Moderna Museet’s presentation of one of modern art’s most infamous whoremongers and so-called male geniuses – who also happened to be an enthusiastic artistic looter of the cultural heritage of the colonies – is a potential affront in the age of MeToo and essentialist identity politics. Yet, despite its total lack of extenuation, Giacometti. Face to Face has received nothing but praise and accolades.
Indeed, both reactions – one real, the other imagined – seem integral to today’s liberal consensus, which confers on art a representative function where it can be revered or dethroned; seen as either an embodiment of our common values or a scapegoat for our misdeeds. To my mind, these are also the two poles that most contemporary criticism seesaws between in order to gloss over art as a specifically aesthetic problem.
The dilemma of Giacometti is that his work is impossible to regard as anything but the very definition of an aesthetic problem. That is, as the product of someone who, under great strain, pursued an artistic expression which has been minimally distorted by social convention. To hide this scandal, the artist is elevated to an icon, while his work is idealised as an expression of humanity’s existential solitude, or the like.
How to avoid these clichés; how to stick to each work as a unique problem? I think that the curators, Jo Widoff from Moderna Museet and Christian Alandete from the Institute Giacometti in Paris, have tried to answer precisely such questions with this exhibition, which closed shortly after opening in October 2020, but is again open to the public.
Their solution is not, as some might think, to invoke the notion of a pure visuality that submits art to the viewer’s contemplative gaze. On the contrary, next to Giacometti’s works are films, journals in display cases, newspaper pages that the artist scribbled on at café tables, and so on. Yet, it is hardly the social history of modern art that we are subjected to in this exhibition – not the suffering of prostituted women in 1920s Paris, or the oppression of people living under French colonial rule – but various artistic and literary elements that highlight Giacometti’s intellectual exchanges with writer-friends like George Bataille, Samuel Beckett, and Jean Genet.
The result is a dialectical montage, which contrasts philosophical ideas and literary forms to the naked gaze and mute scratched materiality of Giacometti’s paintings and sculptures. Together, these elements bring to mind a minor catalogue of modernism’s revolt against a representational view of art by taking hold of the low, unpleasant, monstrous, failed, marginalised, and so on. Which, in fact, makes this an argument against any idealised notion of aesthetic autonomy, and for the crossings of genres and hierarchies as a constitutive experience of modern art.
Indeed, Moderna Museet’s exhibition is the exact opposite of a tribute; it’s a poignant attempt to take Giacometti down from his pedestal and recreate a more vivid, albeit strictly edited, context for his work.
Nevertheless, the artist’s clichéd understanding of women is illustrated early on, in the group of three human-sized sculptures – Spoon Woman (1927), Woman Walking (1932), and Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object) (1934–35) – which have been placed next to each other on a low podium near the entrance. The first sculpture looks like an oversize plaster spoon with a disapproving mouth at the top, the second is a black bronze female without head and arms in the act of taking a step forward, and the third is an odd-looking figure who seems to be both standing up and kneeling, with a face said to be inspired by a gas mask.
The three sculptures mark a boundary that seems to correspond to the potential that each of them also embodies: the temporarily suspended action of the sculpture without arms, or an emptiness similar to that which the gas mask figure is about to shape with their hands. It’s almost as if sculpture, for Giacometti, was set to coincide with notions of creativity and potentiality that were also integral to his idealised notion of womanhood.
This is presumably why the female figure is degraded in a work like the insect-like Woman with Her Throat Cut (1932–33), which is displayed next to a fragment from the journal Documents where Bataille likens the universe to “a spider or spit,” emphasising that it is Western idealism that has been metonymically decapitated in the splayed bronze sculpture.
I suppose the problem with these early works, for Giacometti, was that they were too invested in edifying notions of imagination, form, and poetic language, and that this was why he felt the need to free sculpture from the demand of representation. In the following decades, he went on to concentrate on an unceasing, in-depth study of reality, of what he could see and touch with his own hands, in a way that did not rely on any programmatic statements from Documents, the Surrealists, or any other avant-garde group at the time. Reality, it seems, was strange enough.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anything further from the intellectual nihilism that says that a form can mean anything (and therefore must mean exactly what I decide it should mean) than the elongated bodies from Giacometti’s classical period in the 1950s that have been placed on a low podium in the central gallery. Mute, they gaze at the viewer like an ancient choir. A few oil studies are shown on the surrounding walls, and in the innermost gallery Giacometti’s portrait busts and paintings from the 1960s. To my mind, his late sculptures are distinguished by their quest for the singular rather than the individual. Which means that he has tried to peel away all the cultural and linguistic dimensions, all the layers of time, that make up the model’s individuality (or ‘identity’) in order to achieve a less rigid image. Or as he might have said: a truer image.
That is, even if such an image might not be true in the absolute sense, it’s still more truthful if it dares to confront the fact that every representation is false, every identity distorted. This is precisely why Giacometti’s works are problems; more specifically, they are aesthetic problems that cannot be formulated in any other terms because they approximate something he can never reach, but only approach through negation.
In a similar way, his paintings are not so much portraits as documents of the time and the labour that has been preserved in the form of scrawls and scratches in the dark oil paint. With the exception of the slightly odd portrait of Jean Genet that hangs in a room where you can also watch the author’s only film, the remarkable erotic prison drama A Song of Love (1950). It seems to me that Giacometti has basically painted Genet as a clown – perhaps as revenge for how he is portrayed in the author’s seminal The Studio of Giacometti (1955–57). Another negation by the playful Giacometti, or just a bad day at work? You be the judge.
A similar approach reappears at the other end of the exhibition, where Samuel Beckett’s film Not I (1972/75) is juxtaposed with works centering on emptiness and fragments of bodies. The film shows a babbling mouth against a black background, emphasising the destruction of language through ramblings and scribbles that the two friends had in common. A catalogue essay by the literary critic Jesper Olsson takes note of the rough post-humanism that can be traced in both, a highly interesting topic that could have been made into an exhibition in its own right. But perhaps then the theme would have had to focus more on Giacometti’s antagonistic relationship to media technologies? After all, wasn’t it the flattened and technologically mediated world of modernity that he revolted against?
This is the first monographic Giacometti exhibition in Sweden for almost three decades, yet it doesn’t offer any spectacular new interpretation of the oeuvre. But it is precisely its attentive and low-key character that makes the enduring radicalness of the work strikingly evident. It seems to me that Giacometti’s critique of Western individualism – which today forms the basis of an ideology of diversity which champions difference instead of equality – has become even more urgent today. What is the biggest taboo of our time? To claim that we are all the same, and therefore of equal value, which is exactly the premise Giacometti worked from. It is this principle of equality, which has become impossible on both the right and the left, that is embodied in the exhibition’s ‘choir’ of sculptures. It is magnificent.