Exhibition review

Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures of tall, elegantly scraggy humans loom large in people’s minds. The Swiss artist (1901-1966) with the Italian name lived in Paris for most of his adulthood, and is known for his larger-than-life, impossibly thin, bumpily textured bronze figures. These sculptures — with stripped-down titles like “Standing Woman” and “Walking Man” — have been collected by major museums around the world, which means that many, many people have seen one or two of these unforgettable, solitary giants.

And yet, as a big new exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum proves, most of Giacometti’s artistic life was spent on much smaller explorations of the human form. If you visit the show (and you should), you might be tempted to race through the galleries to get to the iconic “Walking Man I” (at almost 6 feet tall) and “Tall Woman IV” (at over 8 1/2 feet tall) at the end of the exhibition. 

But both of those works are from the 1960s, at which point Giacometti had been working with this reductive approach to the human figure for 25 years. Think about that for a moment. On view are more than 60 sculptures but only a handful of human poses and forms. These simple poses — standing, sitting, kneeling, or, very occasionally, striding forward — are repeated again and again. 

Giacometti also applied his modernist technique to the age-old form of portrait heads and busts. Essentially, aside from the occasional, surprising landscape painting or print of an interior, there’s just one subject: the human figure. 

But perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Giacometti’s subject matter was actually the matter of subjectivity: How each one of us, as an individual, relates to the world around us and acts within it. For decades, Giacometti focused on rendering the human body in order to reveal — or discover — something about the human condition, very often his own.

If all of this sounds existential, you’re right. Giacometti was profoundly influenced by the philosophical ideas swirling around the 1940s and ‘50s. In fact, his friend, the French writer Jean-Paul Sartre, crafted two essays about Giacometti’s art.  

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This extensive, captivating exhibition allows you to channel your inner existentialist, slow down, and consider how you — as an individual body — perceive each sculptural body in the space that surrounds you both. 

Gaze at the tiny face and stick-like arms of a 10-inch-tall, dark bronze human figure as it arises from a disproportionately bulky base that rests on an oversized white table. Does something within you long to recognize something within it? Do you notice how each sculpture is so similar to others but also utterly unique in composition, texture and patina?

If you glimpse anything of the sort, Giacometti might have been pleased. He spent weeks, even months, sitting in his small, cluttered studio staring at the friend or family member who posed for him — most often his wife, Annette, and his brother, Diego. He looked back and forth between the person before him and his work in progress, pinching, pressing, adding or subtracting bits of clay or plaster to and from a wire armature. 

Each re-presentation of reality was a profound challenge during this time of modernist questions about art. Giacometti had moved to Paris in 1922, when Europe was still reeling from the human-made disaster of World War I. Modern artists and writers debated whether art could still represent humanity or reality in any way that felt authentic. The Surrealists Giacometti was hanging out with proclaimed that art should bubble up from the irrational, interior world — rather than attempting to re-create the so-called rational, observable, exterior world. 

What makes Giacometti so extraordinary in the history of modern art were his endeavors — his struggles — to do both. You can sense the struggle, the labor, in each sculpture, in the pushed and torn and sliced surfaces, in the abstracted faces. The eyes are often unfocused and pupil-less. 

Like many modern artists, Giacometti looked beyond Europe for alternative ways of creating art. This exhibition, which was co-organized by the Seattle Art Museum and the Paris-based Giacometti Foundation, displays a few ancient Mediterranean, Egyptian and sub-Saharan African works of art from SAM’s collection, similar to the kind of forms Giacometti was inspired by. It’s also worth wandering down the hall to visit SAM’s Egyptian gallery to see more small figurines that resonate so strongly with Giacometti’s in terms of scale, composition, stillness and timelessness.

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Most of Giacometti’s works in this show are from the post-World War II era, when his art became even more expressive. It is tempting to say the figures are more tortured. Some viewers — then and now — have aligned his elongated, almost skeletal bodies with the horrors of the Holocaust. 

More broadly, many viewers find a loneliness within the figures, which often exist as solitary beings on massive bases. When multiple figures share a base, they never face or even glance toward each other.

But Giacometti shied away from these kinds of interpretations. Instead, he spoke of his postwar art as part of a continuing search for how to merge self-expression with a portrayal of fellow humans. Speaking metaphorically of this kind of encounter, he once said, “I met a person and I went home, I managed to create him, I felt him as me, as myself, as my beliefs and I felt myself in that moment in a mirror.”

Taken as a whole, the exhibition constructs a vision of the artist as restless and relentless, creating sculpture after sculpture, drawing after drawing, feeling his way toward a kind of synthesis just beyond his grasp.

Further fleshing out this image of the artist and his quest are dozens of photographs of Giacometti by some of the most celebrated photographers of the time: Brassaï (who was a close friend), Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks and Richard Avedon, to name just a few. 

Through their lenses, we see different visions of the artist in his studio, surrounded by his attempts to capture something solid but impalpable about humanity.

“Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure”

10 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesdays-Sundays, through Oct. 9; Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave.; $19.99-$32.99, free for SAM members and children 14 and under; 206-654-3100, seattleartmuseum.org

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