When Giacometti: Memory and Presence opened amidst the hubbub of the Democratic National Convention, I took a houseguest to see it.
Marveling at the variety of work in the Bechtler Museum of Modern Arts busy galleries, he remarked, Good to know that Giacometti is more than just a bunch of scrawny folks.
Its not a profound evaluation, but it brings up an important truth about Alberto Giacometti his bronze sculptures of elongated figures are so recognizable that its easy to take them and the artist for granted. Memory and Presence counters this with a rich assortment of paintings, drawings and other works.
Of the nearly 100 pieces, about a third are from the museums collection; the rest come from Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung in Zürich and the Alberto and Annette Giacometti Foundation in Paris.
The size of the loan is unprecedented for these institutions; it includes seven fragile, seldom seen plasters, providing a rare opportunity to see Giacomettis own hand at work before a sculpture was cast in bronze.
Although Giacometti is known for his anonymous figures, most of the show depicts the people who were closest to him.
But even these paintings and sculptures of family, patrons and friends are somber and introspective.
In the first gallery is a wall of tender images, mostly drawings of family that Giacometti did in his teens.
Diego seated on a table at Stampa is an intimate drawing of Giacomettis brother at a breakfast nook with his back to the young artist. He is hunched over, perhaps reading, unaware that he is being sketched.
Other childhood works include landscapes, self-portraits and pieces that reveal his emerging interests in ancient Greece and Rome, Northern and Southern renaissances and African art.
At age 21, Giacometti left Switzerland for Paris, moving into a cramped studio with no heat, running water or electricity; he remained there until his death at age 64 in 1966.
In the evenings, he would socialize with friends including Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at nearby restaurants.
Before embarking on his own path, he created Surrealist and Cubist-inspired works, some of which are included in this exhibition.
The maquettes (scale models) for Giacomettis commission for Chase Manhattan Banks headquarters are here too. The gilded bronze head, standing woman and walking man are tiny; the largest is barely 4 inches tall.
The commission was never completed, but Giacometti later executed the full-size walking man sculpture, an iconic work that sold for nearly $104 million in 2010.
Giacometti portraits are noted for the sitters fixed stare. But in one particularly engrossing painting of poet and biographer Jacque Dupin the subject stares slightly off into space; his calm gaze and loosely rendered clothes make him look monk-like.
In the gallery devoted to Giacomettis beloved wife, Annette, is one of the highlights of the show Femme Assise, a 20-inch tall sculpture of the seated Annette, which visitors can see both in plaster and bronze. The bronze was the first piece by Giacometti that Hans and Bessie Bechtler purchased. As with much of Giacomettis work, these are imposing despite their relatively small size.
The exhibition concludes with a flourish of work created by family and friends. It is a fitting end to an exhibition that explores a singular genius through the relationships that fed his work and brought him to international prominence.