Giacometti at the Guggenheim – Cathleen Kong ’20

“We should go to the Guggenheim sometime!”

During freshman year, a friend and I created a list of must-see art museums in New York City. After attempting trip after trip to the Guggenheim during the school year but never actually seeing our plans through, we finally got the chance to visit the museum this summer. Not only did I look forward to seeing the museum’s striking architecture in person, but I was excited to see what art would be on display in its iconic spiral hallways.

The museum’s main hallway is currently occupied by an exhibition on Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti. I had seen posters on the subway for this temporary exhibition, and was doubly enthusiastic because I had learned about some of Giacometti’s sculptures in my contemporary art class at Princeton last semester. Giacometti is most famously known for his sculptures created after World War II. His sculptures created in the late 1940s depict extremely thin figures that look as if they are charred, with a very rough texture, almost as if the artist’s’ hand has scraped the muscles off of the figures.

One of the Giacometti works that we looked at in class was Standing Woman. The figure stands at 5 feet 4 inches tall, the height of the average woman, and is erected upright at eye-level with viewers. What’s striking is that the figure’s feet are stuck together, and the arms are locked closely to the sides of the body — the pose is unnatural and doesn’t provide the woman with much mobility. The woman is compressed by the air around her, a powerful statement on the anguish and suffering during the second World War. Because the sculpture exudes such a tense and unsettling atmosphere, viewers may concentrate on the negative space around the figure instead, making the figure appear to be under even more pressure and heightening discomfort for the viewer.

Alberto Giacometti, Standing Woman ("Leoni"), 1947 (cast 1957). Bronze, 60 1/4 inches (153 cm) high, including base

Alberto Giacometti Standing Woman, 1947 Bronze, 60 1/4 inches (153 cm) high, including base The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 1976

Alberto Giacometti Dog, 1951 (cast 1957) Bronze, 18 x 39 x 6 1/8″ (45.7 x 99 x 15.5 cm) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Another sculpture created in this style is Dog. The way that the dog’s body is positioned, so that its head and tail are symmetrical, exudes despair. The dog’s head is weighed down by the gravity of misery to the point that it almost touches the ground, so much that it would require immense effort to raise. These artworks, along with many others in the exhibition, display the sorrow of World War II, especially after Nazi occupation of France (where Giacometti lived at the time). Giacometti’s postwar sculptures are especially striking in contrast to his early works before the war, when he was inspired mainly by Surrealism and Cubism. In addition, his early sculptures contain African, Egyptian, Oceanic, and Cycladic influences.

Alberto Giacometti, Spoon Woman, 1926–27 (cast 1954). Bronze, 56 5/8 x 20 1/4 x 8 1/2 inches (143.8 x 51.4 x 21.6 cm)

Alberto Giacometti Spoon Woman, 1926–27 (cast 1954) Bronze, 56 5/8 x 20 1/4 x 8 1/2 inches (143.8 x 51.4 x 21.6 cm) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

While at the Giacometti exhibit, I noticed that many passerby were only quickly glancing at the sculptures before moving on to the next tier of the museum’s spiral, visibly uncomfortable with the tension emanated by the figures. Ultimately, I was also glad to take refuge in a small side gallery filled with Impressionist and Cubist paintings, but Giacometti’s sculptures made their mark – although they were discomforting, Giacometti was able to communicate the anguish of the postwar human condition and make a lasting impact on his viewers.

I’m glad to have seen some of Giacometti’s works in person, and paired with the Guggenheim’s spiral interior, all in all it was a successful trip. Hopefully, this is the first of many trips to the renowned museum!