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And the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.
— William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, Act 3, Scene 1
Few sights reveal flailing vulnerability tinged with hideous absurdity more than a bottom-side-up bug. Standing over Alberto Giacometti’s floor-based, racing-in-place “Woman with Her Throat Cut” (1932), I found myself despairing over what looked more like an agonized insect than a human being dying.
In “Throat Cut,” now on display as part of the Giacometti retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the artist depicts with poignancy what is grotesque. Here, the creepier and more piteous the impact, the more dominant is the death — or, more accurately, the life — of this work. Disparity is discomforting.
As in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s tragedy tempered by burlesque, (see the lines quoted above), Giacometti’s sculpture merges horror, pity, and whimsy. There’s delicacy in the girlish breasts and in the rounded, pivoting knife that substitutes for a right hand, and you can slurp soup from the left hand. The woman’s whopping, leaf-like right foot beneath her torso displays points that could be read as ribs or talons or simply as the tips of the leaf. Viewed in isolation, each part is innocuous enough. It’s the weird gestalt that creates a deathly paroxysm.
Expectations are denied, yet satisfied. This hybrid creature’s long, curled and crooked right arm seems to call for the short, simple one on her left; it would feel imbalanced without the opposing distortion. The dip of the foot/rib cage seems to occasion the slow rise of the belly and sets up the quick zigzag of the legs, which, like her lips, neck, and hand, are open and vulnerable. The oversized left palm awaits the pool of blood about to flow from her vicious neck wound.
Artworks are seen within particular times. After the merciless events surrounding asylum-seeking immigrant families, I couldn’t help imagining this human/insect sculpture as a metaphor of the emotional trauma inflicted by the administration’s border policy, tearing children from parents. Despite the Swiss sculptor’s initial intentions, I look at “Throat Cut” now and think about the effects of inhumane choices made by Republican politicians who are violating what our country once stood for, with what seems to be as little remorse as they’d feel squashing a bug.
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a troubled dream, he found himself changed in his bed into some monstrous kind of vermin.” So begins Franz Kafka’s classic story “The Metamorphosis” (1915), in which a traveling salesman awakens one morning as an armor-plated beetle. A story is successful when the audience suspends its disbelief, that is, believes that the narrative happened just as the author says it did. Through giddy artistry, elegance of artifice, and beetle-browed believability, we accept Kafka’s and Giacometti’s depictions. Of course, their depictions are fictions.
However, some audiences suspend their disbelief when the person leading our country spins his tales irrespective of inconvenient facts. But lies matter. They affect lives, including those of his base, which is, in effect, his pedestal. In contrast, Kafka’s Gregor Samsa and Giacometti’s doomed woman convince us not with “alternate facts” but an alternate reality, adhering to their own surreal logic.
For “Woman with Her Throat Cut,” the sculptor stipulated that there be no pedestal boosting the work from the “real” world into the world of art. This was a radical call. Remember, when the work was made, sculptures and pedestals were as interdependent as windpipes and sound. Moreover, nixing the pedestal was an uncharacteristic decision for an artist who took special pains to incorporate supports of all kinds into both form and content. At the Guggenheim show, sculpted heads are supported with everything from an iron frame (“The Nose,” 1947-49) within which the sculpture hangs; to a tall pole on which a silent, screaming, decapitated head (“Head on a Rod,“ 1947) is mounted as on a stake; to the mountainous mass in “Bust of a Man” (1956), where Giacometti erased the line between man and stand.
Comparing “Throat Cut” to most of his other figurative works is to emphasize just how rigidly his subjects are usually posed. Seated, they seldom even slouch. His younger brother, Diego, the model for a legion of Alberto’s drawings, paintings, and sculptures, never does. In mature works like “Standing Nude I” (1958), or “Standing Woman (Leoni)” (1947), erect figures stare straight ahead, arms tightly bordering emaciated bodies: the classic Giacometti pose. It’s also a convention of “sacred calm” employed by Ancient Greek, Egyptian, Oceanic, and African artists.
“Woman with Her Throat Cut”: Who is this nameless woman? We know little beyond that Giacometti gave birth to her in Paris in 1932, this sensual sufferer whose first (and last) breaths were drawn nearly 90 years ago. (There are six of these bronzes out there; the original plaster model was destroyed during a casting.) What is her unnamed ordeal? Could it have been prevented? Her story is ours to write. It comes with a striking title.
In his Meanings of Modern Art (1974), the critic John Russell describes this sculpture as “a portrait of Europe laid flat on her back and summarily done to death.” The notion that creativity endures in the throes of torment is comforting. I guess. Russell reminds us that in 1932, Europe was balancing anxiously between World Wars. Ironically, this squirming figure of darkness can be viewed as a statement of survival. Think about it: an almost 90-year-old last breath. It’s sad to accept that in her present state she’ll outlive our daughters and sons. But one does not always pick the symbols with which one lives.
Its title notwithstanding, she looks less like a woman, or a Kafkaesque beetle, than a cut-to-the-quick praying mantis, an insect that sometimes kills and eats its male partner during or after sex. (Talk about a tough crit!)
Giacometti’s cadaverous survivor speaks to us. Yet, when she spreads her lips, there is no sound; her windpipe is severed. She’s barely more than three feet long, but her measure-by-measure implications are overwhelming . . . and silence echoes deathlessly.
Giacometti continues at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum(1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 12.
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