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Alberto Giacometti, “Women with Her Throat Cut (Femme égorgée)” (1932, cast 1949) (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

As a teenager visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time, it was neither Goya nor Rembrandt who stopped me in my tracks but the haunting work of Alberto Giacometti. That’s when I met “Annette” (1961), a late portrait of the artist’s wife, who’s pictured in a terrifying emulsion of expressive brushwork and gray paint.

What continues to shock me about this painting is how innocent Annette looks when compared with the aesthetic violence that Giacometti has crowded around her figure. The irony is clear: Giacometti’s work is less an excavation of his sitters’ interior lives than it is a projection of his own chauvinistic fear of emasculation.

A decade later, that’s the same message I received when visiting the Guggenheim’s masterfully subtle reintroduction of the artist, simply titled Giacometti. Co-curated by the museum’s Megan Fontanella and Catherine Grenier, director of the Fondation Giacometti, the retrospective exposes the sculptor’s insecurities through sly juxtapositions between male and female figures, sculptures of women standing and women dismembered, cubist skulls and stabbed-through heads.

Alberto Giacometti, “Woman with Chariot (Femme au chariot)” (ca. 1945)

Alberto Giacometti, “Surrealist Head (Tête surréaliste)” (1934)

Although Giacometti is best-known for his bronze sculptures, I found his plaster works more unsettling for their cottage cheese whiteness. More malleable than bronze, plaster allows the artist to scar his figures with unprecedented disfigurement. Notice how the face of “Woman with Chariot”(ca. 1945) is virtually nonexistent. It reminds me of the deformed clay busts featured in Deborah Castillo’s “Slapping Power” (2015/18) at Smack Mellon, which I wrote about last week. Castillo’s defacement of two male busts represented a violent reproach to the misogyny that so often vanishes women from art history. Seeing his work through this context, we might easily regard Giacometti as one of the great vanishers of women.

Looking at Giacometti’s “Surrealist Head” (1934), I have a very basic question for the artist: Why create to destroy? He goes through the trouble to draw eyes and a mouth on the skull just to stab it. What intense animosity motivates an adult to do such a thing?

Alberto Giacometti, “Four Women on a Base (Quatre femmes sur socle)” (1950, cast 1950) in front of a female security guard

Alberto Giacometti, “Three Men Walking (Small Square) (Trois hommes qui marchent (Petit plateau))” (1949, cast 2007)

Alberto Giacometti, “The Glade (La clanière)” (1950, cast 2007)

At certain angles, the spindly legs of Giacometti’s figures look like prison bars. I wonder why the modernist narrative still championed by museums like Guggenheim and MoMA insists on cherishing male aggression as an asset. For me, “Three Men Walking (Small Square) (1949) reads as a sculpture of museum directors stuck in a closed loop of thinking, devoted to perpetuating the myth that gives them power.

Alberto Giacometti, “Tall Thin Head (Grande tête mince)” (1954, cast 1977)

“Diego” (1953)

Alberto Giacometti, “The Nose (La nez)” (1949, cast 1964)

Giacometti continues through September 12 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have also appeared on WNYC. They tweet and instagram...

16 replies on “Giacometti and Fears of Emasculation”

      1. Perhaps *I* can respond to Sansacro and Bryan K Gardner’s comments.
        I think this article is rather shallow in its outlook.
        It seems to be pandering to:
        1. ideas that aren’t actually present in the work,
        or,
        2. one for which the writer presents no documentation.
        I say “no documentation” because while the writer is certainly entitled to his own opinions regarding the works themselves, it seems to me that if he is going say, rather definitively, “a projection of his own chauvinistic fear of emasculation”, if for no other reason than to enlighten this reader, he needs, I believe, to back that up with some sort of historical reference to the nature of Giogometti’s personality.

        1. Lol this is a ~300 word personal photo essay and should be read us such. If you don’t see a *literally* defaced female figure and even momentarily think that it’s a violent act, then you probably won’t agree with me and that’s okay! I still think Giacometti’s work is compelling, for the record, but this was my reaction to the Guggenheim’s show.

          1. Well, by my quick-count, you’ve given me an additional 61 words, but still no documentation. A disfigured figure could be for any number of reasons, but it is not any sort of ‘proof’ concerning a “fear of emasculation” — a violent act or not.

            Perhaps you can respond to my comments. But if this only your reaction to the show, oh well . . .

          2. I don’t see a defaced female figure. and like you said that’s OK. I’ve done sculpture, and some of us like a reductive process: build it up, then take it away. sometimes more, sometimes less. It’s more of a “reveal” gesture than a violent act. but i can see how it might be interpreted as such.

  1. The article takes off from the idea that because certain works stopped him in his tracks as a teenager, they are self-evidently more important than certain other works. When a female artist disfigures male heads, it’s about misogyny. When a male artist disfigures female heads, it’s about misogyny. When is it not about misogyny? The squeamishness about cottage cheese leads me to wonder if the author isn’t avoiding the issue of anorexia raised by Giacometti’s work.

      1. Personally, I interpreted Giacometti’s elongation and thinness of figures as indication of backlighting. When the light comes from behind, the figure is thrown into shadow, and you can simplify, and the viewer fills in what they want to see. Also, the light kind of “wraps” around the figure from behind, making it appear thin, and also creates a sense of visual vibration, suggesting movement. pretty cool.

  2. This article is so shallow and nonsensical it doesn’t deserve to be called art criticism…

  3. This could only be true if there is a willingness to accept that he was also a “vanisher” of men.

  4. If one is going to review a sculpture show, one should have some knowledge of the process sculptors use to actually create work. In the authors comments regarding the malleability of plaster as opposed to bronze the implication to the uninformed is that sculptors actually create sculptures from a block of bronze.

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