Alberto Giacometti: Drawings

Peter Freeman, Inc., May 1 – June 27, 2009

Alberto Giacometti, “Portrait de Diego,”1958. Black crayon on paper. 9 1/2 × 7 7/8 inches (24 × 20 cm). Private Collection.

Alberto Giacometti’s drawing oeuvre documents the artist’s lifelong effort to represent visual perception, or “rendre ma vision,” as he famously declared. The psychological and philosophical implications of that statement underlie what his close friend Jean-Paul Sartre identified as the absoluteness in Giacometti’s art. A glimmered view of the artist’s commitment to modeling both the figure and its surrounding space, and to pushing art past its descriptive mandates in pursuit of an interior reality, can be seen at the Peter Freeman Gallery. The thirty-some drawings on display range from the artist’s early years as a student of the French Expressionist sculptor Émile-Antoine Bourdelle to the last months before his death in 1966. The majority of the works date to the 1950s and are subsequent to Giacometti’s development of major motifs: the walking man, the standing woman. The exhibition does not follow chronologically, but is grouped according to subject matter—nature, portraits, the atelier, and the human figure—each allotted one of the four walls of the gallery. The drawings of portraits and the human form appropriately face each other across the room and are of greatest interest for admirers of this resolutely figurative artist.

Following World War II, Giacometti’s sculpture was almost entirely devoted to the singular, spindly figure that, in the aftermath of ruined postwar Europe, came to be viewed as a haunting statement of alienation and loneliness. Giacometti’s drawings, however, experienced no such constraints. Pencil sketches of jars of flowers, apples, and the contents of the artist’s studio testify to the Giacometti’s renewed interest in his immediate environs. Portraiture, always of interest to the artist, had previously been of those closest to him, particularly his brother, Diego, and wife, Annette. Following the war, friends and associates started to appear, some of whom became the subjects of paintings. Curator Meredith Harper has assembled eight of these drawn portraits, including those of such famous personae as Igor Stravinsky, Giacometti’s biographer James Lord, and the poet Pierre Reverdy. These portraits exemplify Giacometti’s iconic approach to the head. Almost all the sitters face the artist frontally; rapidly applied lines repeatedly encircle the outward region of the face, while thin, straight-edged lines divide its features into separate zones, reinforcing its inherent symmetry. Large, heavily marked circles surround each eye, emphasizing the intensity of the sitter’s gaze, an important symbol—for an artist prone to morbid thoughts—of man’s vitality. A 1963 pen sketch of the artist Louis Chavignier shows his head floating in the vast expanse of the paper’s whiteness, detached from its corporeal support, while a black crayon drawing of Diego from 1958 fills the page with the furious strokes of thick, malleable pigment. The finest portrait at Freeman is a 1950 pencil preparatory drawing of Pierre Loeb, a Parisian dealer for the Surrealists. Loeb, who also briefly represented Giacometti, sits deep in the recessive space of a room cluttered with his possessions. Giacometti’s delicate, yet incisive line forcefully builds the perspectival focus, leading the eye of the beholder directly to the center of Loeb’s face. However, Loeb’s spread knees, outstretched elbows and hands clenched together directly in front of his lap resist the oppressive magnitude of the surrounding space. With pipe clutched in the mouth of his otherwise shrunken head, the shoulders of his ballooning body squared and leaning forward, the dealer refuses to surrender to the artist’s relentless examination.

Drawing allowed Giacometti to engage in an intimate relationship with his subject, while his sculpture explored the physical and emotional spaces between, and thereby the separation of, the viewer and the viewed. On the opposite wall are eight figure studies. Nu Couché, a competent pencil drawing of a supine woman, dates from 1922, the year Giacometti entered the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. His entry was preceded by a tour of Italy during which the young artist first encountered the art of ancient Egypt. As the remaining assortment of drawings of rigid, vertical figures demonstrate, the values of the Académie were quickly abandoned and the influences of tribal sculpture and Egyptian deistic art would dominate Giacometti’s realization of the human figure. Several of the sketches depict Giacometti’s tightly-closed standing female figure with her arms rigidly pinned to her sides. In a relatively late drawing of Annette, the rough pencil scrawls give vigorous definition to the female body, especially her sagging breasts and protruding clavicle. The figure leans slightly to the left and gently touches an enlarged portrait head of Diego, one of two that float on the page. It is a rare moment when Giacometti’s remote conception of female beauty yields to the basic human need for contact.

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Alix Finkelstein