When they think of him at all, most people remember Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) as the artist who created skinny figures. That’s true, of course, though it neglects the context in which he made those sculptures in the late 1940s, after war and genocide left the world both devastated and numb. Though it may be simplistic to draw a correlation between the death camps and Giacometti’s emaciated forms, his treatment of the body, transforming it into something resembling a burnt matchstick, exemplified a zeitgeist stunned by catastrophe. The Guggenheim’s magisterial survey of his career affirms as much, while noting that Giacometti defined the figure in existential terms: as a manifestation of the vulnerability, anguish and mystery of the human condition.
Born in Switzerland into a family of artists, Giacometti moved, in 1922, to study art in Paris, where he discovered the work of Constantin Brancusi and Pablo Picasso. He assimilated aspects of their styles, but also found inspiration in the artifacts of ancient cultures, like the Bronze Age’s Cycladic civilization. All of these influences are evident in Giacometti’s totemic sculpture Spoon Woman (1927), in which a female torso takes the shape of the eponymous implement—a rather blatant vaginal reference that also recalls a fertility fetish.
Around this time, Giacometti fell under the sway of André Breton and the Surrealists, a group known for hitting the mother lode of eroticism by mining the subconscious for subject matter. Giacometti followed suit with his seminal 1932 construction, The Palace at 4 a.m. (which is not on display, though a preparatory study of it is). By his own admission, the piece—a sort of 3D drawing of a house or stage set haunted by an enigmatic cast that includes a woman, a spinal column and a flying creature—came out of a torrid love affair that consumed him for six months, suggesting that Palace totes some major sexual baggage. In any case, Giacometti drifted away from Surrealism by the mid-1930s.
He remained in Paris after the Nazi takeover in 1940, but a 1941 trip to Geneva to visit his mother left him in exile after he was denied reentry into France. He sat out World War II in a hotel room, where he made work at a diminished scale, necessitated by his cramped surroundings.
Whether due to his isolation during the war or the horrors precipitated by it, Giacometti, upon returning to Paris in 1946, embarked on the attenuated figuration that would remain his signature style until his death in 1966. His postwar reunion with friends and family also sparked a body of portrait paintings featuring people close to him.
Regardless of medium or personal familiarity, though, Giacometti set his subjects at a seemingly unbridgeable distance from the viewer. His use of dashed-off schematic lines for his portraits, and gnarled textures for his sculpture, conveys the sense of something consumed or atomized by elemental forces—as indeed the world had been by 1945. Since then, Giacometti’s art has continued to remind us of humanity’s inability to escape its own folly.