In Art, Genes Matter: Giacometti at MOMA

Blessed are the artists who, owing to family history, innate talent and an indomitable will, are born to their vocation. What a lot of false starts, wasted energy and deferred achievement they are spared! They come to art as a natural inheritance, and they come to it early, without the Sturm und Drang so often experienced by less privileged aspirants to the life of art. For this minority of dedicated talents, the life of art is, almost from the onset of conscious thought, inseparable from life itself.

The necessary prerequisites for this privileged destiny would appear to be a father possessed of middling or otherwise unthreatening artistic gifts and a family disposed to encourage any sign of talent and achievement. Think of the fathers and the families of artists and writers as different in other respects as Picasso and Henry James, Julio Gonzalez and William Butler Yeats. None of their fathers ever quite made the grade, yet their modest accomplishments were clearly a spur to the sons’ high achievements. Whatever the other challenges and disappointments the sons may have met with in the course of their artistic ascent, they enjoyed from the outset an inherited belief in the vocation that defined their lives and the kind of familial bond that lent it an unequivocal moral support.

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), whose work is now the subject of a spectacular retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, was a pre-eminent member of this artistic elite, and it is doubtful if the special character of his life and work can be fully understood in isolation from its existential benefactions. His father, Giovanni Giacometti (1868-1933), was an admired painter of the Post-Impressionist school, though admired mainly in his native Switzerland. A cousin, Augusto (1877-1947), was an early votary of abstract painting, but his, too, was a reputation that didn’t travel. Alberto’s younger brother, Diego (1902-1985), was himself a gifted artist who subordinated his own career to his brother’s by serving as his lifelong assistant. And like Alberto’s father, mother and wife, Diego was one of the principal subjects of Alberto’s copious production of portrait sculpture, drawings and paintings. For all but Alberto’s wife, Annette-who clearly would have preferred a different life-art was the family romance.

It is one of the many virtues of the current Alberto Giacometti retrospective at MoMA that it gives us a more comprehensive account of this aspect of the artist’s oeuvre-the body of work he produced en famille, so to speak-than most of us will have ever before encountered. The earliest works in the exhibition are all family portraits or self-portraits: the plaster Head of Bruno, another younger brother; portrait drawings of his mother and himself, all produced at the age of 18 in 1919; and then, two years later, the first of the painted self-

portraits with which Giacometti was already on his way to overtaking his father in his mastery of the Post-Impressionist idiom.

One of the last works in this very large show is an almost terrifying self-portrait drawing from 1960-an unsparing depiction of age and physical exhaustion that bears a distinct resemblance to the late portraits of Giacometti’s mother, who predeceased him by only two years. A poignant detail in this 1960 Self-Portrait is that the bohemian Giacometti, by then famous the world over for his disheveled appearance, is seen wearing a necktie, just as he did in the earliest self-portraits of his youth.

But it is not only in its comprehensive account of Giacometti’s lifelong family attachments that the current retrospective eclipses all previous surveys of the artist’s work. With some 90 sculptures, 40 paintings and 60 drawings, this exhibition sheds new light on virtually every aspect of Giacometti’s tumultuous career. The sections of the show devoted to his Surrealist period, which Giacometti later described as the years of his “Babylonian captivity,” are similarly the most complete I have seen. This was the

period, from 1929 to 1934, when Giacometti came to enjoy his first international fame as the leading sculptor of the Surrealist movement. Because his masterpiece of this period, a construction called The Palace at 4 a.m. (1932), has long been known to those of us familiar with MoMA’s permanent collection, it has sometimes been mistaken as an isolated departure in his oeuvre. Yet in this retrospective, we can see how profoundly involved Giacometti was in the Surrealist project-and how productive he was on its behalf. And this, in turn, underscores the moral drama of his subsequent break with the Surrealists-the break that launched him on the greatest achievements of his life. These, of course, are the sculptures, paintings and drawings of those tall, slender male and female figures, either walking or at rest, singly and in groups, that are now lodged in the public imagination as poetic archetypes of modern experience.

There has never been a better or more deeply affecting exhibition of this “classic” phase of Giacometti’s work than the current retrospective. Everything about it, from the selection of the objects to the attention lavished on its installation to the intelligence of the wall texts, achieves a rare level of excellence. It leaves us in no doubt that Giacometti was, after all, one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, and at his greatest in these classic figures from the last decades of his life.

Alberto Giacometti is an exhibition to which many of us will be returning many times between now and Jan. 8, when it closes at the Museum of Modern Art.