Report from the Front

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SOUTINE/ GIACOMETTI: TWO PARISIAN GIFTS FOR THE SUMMER

September 10, 2018

Tags: Soutine, Giacometti

Alberto Giacometti, Suspended Ball (Boule suspendue), 1930–31. Plaster, painted metal, and string, 60.6 x 35.6 x 36.1 cm. Fondation Giacometti, Paris © 2018 Alberto Giacometti Estate/Licensed by VAGA and ARS, New York.

What a range of art Paris hosted in the years between the two world wars! At The Jewish Museum, the big summer show is “Chaim Soutine: Flesh” (through September 16). It presents 32 mostly still-life paintings that the moody, Russian-born expressionist made between ca. 1916, three years after he arrived in Paris at the age of 20, and 1943, the year of his death. At the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the big show is “Giacometti” (through September 12). This full-dress retrospective takes the wickedly witty Swiss-born, Paris-based sculptor (1901-1966) from his early surrealist period , in the late 1920s and early 1930s, through his "existential" period, at its apogee in the 1950s and 1960s,

"SOUTINE": A FINE SHOW SUFFERING FROM UNFORTUNATE TIMING

The key point about this show was its subject matter -- which abstract painters may be able to ignore, but which I unfortunately could not.

Most though far from all of the paintings in "Soutine: Flesh" feature hanging fowl, beef carcasses, ray fish and other dead animals. Primarily based on 17th Dutch and 18th century French still lifes, these paintings are executed with all the bravura brushwork and sometimes gaudy color that are characteristic of this artist’s portraits and landscapes.

This show opened on May 4, and I was all set to take it in early – but the date I had set aside to do this was May 15.

By that time the news was full of headlines about Israelis killing dozens and wounding hundreds of Palestinian civilians who were demonstrating against the celebrations surrounding the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel and the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Under those circumstances, I just couldn’t face an exhibition by a Jewish artist depicting dead meat. Sorry. I try to keep politics out of my discussions of art, but there are moments when the politics become too overwhelming to ignore.

I did get to the show on June 6, and was charmed by the first painting I saw there. It hangs to the right of the entrance, and depicts the artist’s studio in Montparnasse ca. 1916. This was a simple rendering of a humble building, and completely ingratiating. Maybe the loveliest picture in the show – if only because it wasn’t trying to be anything it wasn’t.

Still, I don’t want to sound too negative about the central galleries in the show. After an introductory one showing Soutine’s often very likeable early experiments with smaller and less gory still life topics (herring or an artichoke), we have a gallery centering on 6 Soutine paintings of hanging dead fowl (mostly chickens, I would guess), from the 1920s.

If one could ignore the subject matter, these spindly little images were often very graceful, and more often than not, worked well as abstracts.

It’s just a pity that Soutine couldn’t bring himself to go more abstract. Admittedly in the 1920s, the real avant-garde was drawing back from abstraction (think of Picasso’s “classical” ladies). Still, cubism and/or abstraction were really where it was at in Paris in the first part of the 20th century.

Why couldn’t Soutine bring himself to wallow in it, one wonders? What was holding him back?

The next gallery has four big paintings of huge, single beef carcasses, all done 1925-26, and all obviously inspired by the famous Rembrandt, “The Flayed Ox” (1655), in the Louvre.

I am afraid I just couldn’t relate to three of the four. For whatever reason, I found them messy and unresolved. I did find the fourth, from the Kunstmuseum in Bern, least messy and best outlined; I also thought that the fact that the central image, of the monster cadaver, was off-centered added considerably to the dynamism of the piece.

The fourth wall of this space has smaller and less prepossessing paintings of other still life subjects: dead rabbits or hares, a white duck and so on. Finally, a separate little area is dedicated to much smaller paintings of living creatures, done in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Maybe these weren’t the finest paintings in the show, but I found them more moving than the others, especially “The Great Pheasant” and the piquant little figure of “The Bull.”

AND AT THE GUGGENHEIM, THE WICKEDLY WITTY GIACOMETTI

I don’t happen to believe that art must be “serious” to be great. Wit and humor are equally capable of inspiring artists to create. The Guggenheim show of "Giacometti," tries to dignify the artist by emphasizing his later glum “existential” period during and after World War II.

But for me, far better is his earlier cubo-surrealist period from between the two world wars, not least because of the high spirits and devilish sense of humor that it transmits.

As usual, this exhibition denies the original intentions of Frank Lloyd Wright by requiring the visitor to go up the ramp of the Guggenheim’s rotunda if s/he wishes to see the exhibition in its chronological order.

I gamely followed this program, looking carefully at almost all the wonderful small to medium-sized, semi-abstractly or fancifully-shaped sculptures that were displayed until about half-way up the third level.

These sculptures marked the period that began shortly after the young artist arrived in Paris in 1922 to study with Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929), a well-known and somewhat progressive representational sculptor in the tradition of Rodin.

Giacometti took a studio in Montparnasse, which in the wake of World War I had replaced Montmartre as the artists’ quarter of Paris. In short order, he became caught up in the heady spirit of 21st century modernism.

Stylistically, he was influenced both by cubism and by the art of those non-European cultures admired by the cubists (meaning primarily those of Africa and Oceania).

However, in spirit, his allegiance, from about 1927 through to about 1936, was with André Breton, Georges Bataille, and all those other wondrous ideologues and practitioners who jointly created surrealism, that heady amalgam of Freudian dream logic, alternative sexual practices out of Krafft-Ebbing, dada, a dash of communism and who knows what else?

Whatever its sources, surrealism was potent stuff, passionately committed to celebrating the human animal in all its wonder, and not least in its drive to procreate.

Its gestes and expositions enlivened a singularly bleak period in history in France.

True, unemployment grew less in France during the Great Depression than it did in the U.S. (thanks mainly to the fact that so many Frenchmen of working age had already been killed off or wounded in World War I).

However, the economy was still soft, Nazism was being offered as a scary solution to this problem next door in Germany, and the “Popular Front” supposed to be the French government’s way of combating both of these problems collapsed & died, leaving political discourse open to confusion and apologists for the Far Right.

Looking back, it is probably small wonder that during World War II, when France was occupied by the Nazis, so many Frenchmen and Frenchwomen – even some of those already famous or so well-educated that they should have known better -- co-existed more or less peaceably with their raptors.

And it is also small wonder that the disgust and anger they must have felt toward themselves by so doing translated into the postwar popularity of existentialism-- a singularly bleak and depressing belief system if there ever was one.

In the labels at the Guggenheim, they give you the “good news” about existentialism – that it places emphasis on the “free will” of the human being.

What they don’t tell you is the context, which in the 1950s was that existentialism also denied all religions and even torpedoed Freud and his concept of the unconscious.

There is no sense, logic or even cause & effect in the entire universe if you’re a true-blue post-war existentialist on the order of Jean-Paul Sartre and his lady, Simone de Beauvoir. There is only yourself & the decisions you have to make.

This very unpleasant situation not uncommonly gave birth to a phenomenon called “existential angst” or anxiety & dread.

Existentialism would not only thrive in France during the later 1940s and the 1950s. It would also, in the hands of New York-based phrasemongers like Harold Rosenberg, be applied to American abstract expressionism – which certainly, in its seemingly non-objective nature, induced anxiety and dread in the minds of would-be art lovers.

The latter two-thirds of the show at the Guggenheim are Giacometti’s response to existentialism as it existed in Paris after World War II, which is where and when he became close to Sartre and de Beauvoir.

From approximately the end of the third circuit on the ramp, it is all those tall, straight spindly stick figures, mostly of men but some of women, some big, some small, some alone, some caught in a kind of wheel or other contraption, some standing, some sitting, some merely a huge skinny head – they are all there.

I’m sure you’ve seen at least some of them before, and they’re the works for which Giacometti is most celebrated, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain, but for me they got awfully repetitive super-quick. I was with them up to about 1954, and after that, they lost me.

But the bottom two and a half circles on the ramp are mostly a joy, all of them works from the late l920s to the mid-1930s. What clever little games Giacometti could play!

When I was growing up, the thing to say was that Freud was all about sex, and that was why everybody disapproved of him.

Wrong.

The real reason people fight off Freud is that he tells you cannot control yourself, that your unconscious mind can make you do things that your conscious mind doesn’t want you to do. And nobody likes to face the fact that they are not masters of their own fate.

But as far as the surrealists were concerned, Freud was all about dreams and sex, and Giacometti here has a few dreamy works and a whole lot of really sexy ones. They are mostly small sculptures (though paintings and drawings hang on the walls, they are not what Giacometti was known for).

Some of these small sculptures are marble, some cast in bronze from plaster casts of the clay original, and some are the plaster casts themselves.

“The Couple” (1927), a plaster piece about 2 feet high, consists of two vertical flat shapes. The female is shaped like an oval with the widest part at her hips, and pointed at the top and bottom, while the male has a solid broad shape that continues to grow broader at its top, making it look rather like an old-fashioned shaving brush.

The female has two little breasts, what looks like an open mouth up at its top, and what looks like a little vagina below. The male has a tube-like shape in the equivalent space, suggesting a penis.

This sculpture was being found absolutely hilarious by a boy aged eight or nine who was visiting the show when I went back after the media preview. He was pointing it out to his father, who was kind of laughing in a scandalized way.

He obviously didn’t want to sound like a philistine by laughing at modern art, but I think Giacometti must have intended viewers to laugh – if only out of sheer pleasure.

It really is a delightful little piece.

So is “Reclining Woman Who Dreams,” an even smaller bronze, about 9 inches high and 16 inches wide. Made originally & presumably in plaster in 1929, it wasn’t cast in bronze until 1959.

Consisting of two wavy bands suspended one above the other and united by three diagonal narrow sticks, it make it fairly obvious what the woman is dreaming of (two wavy bands, not one).

The museum evidently considers “Suspended Ball” (1930-31) the most provocative work from this period, as they have given it a special little vitrine all its own.. I will also say that it titillates the spirit.

It consists of a ball (maybe male? Maybe female?) hanging against a similarly dangling crescent-shaped object that looks rather like a banana (maybe female? Maybe male?). They are enclosed in a little box-like structure, its perimeter indicated by painted metal bars.

Moving on, we get to a couple of very similar sculptures from 1931, both titled “Disagreeable Object.” One is wood and the other is bronze; both are about six inches high but nearly two feet long.

With one end rounded and the other ominously pointed, they look like feces, a phallus, or maybe a condom, since they are festooned with pointy little bumps near their sharp or business ends.

(Aside: Why do I say a condom? Well, because back around 1989, when I was working as a fact-checker for a magazine called Home Office Computing, one of my colleagues told me that certain brands of condom sported very similar little nubbly bits of rubber -- all in the interests, supposedly, of giving the partner of the wearer of these condoms more pleasure….)

To get back to Giacometti and those Freudian fantasies of the early 30s, in addition to other more directly sexual ones, there is the famous brutalist skeleton on the floor entitled “Woman with Her Throat Cut” (1932; cast 1949), a scarifying dream image if there ever was one, on loan from MoMA.

But MoMA could evidently not be persuaded to part with Giacometti’s most famous dream sculpture, “The Palace at 4 a.m.” Therefore it is only here in the form of a delicate sticklike oil on cardboard of it (1932), on loan from the Fondation Giacometti—as is so much else in this elegant tribute to the wily Swiss.

Question: Why should it be that Freud and Surrealism offered more as a seedbed for memorable art than existentialism?

Because not only is the art of Giacometti from his surrealist period much more vital and alive than his “existential” work. In addition, almost all of New York’s abstract expressionists passed through surrealism on their way to achieving their mature styles.

Most notably, this was true of Pollock, but also it applies to Rothko, Gottlieb, Gorky, and even (tangentially) Still…..

Hofmann didn’t need surrealism, and de Kooning came straight out of cubism, but really all of this existential nonsense as promulgated by Rosenberg was upset feelings on the part of viewers, not makers…..

I’d have to say that Freud (at least, the earlier & better part of Freud) has to do with life, and loving, and positive emotion, whereas existentialism has to do primarily with denial—what’s left over after you throw out everything else….