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Tuesday, July 20, 2010


by alberto giacometti

Alberto Giacometti was an Italian artist who went to Paris young, fell in with the Surrealists, then after WW2 when Surrealism was over, he changed everything about what he was doing as a sculptor. He started making these long thin figures of clay that his brother, Diego, cast in bronze. During the war years, which he spent in Geneva, Switzerland, he wanted to get down to making figures as if no one had ever made any kind of sculpture to date. Carving bars of soap with his pocket knife, he made his first figures small enough he could carry them in his pockets, the size of a match. He returned to Paris after the war with a new way of making sculptures and painting.

Today's film was named for him, Alberto Giacometti. French made, it is an hour long documentary about his work. His life and his work were the same. The 2nd part of the film was an hour long conversation / interview with him, which was made in the year he died. He lived 1901-1966 the same year Carter Stanley died. Some years ago I read a biography of him by James Lord, a beautifully written biography. One thing about it, Giacometti's work cannot be confused with anybody else's. He lived in a tiny 2-room place in Montmartre, then where artists lived, low rent. One room was his studio where he did his work, the other room his bedroom. That was his space. He was one of the respected intellectuals of Paris, an existentialist. In Europe in that time existentialist and intellectuals were 2 words with the same meaning. To say someone was an intellectual, you'd say he's an existentialist. The ist on the end is pronounced east. Existential-east. The existentialist writer's name, Albert Camus, is one of the first a lit student must master. It is Ca-moo, accent second syllable, not Kay-mus. Very important to know, like where not to wear white socks.

In my college years when I was wanting to learn about everything going on in international art, though the school had no art department, I took an art appreciation class, but it was so easy I got little from it, and especially so artless. It was all about IMPORTANT art. Learning to be a Wikipedia for information on what's important to know about. Giacometti was the big dog in the world of artists living. Very important to know about Giacometti. Such an exotic name, too. Just right for a Surrealist / existentialist. His name was a great one to toss around at cocktail parties. Have you read...? Have you seen...? Did you know...? You gotta read...! You gotta see...! He's so awesome, a Surrealist AND an existentialist! How much cooler does it get? Like Miles Davis, the essence of cool.

Giacometti was essential knowledge of the time. Then, Picasso was an important name to toss around like you know something about it. DeKooning was the ultimate artist of all time. Then came Warhol debunking abstract expressionism which believed itself to be the highest of the high, pure art. Pop Art came along like a dog, lifted its leg and peed on it. It turned out abstraction was just another way to paint, not necessarily the ultimate. It did seem, however, that every "movement" after abstract expressionism saw itself in relation to abstraction, a new way of seeing abstraction. Art since then appears to me to be working in abstraction, much of it using what we call realism, but in abstract ways. I believe Giacometti's work will appear contemporary for a long time in the future. Not only did Giacometti live simply, his only tool was a pocket knife. No hammers, no chisels. A pocket knife. And not even a Swiss Army pocket tool drawer, just a plain one that looks like it might be a Case. It looks like one he probably carried before, practical size for the pocket, no more than a 3 inch blade. One day it came to him, that's all he needed.

He reduced his figures to the bone, stick figures, the very first way we draw people. He made standing stick figures with fairly detailed faces. When you see who his models are, you can recognize the faces. One was his wife, another his brother, some were friends. Giacometti took everything he did to its simplest possibility and continue to represent the human form. His paintings, portraits, take some getting used to. Masses and masses of scribbles in the face, geometric lines, looking scratched on in a rush, but in fact each line was placed by intent. He painted the entire structure of the face and emphasis on eyes. The eyes are alive in all of them. It's like the eyes are alive and can see, but they're locked onto the canvas by thousands of lines of paint, something like the way a spider wraps a bug like a mummy. Consciousness captured can never be set free. Tied down by all those lines. The man had a great deal to say. What he had to say he said as simply as he lived and did his work.

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