Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 13, No. 2, 2014
  Current Issue  
  Back Issues  
Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nancy Snipper
Farzana Hassan
Daniel Charchuk
Lynda Renée
Betsy L. Chunko
Samuel Burd
Andrée Lafontaine
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
  Music Editors Serge Gamache
Diane Gordon
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somerville
Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

21st century man




We who draw do so not only to make something received visible to others
but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.
John Berger

To have courage for the most strange, the most singular
and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.

His bleached out, monochromatic backgrounds echo the depthless grey matter of space. The astrophysicist, to better grasp the notion of the boundless, extends an imperfect numerical function to infinity; the painter drains the colour out of his pigment for the same effect. Each is asking how brief is a human life that is bound on all sides by the infinite.

To draw attention to the largest questions posed by existence, the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) decided that the portrait would be the optimal place for his inquiry to take shape and find its proper expression. And even though in his life time he would come to be regarded by his peers as a portrait master, he always insisted (in his interviews) that the moment the sitter took his place he became a mystery.

Giacometti’s special relationship with his amorphous muse was a constant source of angst and exultation, one which he refused to terminate or resolve to his satisfaction. His combined obsession and determination – pace Sisyphus -- to confront the ineffable on its own terms has resulted in some of the most compelling portraiture in the history of painting. Both Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were fascinated by their painter friend, who was never satisfied with his work and claimed he was a better writer than painter.

As much as any artist in the 20th century Giacometti is its designated metaphysician, in large part because he is not interested in the flesh qua flesh but in the manner in which the bone structure and skeleton relate to and anchor the spirit, and call into question the mostly inscrutable and fugitive aspects of existence.

Why the line, his gallery of portraits asks, and not the infinite possibilities inherent in colour?

A line can mark off what is inside or outside, as in a territory. It is where inclusion and exclusion meet, and existence and non-existence are meshed together and reflected back. Giacometti’s line, which is a profusion of lines, is less interested in capturing the likeness of the person than the essence he embodies, which accounts for the haunting, disembodied feel to his portraits.

The line, unlike a volume of colour, invites us to look past or beyond it, into the dark matter of infinity, into the nothingness that shadows and animates the subject. Every time the sitter sits he is confessing that his temporality is not a choice but a destiny that cannot be double crossed. Where Giacometti’s restless, nervy lines meet and conflict, man’s essential humanity is revealed, but we’re not sure if it is consequent to the sitter’s momentary expression or his slippery, ambiguous relationship to the infinite. Giacometti’s portraits continue the silence that begins with the “Mona Lisa” and implodes into Edward Munch’s “The Scream:” winnowing like wind blowing through a hollowed out rib cage, sighing like driftwood that is no longer a tree but whose treeness is indestructible.
Year after year, it is the same sitter, his brother Diego, whom the artist claims he doesn’t recognize. By entering this confession into the public domain, is Giacometti striking a pose, bringing attention to his art through the cult of personality, or is he proposing that in order to know anything at all it has to be stripped of everything that is familiar at which point it can be meaningfully encountered?

When the sitter arrives he brings with him vanity, conceit and swagger, and the body with which he negotiates the world, all of which, under Giacometti’s incisive gaze, are illusory, as short-lived as a lifetime dropped into the abyss of eternity. Giacometti’s portraits singlehandedly open up a realm in the history of art where the artist and his materials convene in order to reveal man’s essential fragility and apprehensiveness before the fact of his finitude. And even though he is uniquely able to draw out and isolate the metaphysical dimension of existence, paradoxically no artist has captured appearances more emphatically, more robustly -- and this holds true for his fleshless, mummy-like sculptures.

If we gravitate to Proust because he demonstrates that every life can be rendered meaningful as the first effect of intentionally reflecting on the past, Giacometti’s oeuvre invites us to reflect on the possibility of meaningful existence by rendering strange and foreboding that which is most near -- the person sitting opposite us. Giacometti makes it his essential task to strip the sitter of all his daily entanglements, which conspire to protect him from his manifest perishability, in order to not humiliate but free him.

Since Giacometti is also a sculptor who must work with solid materials that withhold transparency and refuse disembodiment, how is he to make bronze reveal the human condition? How can tempered bulky matter be converted into a medium that speaks to man’s existential predicament?

Giacometti ingeniously solves the problem by creating quasi 2-dimensional figures, many of them drastically reduced in scale. His roughly hewed, match-stick like figures, such as “Walking Man,” almost have no breadth, and the heads are shrunk as if the artist doesn't quite recognize who is before him, while the withering legs disappear into disproportionately large feet firmly fixed (nailed) to the ground -- clinging to dubious epistemological certainties? So delicate and insubstantial are Giacometti’s sculptures, that like a fledging bird for the first time airborne, we want to take them in our hands and reassure them that they are here and now and not alone.

By depriving his bronze figures of their physical human dimension, he lays bare their (man’s) frailty and resolute humanity. In their attenuated but dignified bearing, he both honours and defends their terrifying silence as well as their majesty. And as we stand before them, sometimes towering over them, we may come to discover our own (diminished) sense of proportion and the unexpected consolation an encounter with an artwork can provide.

It requires repeated acts of courage to make the human condition serve as one’s lifelong muse, which is why Alberto Giacometti’s portraits and sculpture rank among the 20th century’s most significant art.


Email Address
(not required)

I do have two rather important points to make: First, his backgrounds are not washed out but rather they are robust, agitated brush strokes that not only enhance the neutral greys but allow the sitter to come forward toward the viewer . Second, he is one among a few great portraitists such as Modigliani, Lucien Freud and Alice Neal etc. but surely not the only great artist able to depict the psychological depth of his or her sitter. You're absolutely right when you say that one can feel his own angst transmitted in his work. Thanks for reminding us to take another look at a great.
Playboy photographers aside, has there ever been any serious artist who wasn't interested in "flesh qua flesh but in the manner in which the bone structure and skeleton relate to the spirit?"


also by Robert J. Lewis:
The Jazz Solo
Chat Rooms & Infidels
Music Fatigue
Understanding Rape
Have Idea Will Travel
Bikini Jihad
The Reader Feedback Manifesto
Caste the First Stone
Let's Get Cultured
Being & Baggage
Robert Mapplethorpe
The Eclectic Switch

Philosophical Time
What is Beauty?
In Defense of Heidegger

Hijackers, Hookers and Paradise Now
Death Wish 7 Billion
My Gypsy Wife Tonight
On the Origins of Love & Hate
Divine Right and the Unrevolted Masses
Cycle Hype or Genotype
The Genocide Gene


Help Haiti = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting, no down time/top security, exceptional prices = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting, no down time/top security, exceptional prices
Film Ratings at Arts & Opinion - Montreal
2013 Longueuil Percussion Festival: 450 463-2692
Roberto Romei Rotondo Blog (UP YOURS)
2013 Montreal Chamber Music Festival
Arion Baroque Orchestra Montreal
Montreal World Film Festival
2013 Festival Nouveau Cinema de Montreal, Oct. 09-20st, (514) 844-2172
Bougie Hall Orchestera Montreal
Lynda Renée: Chroniques Québécois - Blog
Montreal Jazz Festival
Nuit d'Afrique: July 9th - July 21st
IMAGE + NATION film festival Nov. 22 - Dec. 2nd (Montreal)
2008 Jazz en Rafale Festival (Montreal) - Mar. 27th - April 5th -- Tél. 514-490-9613 ext-101
CINEMANIA (Montreal) - festival de films francophone 7-17th novembre, Cinema Imperial info@514-878-0082
2012 Montreal International Documentary Festival Nov. 7th - 18th
2012 Festival Montreal en Lumiere
2013 Montreal Francofolies Music Festival with Lynda Renée
2008 FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL (Montreal) North America's Premier Genre Festival July 3-21
CD Dignity by John Lavery available by e-mail: - 10$ + 3$ shipping.
© Roberto Romei Rotondo
Festivalissimo Film Festival - Montreal: May 18th - June 5th (514 737-3033
Montreal Guitar Show July 2-4th (Sylvain Luc etc.). border=
April 29th to May 8th: Pan African Film Festival-Montreal
Photo by David Lieber:
Listing + Ratings of films from festivals, art houses, indie
Armand Vaillancourt: sculptor
Canadian Tire Repair Scam [2211 boul Roland-Therrien, Longueuil] = documents-proofs
Valid HTML 4.01!
Privacy Statement Contact Info
Copyright 2002 Robert J. Lewis