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.
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?
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.