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Rory O’Sullivan reviews Alberto Giacometti at the National Gallery: a genuinely philosophical artist.


a few hundred pages of hard books  – or else a few minutes with the sculptures of Giacometti

Theorists try to understand the world as if unfolding in a giant process with certain rules, whereas for artists the point is to observe it as a spectacle of which any thoughts and representations are just shadows, like childhood memories. But digging in their ditches always they eventually find each other. Plato is beautiful and Shakespeare is wise. Eventually the theorist sits back and laughs and even in Kant there are pages where the argument is carried by nothing but sheer ecstasy, in their repetitions and motifs at last artists discover obscure laws of which the elaboration is their gift.

like Jack Yeats, instead of shapes he saw the world as lines

Swiss-born Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) was a genuinely philosophical artist in this sense. Apart from the earliest  pieces those collected here have an obvious unity of purpose: he wanted to describe the human condition as the ground. His sculptures, rather than the free-standing and well-bodied Michelangelo’s David, are mostly trapped as if sinking, but also (if you look from the side rather than the front) as if in judgement, enthroned with gravity on the stream of clay. He was so much a sculptor that even his paintings and drawings look like sculptures. But like Jack Yeats, instead of shapes he saw the world as lines: from that torrential criss-crossing figures emerge, more substance than form, as if soon to vanish.

The exhibition is divided according to the models Giacometti used: his wife, his brother, his friends, and a man named Isaku Yanaihara. The photos of each near their sculptures are interesting and revealing. If Giacometti chose the same people over and over it was not because he wanted to sculpt them: it was because, just like Giotto and Charles Swann, for him there were a few primordial faces that represented everything and which each time he sought to disclose.

The word for such a thing, in which is contained all of Giacometti’s debt to ancient cultures, is God: neither God-the-Father, nor the stupid God-of-Fire and God-of-Sleep entities of the modern imagination of polytheism, but Gods like Roberto Calasso’s description of the Vedic Rishis: “those who know something and keep silent, those who see what is looming”.

The sculptures of Giacometti never act, but he was careful to give them aura: they are severe and full of light but give nothing away. The face is at the heart of this with its serene and perfectly divine expressionlessness. The name – ‘Half Length of a Man’, ‘Bust of a Woman with Folded Arms’ – like the face, is empty, and gives the observer not a single clue.

Two shortages in this exhibition are walking sculptures and small sculptures. Giacometti once said “I can never make a woman in any other way than motionless, and a man always striding; when I model a woman, then motionless; a man, always walking”. The fact that no sculptures of men walk here is a shame, but it does make clear that Giacometti rather meant that in his work every woman is imposing and each man resigned. The obvious first- and second-sex connotations of this are certainly there. For Giacometti, women are imposing because of their intensity as desire-objects: this gives them a power that manifests in a few exceptional works in the exhibition.

First, near the beginning, a small bust of his wife, painted blue and red – the childishness of feeling in the colours is extraordinary. Second, the ‘Bust of a Woman with Folded Arms’ – its model a woman named Francine Torrent – smiling. In her unique, closed smile there is jouissance, the bird flying in the air: an invitation and a threat. It is striking that Giacometti, a friend of Simone de Beauvoir, regularly at Les Deux Magots, repeated from a male point of view the precise terms of the difference between men and women that their society made seem natural and she eviscerated – whether to condemn or exalt it, I am not sure.

As for small sculptures, more of them would have helped with understanding what Giacometti does with size: the large he always breaks down into fragments, the small he closes into unity, each disappearing and arising together and against each other from the generative cascading of the ground.

The person who has come closest to Giacometti in this regard in theory was Gilles Deleuze, whose golden period as a philosopher began just two years before Giacometti died, in 1964, with Proust and Signs. That he never refers to Giacometti is completely beside the point: it was typical of Deleuze to speak about everything except what was profoundly nearest to him.

Deleuze said things like “Being is said in a single and same sense of everything of which it is said, but that of which it is said differs: it is said of difference itself” and “The inhuman in human beings: that is what the face is from the start. It is by nature a closeup, with its inanimate white surfaces, its shining black holes, its emptiness and boredom”. To understand these lines it takes a few hundred pages of hard books like Difference and Repetition or A Thousand Plateaus – or else a few minutes with the sculptures of Giacometti.

Giacometti: From Life is running at the National Gallery of Ireland 9 April – 4 September 2022. Tickets €5-17 with discounted rates on Tuesday mornings and Thursday evenings. Image: Alberto Giacometti Buste d’homme (Lotar II), c. 1964-1965 © Succession Alberto Giacometti / ADAGP, Paris, 2022