The Last Modernist

Real human beings-certainly Parisian artgoers snuggled inside bright puffy parkas or with arms folded studiously across baggy sweaters-cut nice, wide, warm swaths through the world. Compared to them, the sculpted figures of the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) are almost nothing. They're razor thin, monochromatic, hollow-eyed, knobby and seemingly squeezed into near oblivion merely by the air around them. They appear to embed in a wiry human anatomy all the spiritual paralysis that we inhabitants of the 20th century have wrought upon ourselves. Any reasonable viewer would conclude that Giacometti is a pessimist, that the esthetic cup he presents to us is half empty.

But perhaps it's actually half full. Maybe Giacometti's attenuated metal people have something good to say about the human spirit. Could it not be-as an optimist might have it-that they're really pushing out against nothingness, asserting their undeniable, -if vulnerable, right to exist and, metaphorically, to live and hope? Through March 15, the entire first floor of Paris's Musee de l'Art Moderne is devoted directly to a huge Giacometti retrospective (336 sculptures, paintings and drawings) and, indirectly, to answering that question. (The museum is one of the most dankly austere buildings in Paris, so the art gets no lift from its setting.)

The son of a prominent (at least in Switzerland) impressionist painter, Giovanni Giacometti, Alberto was encouraged to become an artist. After an unprecocious beginning in local art schools and travels to Italy with his father, Giacometti was ineluctably drawn to Paris at the age of 20. He studied for three years with Antoine Bourdelle, a prominent (even beyond France) sculptor of smoothly corpulent' female figures. Equally inevitably, Giacometti became a surrealist (things were official with them; he joined) in 1930. He handled all the movement's unconventional stylistic conventions--semiprimitive, schematic figures with generalized concavities and protrusions indicating gender-- very well. One of his hard-core surrealist pieces, the scary, crablike "Woman with Her Throat Cut" (1932), is a genuine masterpiece. But from time to time the surrealists liked to purge their rolls of soft-liners, and Giacometti was expelled in 1935.

Alternating between the model and his own imagination, Giacometti began to produce a more natural sculpture that also became, around 1940, quite minuscule. By returning to Switzerland (where he met his eventual wife, Annette) Giacometti was spared most of the war. He came back to Paris in 1945, the story goes, carrying all his recent work in six matchboxes. He resumed the tiny bronze busts-on-blocks he had started before France fell. These delicately modeled humanoid blips are displayed in the museum atop little white platforms which have been in turn placed under clear plastic boxes, which have then been set safely out of reach in huge white alcoves. The installation as well as the art announces that alienation, or Giacometti's desire to replicate it, had clearly set in. The small, featureless busts led to the complete but skinny figures like "Falling Man" (1950), and those foot-high slender beings gradually became taller and taller. Giacometti's last sculptures are life-height and better. Mired on their own outsize feet, these emaciated figures seem to stare blankly into space (if they can "see" at all), with all their faintly oscillating energy presumably occupied with the enormous task of simple existence. A wall label rightly calls them "archetypal men and women in solitude and fragility." No sculptor since Medardo Rosso, a turn-of-the-century Italian, had so reveled in the precariousness of touch. The American abstract painter Barnett Newman said Giacometti's sculptures looked like they were made out of spit. He meant it as a compliment.

According to Giacometti's friend, writer James Lord, the artist himself "would naturally delay as long as possible the decisive act of beginning." And Giacometti's paintings are, if anything, even more tenuous than his sculptures. He confessed to Lord, "The more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it." A portrait like that of Giacometti's brother and favorite model, "Diego in a Plaid Shirt" (1954), is composed of brushstrokes analogous to the ripples sent out in a pond by a falling stone. The stone-the soul-has disappeared; only its fading effects are still visible. An admirer once told Giacometti he had captured the inner essence of a sitter. "Not at all," he answered. "I have enough to do with the outside without bothering about the inside."

Official critical opinion tends to put Giacometti's painting on a par with his sculpture (he won the Venice Biennale's grand prize for sculpture in 1962 and the Guggenheim International Award in painting two years later). But Giacometti is more truly a sculptor, although the relationship between the two media is complex. Just as a good case can be made for Picasso being at bottom a sculptor (his paintings are depictions of peculiar objects), there's an argument for Giacometti essentially having turned sculpture into a kind of painting. The image, rather than the form, of a sculpture like "Dog" (1951)-- which looks like a greyhound who wandered onto an atomic test site-is what stays in your mind. Nevertheless, it's in sculptures such as the late, large bust "Lotar II" (1964), in which the head of the model rises eerily from its manipulated pile of a body like Nessie from her Scottish lake, that Giacometti's profound anxiety about the human condition really comes across. This darkness, and not a belief in scientific progress or the artistic avant-garde, is what makes Giacometti the most modern of modern artists.

He was also the last great sculptor of the old Europe, the Europe that brought out the big guns and bombs in earnest eve 30 years or so would have blown itself up rather than consider the idea of, say, a common currency. But though his sculpted figures seem to be withering away, Giacometti was not an artist of mere despair. Yes, he was a friend of Beckett and Genet, and a subject of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. But Giacometti was no Slim-Fast existentialist. True, his art is less protean than Picasso's, a lot drier than Matisse's, and not nearly as soaring as Brancusi's. But better than any, Giacometti recognized that the beautiful and the absurd are often intermingled in the modern world. He knew that alienation is actually the prerequisite for hope. This philosophical realism gives Giacometti's sculpture its best quality: a truly elegant visual wit. Look at the "Man" and the "Dog" and "Diego" again. It's absolutely obvious. The cup is half full.