The Lure of Surrealism

When ‘Gazing Head’ was first exhibited at a Paris gallery in June 1929, the Surrealists reacted with excitement to the enigmatic object, which eschews the representational and instead gives physical form to an internal, psychical activity. Michel Leiris wrote the first text on Giacometti, which was also fundamental to the unknown young artist’s self-perception; in it he commented on Giacometti’s ability to create these “true fetishes”, the “objective forms of our desires, our wishes”.

The concept espoused by the Surrealists, that works of art should be phenomena from the unconscious raised to the level of everyday reality, was demonstrated by Giacometti with programmatic clarity in his ‘Pocket Emptier’. The base is replaced by an everyday object – a small tray into which the user can empty the contents of a pocket – which, rather than separating the spheres of art and life from each other, serves instead to bind them inextricably together. In this novel formal type, which aims to be an object rather than a work of art, the ethereal plaque sculptures become “disagreeable objects, without pedestal, to be thrown away,” inspired by the concept of bas matérialisme of Georges Bataille, the low, the chaotic and the instinctive. Thus in ‘Project for a Passageway’ we have what seems to be the figure of a woman, her body opened up, lying flat on the ground, without a base, transformed into an architect’s model into which our imaginations can import a whole life odyssey and much more besides.

While these objects continue to suggest physical movements and contacts, Giacometti soon went a step further: in his celebrated ‘Suspended Ball’, the sphere can actually be moved. The invitation to grasp and manipulate seems even more forceful in the small, deceptive machine entitled ‘Caught Hand’.It evokes sadistic urges which, through the threat to the hand, are immediately punished or transmuted into the masochistic. The hand trapped in the rods of the machine is reminiscent of a prosthesis or showroom dummy – the preferred fetishes of the Surrealists with their cult of tactile compulsions and phobias. The most complex of these objects is perhaps ‘Point to the Eye’, a petrified duel on a Mexican playing field with a channel for the sacrificial blood. While we are initially shocked by the aggression implicit in the huge blade pointing towards the eye, we immediately realize that the figure being threatened is Death itself, the eternal victor in the dance of the dead. The work thus opens up a network of dialectic associations which implicate this seemingly so unambiguous object more deeply than any other in the baffling thought processes and metaphorical symbology of the Surrealists.

Giacometti’s last Surrealist works are dominated by thoughts of death, a long-held obsession of his lent fresh relevance by the death of his father in 1933 and depressing developments in contemporary politics and art. He moved away from the esoteric intellectual universe of the Surrealist circle, with its absurd games and its demand that works of art should be mere things. During this period, with the support of his brother Diego, he produced decorative “objects” as a means of earning a living: lamp stands, vases and the like for an elegant boutique. In his artistic activities, however, he sought to make fundamental statements.
The ambivalence or dialectic of life and death comes crucially to the fore in ‘Head-Skull’: its dead right-hand side seems incomparably more powerful and vital than the smoothly abstract left. In the words of art critic Carl Einstein, describing the origins of art, “The work is a protection against the invisible, which lurks everywhere, unleashing terror; a barrier against a diffuse and pervasive animism.” Giacometti was receptive to these spheres, so readily cultivated by the Surrealists: the enthroned figure of ‘The Invisible Object’ refers to them, and “visions” of heads between life and death would also be at the root of his mature, phenomenological realism.

The work known as ‘Cube’ also marks the end of his engagement with the avant garde. The dissolution of the block to reveal a life within defines Giacometti's preoccupation with Cubism. Later he drew a small polyhedron, its shape marked out only by wires, within which an imprisoned human figurine dances: a body entirely free in its organic movement is confronted with the strictly stereometric construction, the living entombed within the dead, a metaphor for the impossibility of capturing living reality through geometric stylizations. For Giacometti, the large polyhedron in Dürer’s engraving ‘Melencolia I’ must have seemed an ominous emblem of this failure, and surely inspired him to create the ‘Cube’. Giacometti later commented that none of his sculptures were abstract except the ‘Cube’, though even this was actually a head. Here, he took stylization to extremes: fascinating, unapproachable, silently closed in on itself like death. Life has withdrawn into the invisible of its own internality.

Giacometti Vide poche

Vide-poche, 1930

Plaster, height 17.5 cm

Gift of Bruno and Odette Giacometti

Giacometti Projet pour un passage.jpg

Project for a Passageway, 1930

Plaster, 16 x 126 x 42 cm

Giacometti Boule suspendue

Suspended Ball, 1930

Plaster, metal, height 61 cm

Giacometti Main prise

Caught Hand, 1932

Wood, metal, 20 x 59.5 x 27 cm

Giacometti Pointe à l’œil

Point to the Eye, 1932

Plaster, 13.5 x 59.5 x 31 cm

Giacometti Tete crane

Head-Skull, 1934

Plaster, height 18.5 cm

Gift of the artist

Giacometti Cube

Cube, 1934

Bronze, height 94 cm

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