solitude of each is emphasised, but so is an optimistic counterbalance, expressed in their sense of movement: Giacometti believed that the natural balance of walking symbolised the individual’s life force. That energy animates, too, his wonderful quasi-skeletal “Dog” and “Cat” sculptures here. For all these reasons, the Giacometti courtyard has long been a place of pilgrimage.

Devotees, therefore, will be unnerved by this summer’s innovation – a huge black Alexander Calder sculpture occupies the Giacometti courtyard and the Walking Men have moved inside. Though less spectacular in the galleries, the compensation is that they are set for the first time against their tiny models – a drama of scale that immediately asserts Giacometti’s surrealist roots, underlined by some superb early pieces here, notably “Invisible Object”, a rigid female figure sitting on a chair so thin that it is about to vanish, her hands outstretched to hold – nothing: an emptiness to which our eye repeatedly returns.

Giacometti was, says Aimé’s granddaughter Yoyo Maeght, “the closest among those closest to the family”. That closeness is apparent from incisive, tender drawings and paintings he made of Aimé, capturing the mix of canniness, empathy and worldly interest that made him Europe’s preeminent postwar dealer, his gregarious, broad-faced Provençal wife Marguerite and their immediate circle – a portrait of Braque on his deathbed, accompanied by a photograph of Giacometti in the act of painting it, is a highlight. The concentration on portraits here goes to the heart of Giacometti’s fastidious, intense working method. Like Lucian Freud, he used a very limited number of familiar models – principally his wife Annette and brother Diego – and rarely travelled, because “the adventure, the big adventure, is to watch everyday something unknown emerge from the same face – that’s worth more than all the journeys round the world”.

That is why subtle contrasts between works within the same editions, and details exposed by plaster cast models, are compelling. The Maeght collection is the only one to include two versions of “Walking Man”, both painted by Giacometti to resonate with the Fondation’s green-brown surroundings rather than finished with the usual patina; there is also a monumental painted female figure that Aimé donated to the Pompidou Centre on the eve of its inauguration with the decree, “You can’t open without this!” The family also owns rare painted plaster works – a head of Diego; the taut, tough/delicate diminutive “Standing Woman with Bouquet”, body streaked red, flowers and stems just touched with notes of colour. This figure greets you at the door, alongside a tall mirror (Maeght published editions called Derrière le Miroir), in which is reflected a film of Giacometti at work, depicting the passing crowd – ourselves.

I am not sure an artist of Giacometti’s grandeur needs such gimmicks – or the mirrored vitrines that frame his smaller pieces like jewels. The range of work these contain, though, is tremendous and affords an opportunity to study close up how acutely Giacometti modelled, kneaded, accumulated, pared down his flayed, irregular surfaces, mottling, pitting, scarring them in myriad ways to evoke the vulnerability of the human form, the play of light and shadow on figures seen from a distance – and, in emphatic thumbprints or knife marks, the story of their creation.

“Beauty has no other origin than the singular wound, different in every case, hidden or visible, which each man bears within himself,” wrote playwright Jean Genet. “Giacometti’s art seems to me determined to discover this secret wound in each being and even in each thing, in order to illuminate them.” Giacometti’s portrait of Genet himself is a perfect example of that fragile strength: a classical portrait, posed seated, hands resting on lap, boldly frontal, in a format going back to the 17th century yet resolutely modern in its disdain for straightforward representation, its suggestion of edginess, its self-doubting build-up from a push-pull frenzy of grey lines so animated that Genet seems about to burst into speech.

Like Picasso’s, Giacometti’s lifelong concern was to test the limits of representational form in an epoch of abstraction. “Sculpture, painting and drawing have always helped me to understand my vision of the outside world,” he explained. As this show demonstrates, he remains the most important sculptor of modern times because he helps us make sense of our vision of the world.

‘Giacometti & Maeght’, Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul de Vence, France, to October 31

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