Southeast Texas artist reviews Houston sculpture show

“The Forest” by Alberto Giacometti, on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Feb, 12. Photo by Andy Coughlan

When one thinks of a sculpted figure, they immediately imagine a muscular form carved from stone, something with weight both literally and figuratively. Many of Alberto Giacometti’s figures, by way of contrast, are seemingly weightless, as if they are moments away from launching themselves from the earth and flying off into the universe.

The Italian sculptor is the subject of a fascinating exhibition, “Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure,” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through February 12. This overview of the artist’s life and work carefully constructs a narrative that leads us toward his ultimate goal — the ultimate figure.

“Heads of Men on a Proof of the Exhibition Catalogue at Pierre Matisse Gallery” by Alberto Giacometti, on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Feb, 12.

The show is carefully arranged to connect us to various themes, showing us, for example, through a series of heads, how Giacometti transitioned from realistic portraits to semi-abstraction.

As an artist, I am always most keen to see these transitions, how the artist twists and shifts as he chases the elusive goal. This exhibition does not disappoint. It starts with early drawings which show his mark making on paper similar to his eventual sculptural style, scratches and quick marks rather than long flowing strokes. It’s as if he is shaping the space around the object. In the “Paris Without End” series of lithographs, Giacometti doesn’t give us a lot of detail. Rather, he is looking at the “idea” of the thing.

In the mid-1930s, after a decade working with images inspired by dreams, Giacometti became obsessed with heads, which led him to withdraw from the Surrealist movement. The German artist Franz Xaver Messerschmidt obsessively produced a series of heads in the mid-1800s, but in contrast to Messerschmidt, whose grotesque heads were contorted into a variety of grimaces, Giacometti’s busts are impassively stoic and emotionless.

Giacometti’s brother, Diego, was a constant model though out his life. A series of Diego heads ranging from 1936 to 1953 show the evolution to a more abstracted style.

“Four Women on a Base” by Alberto Giacometti, on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Feb, 12. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Giacometti’s drawings are fascinating, especially the ones rendered in ball point pen. They remind one of the kind of doodles one might draw in a boring meeting, constantly swirling and overlaying lines until the drawing is almost impossible to discern. But Giacometti is not merely doodling. He is building the features, creating three-dimensional images in a two-dimensional form. They are almost as sculptural as the busts themselves.

With the sculptures Giacometti is known for, he finds the figure through a process of physical doodling, constantly pulling and pushing, working the clay and leaving the marks of his process visible for us to see. He is constantly searching for a relationship between the figure and the surrounding space. By the way, this is a show that encourages one to look at the shadows. The sculptures are in dialogue with the environment, and the shadow-play, as in “Four Women on a Base” extends the work from the physical to the illusory.

By the mid-1940s, the figures are increasingly elongated, often with their arms pinned to their sides. They are static, emotionless, simply existing in time and space — eternal. Their overly large feet anchor them to the ground — to reality. The figures are tethered to the world while their necks stretch, their heads reaching out to the universe.

In the late 1940s, Giacometti was associated with Existentialism. Jean Paul Sartre wrote an essay for the sculptor’s show, saying the work was “halfway between nothingness and being.” The emotionless poses allow us to imprint our experiences of the human condition.

“Diego Seated in the Studio” by Alberto Giacometti, on display at the Museum of Fne Arts, Houston through Feb, 12.

From the side, “Tall Thin Head” has everything we expect from a bust, although slightly elongated to a point. From the front, however, it is as if Giacometti has placed his hands on each side and squeezed it almost to a two-dimensional plane. It almost disappears into nothingness.

For fans of biographical portraits, one gallery room has photographs and a film of the artist in action. The video shows how he works on the heads — pulling and building, constantly searching for the form to reveal itself, showing the “violence of construction,” he says.

A quote from the film gives a fascinating insight into his process, especially in response to the age-old question of how does one know when a work is finished? “There is no possible end,” Giacometti says, “because the closer you get to the end, the more you see it.”

Giacometti’s paintings are a delight. They are both complete and incomplete, by that I mean they are akin to his sketches, yet they have the weight of his sculptures. The brush strokes are vibrant and seem to dance on the canvas, yet the figures, typically, are mostly posed with a stillness that resembles early photographic portraiture, where the subject was required to be motionless. There is a natural tension between the dynamic lines and the static subject that is compelling.

“Walking Man” by Alberto Giacometti, on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Feb, 12. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Giacometti would put his sculptures on the floor of his studio and realized the figures merged with the environment, causing him to put groupings together, such as “The Forest” and “The Glade,” that erase the line between figurative and landscape. These pieces are set on a base, a practice he expanded as time went on. He considered the base to be an extension of the piece and would sculpt and cast them as a complete unit.

An interesting delight for fans of an artist’s process is a section of his studio wall in a frame. Giacometti would often sketch directly on the wall and we see his mind at work on the sketch.

Later figures have no arms, as if they are unearthed ancient statues that have deteriorated through time, damaged but surviving. “Bust of a Man (Lotar II)” features a man’s head, but the body looks like it has been dug out of a mountain, almost a return to the early landscape paintings from his early career.

Giacometti was always chasing the “Ultimate Figure.” But what is the Ultimate Figure? Maybe it can be found in a pair of large pieces, “Walking Man” and “Tall Woman IV.” The man is frozen mid-stride, his face determined and focused. It is a captured moment that suggests limitless possibility. The future is unknown and unknowable. The woman is tall more than eight feet, her hands pinned by her side, her eyes gazing into the distance. The companion pieces are universal, the embodiment of the eternal human condition.

“Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure” is a visual feast, but it also demands introspection. What is the “ultimate” and can I be found or, like the sculptures themselves, the closer one gets to understanding the more one sees the question. No matter. As Giacometti said, “The attempt is everything.”

For more information, visit mfah.org/albertogiacometti

This story first ran in the Dec. 16, 2022 Art of Living section of the Beaumont Enterprise.

“Bust of a Man (Lotar II)” by Alberto Giacometti, on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Feb, 12. Photo by Andy Coughlan

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