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Fondation Beyeler Opens Exhibition Including Works by Alberto Giacometti and His Family
Diego Giacometti and Ernst Beyeler in the Galerie Beyeler, ca. 1969. Photo: Adelmann © 2009, ProLitteris, Zurich.

BASEL.- The great summer exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler promises to be a highlight in the European cultural calendar. It is devoted to the epoch-making sculptor, painter and draftsman Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), who during his years in Paris advanced to become one of the most influential protagonists of modern art. The exhibition comprises about 150 major works from every phase of the artist’s career, and includes works by other artistically active members of the Giacometti family. On view are sculptures, paintings, drawings, and design objects from the family holdings, private collections, and renowned museums around the world.

The Fondation Beyeler is a predestined venue for a Giacometti exhibition, and not only on account of its architecture. The artist is represented in the Ernst and Hildy Beyeler Collection with exemplary works from his visionary late phase. These include the renowned ensemble for Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York (1960), whose famous sculpture L’homme qui marche II (Walking Man II, 1960) has become a veritable trademark of the Fondation, indeed of Ernst Beyeler himself. Beyeler knew Alberto Giacometti and his family well, and his devotion to Alberto’s art is deserving of the highest merits. It was thanks to his persistence and negotiating skills that the extensive Giacometti collection of the Pittsburgh industrialist G. David Thompson came to Switzerland in the early 1960s, where it would subsequently form the nucleus of the Alberto Giacometti Foundation in Zurich. Over the years, about 300 Giacometti works all told passed through Ernst Beyeler’s hands.

The exhibition traces Alberto Giacometti’s life through his relations with family members and sheds light on his approach to art. It is like a journey through Alberto’s artistic universe, in which the people surrounding him represented fixed stars. The exchange with members of his family was essential to Alberto. A first key reference point was his father, the painter Giovanni Giacometti (1868-1933), who along with his friends Ferdinand Hodler, Giovanni Segantini, and Cuno Amiet was among the most prominent artists of early Swiss modernism. Giovanni furthered his highly talented son from boyhood, and his instruction continued to influence Alberto’s art far beyond the early phase of his career. Many of the artistic problems that would occupy his son, such as the relation between distance and size, were central to Giovanni as well, although the two arrived at quite different results.

The painter Augusto Giacometti (1877-1947), Alberto’s cousin in the second degree, took an entirely different creative path. His approach formed a counterpoint to that of his relatives, and he is known today principally for his experimental, proto-abstract color compositions.

All of their family members sat to Giovanni and Alberto for portraits. Alongside his father, Alberto’s younger brother Diego (1902-1985) was especially important in this regard. He was not only Alberto’s favorite model but would become his closest collaborator for many years. After Alberto’s death, Diego made a name for himself as a designer of bronze furniture and sculptures that were clearly influenced by his elder brother. Other models of note for Alberto’s development were his mother, Annetta, his sister Ottilia, his younger brother and well-known architect Bruno (b. 1907), his nephew Silvio, and Annette, Alberto’s wife. They confront us in the exhibition first in Giovanni’s painting, then in Alberto’s paintings and sculptures.

A formative experience of the Giacometti children was playing in the immediate vicinity of their father’s studio. This special situation lastingly shaped Alberto’s art and his relationship with his siblings. The playful aspect of the art that surrounded him in Stampa and that would so fascinatingly manifest itself in the kinetic objects of his Surrealist period in the late 1920s and early 1930s, formed the nucleus of an idea that would become central to Alberto’s art: the unity of time and space. He realized that a depiction of motion – taking the viewer’s motions, too, into account – was linked just as much with the time period in which the motion occurs as with the space it traverses. In his involvement with the space-time theme, Alberto’s relatives formed essential points of reference. He saw himself as occupying the center of a system of people, things, artworks, places, memories, and events to come.

The exhibition addresses this interplay of space, time and motion, displaying Giacometti’s works to new effect in the spaces designed by Renzo Piano. In cooperation with the Engadin architect and Giacometti expert Hans-Jörg Ruch and light designer Charles Keller, we developed a presentation that compellingly brings out the character of the works, especially the unique patina of the bronzes.

The exhibition begins in the foyer with a seldom-seen, complete presentation of all nine versions of Femmes de Venise, created by Alberto Giacometti for the Venice Biennale in 1956. There follows a review of the artist’s life and key phases of his career, beginning with Giovanni Giacometti and some of his major works devoted to the Engadin region and the family circle into which Alberto was born. In the large-format painting The Lamp (1912), the Giacometti family spirit comes vividly to life. A key work in the room devoted to Alberto’s early phase is his Self-Portrait of 1921, which already reflects the young artist’s rugged individualism.

The developmental phase marked by an emphasis on play, space and emotion in 1930s works that caused a furor among the Surrealists and beyond, is represented here by pieces such as the erotic sculpture Homme et femme (1928-29) and Giacometti’s famous Boule suspendue (originally 1930-31, here in the 1965 version). In the then-controversial La main prise (1932), the reality of feelings finds compelling expression. No less spectacular are the bronze and plaster versions of Cube (1933-34), which in Alberto’s eyes simultaneously represented both his own head and his studio. This work was presented at the Swiss National Exhibition of 1939.

Rarely exhibited design objects, mostly executed by Alberto on commission from the high society interior designer Jean-Michel Frank, are confronted in a further room with furniture and animal sculptures by his brother Diego. Especially noteworthy is Alberto’s gigantic ceiling lamp (1932-34).

On view in the adjacent room is only a single tiny sculpture, Petit homme sur socle (1940-41; bronze, 8.1 x 7 x 4.8 cm). In this phase of his development, Giacometti felt himself compelled to depict figures at precisely the size determined by the distance between the figure and his own eye. As a result, the figures grew very small in scale, yet retained a monumental effect. This installation recalls Alberto’s never-realized plan to display only one of these tiny figures in the large courtyard of a pavilion at the Swiss National Exhibition of 1939. It strikingly reflects the artist’s development from the mid 1930s onwards.

The way Giacometti overcame these small-scale figures and launched into his renowned late phase, is vividly illustrated by a key work of the period, Femme au chariot (c. 1945), on view here in a plaster and a bronze version. Thanks to the placement of the figure on wheels, rendering it movable, the obsession with the distance between himself and the subject lost its hold on the artist. From this point on, the figures could grow larger and the theme of motion in space took on increasing importance, as seen to good effect in the first Homme qui marche (1947) and L’homme qui chavire (1950). Also from this phase are the renowned sculptures of individual body parts, Le nez (1947; version of 1949) and Le main (The Hand, 1947; version of 1949), which may well go back to Giacometti’s war experiences. The artist understood his sculpture of a dog, Le chien (1951), as an existential self-portrait.

The large room devoted to Giacometti’s late work begins with his famous Chariot (1950), which dominates the presentation at this point. The flanking portraits and nudes of Annette, including Grand nu (1962), reflect Giacometti’s approach to the female figure. The opposite of movement is repose, from which further movement emerges. Giacometti’s standing female figures, bodies distilled into existential symbols with roughened, indeterminant surfaces and contours, emphasize that stasis is only a fleeting moment in time.

His idea of defining space by means of groups of motionless sculptures in motion is manifested in the famous compositions of plazas, with the small-scale figures of La place (1948) and the Groupe de trois hommes I (1943-49) standing in contrast to the lifesize sculpture ensemble for the Chase Manhattan Plaza (1960).

The final room is devoted to Alberto’s outstanding busts and portraits of his brother Diego. The room is dominated by the marvelous Grande tête de Diego (1954), a sculpture that is paradoxically two-dimensional and three-dimensional at once, whose dynamic character becomes most apparent when one walks around it. The exhibition concludes with the last

sculpture ever created by Alberto Giacometti, the seated figure of Elie Lotar III (assise), 1965, and a painting of the garden in Stampa, La jardin à Stampa (1954), at once a reminiscence of the paradise of his youth and a vision of an eternity to come.

Fondation Beyeler | Diego Giacometti | Alberto Giacometti | Ernst Beyeler | Giovanni Giacometti | G. David Thompson | Ferdinand Hodler | Giovanni Segantini | Cuno Amiet |

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May 31, 2009

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