In black and white photographs, Alberto Giacometti looks like a sad Mick Jagger, his face deeply creased, his eyes dark under an unruly mop of curly hair.
However humble he appeared, the artist burned with a desire to realize his unique vision, to depict not just the human figure but some indefinable yet real essence.
A giant of 20th-century modernism, the Swiss/French artist’s striving and triumph shines through an exhibit of 98 works opening Friday at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in uptown Charlotte.
“Giacometti: Memory and Presence,” the largest and most ambitious show the museum has mounted, was pushed up on the schedule to coincide with the Democratic National Convention. It offers a rare opportunity to see a range of work and media – sculpture, paintings and drawings.
Also explored is the connection between Giacometti and the Bechtler family. Charlotte businessman and artist Andreas Bechtler’s gift of a portion of his family’s collection undergirds the museum.
“The intention is to present Giacometti throughout his life, not just as an artist but his life as related to other family members, his brothers Diego and Bruno,” said John Boyer, president of the Bechtler and exhibit curator.
In the 1940s and ’50s, Giacometti developed a distinct vocabulary, sculpting hyper-thin bronze figures and painting stark portraits that seemed to express a sense of the post-war era.
The work has only gained in popularity and price, setting sales records in the millions. Giacometti tasted some of this, but never left the rundown Paris studio where he continued to do the only thing he cared about until he died in 1966.
Hans Bechtler, Andreas’ father, met Giacometti in the 1950s at a gallery in Paris. The handsome Swiss businessman and the disheveled artist could not have been more dissimilar. But something clicked.
“They became very close,” said Andreas Bechtler.
Hans Bechtler bought a sculpture depicting Giacometti’s wife, Annette, that’s in the show – and regretted not buying one of a dog. He also owned decorative pieces by the artist’s brother, Diego. A third brother, Bruno, an architect, designed a house for the Bechtlers. The plans are on view.
When an American collection of Giacometti’s work came available, Hans and his brother, Walter, worked to secure it for Switzerland. Some of the work in “Memory and Presence” comes from the Giacometti Foundation they founded in Zurich and more from the Alberto and Annette Giacometti Foundation in Paris.
As a teenager already making art, Andreas Bechtler met Giacometti when the Swiss-born artist returned from Paris and visited the Bechtler family.
“He was a shorter, grayish person. He would smoke all the time. Very intense, he would stare at you or stare at” something in the landscape.
“For me (his work) was very moral, very indestructible, very sincere. I was just fascinated by his drawing, how he would draw and draw and erase and erase. With his sculpture you could see the fingerprints (in the clay) as he kept working. I was fascinated by that, how he stayed on the thing.”
Experiments with form
Giacometti’s first influence was his father, Giovanni, a painter, whose work is also on view. Alberto’s early paintings were figurative and full of color, a palette that darkened over time.
As he took part in major artistic movements of the 20th century such as Surrealism and Cubism, his work became more abstract. But he came back to the figure and with it made his greatest statement.
Giacometti’s sculptures of the elongated figure of a man walking or striding, some five feet high, became identified with the Existential philosophy popular in France and the United States in the ’50s because they seemed to express a sense of life’s futility.
Giacometti was friends with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and a bust of Sartre’s companion, writer Simone de Beauvoir, is in the exhibit. But art historians believe the Existential connection was overdone, and that the sculpture is as much about Giacometti’s experimenting with form, symmetry and balance as anything else.
“Memory and Presence,” while full of sculpture, has no striding men. Boyer said this doesn’t detract from an exhibit that does have fragile and rarely shown plaster sculptures from the Giacometti Foundation in Paris.
“It’s (also) rare,” he said, “to see this many paintings.”
Demanding your attention
Giacometti made art of the people he knew. On view is a portrait of artist Henri Matisse, many of his wife, Annette, and also of his brother Diego, as handsome as Alberto was homely.
These works have the “stare” Andreas Bechtler and others saw in Giacometti, only it is directed at the viewer. Giacometti devoted great attention to eyes in his portraits, how they intently look with a penetrating gaze.
The work seems to demand interaction – even a confrontation. Boyer’s advice to the visitors: “You better hold on.”
Another aspect of Giacometti’s art was his willingness to work on a reduced scale, to invest pieces small enough to fit in a matchbox with vigor and power. He proved, quipped Boyer, “that size doesn’t matter.”
Boyer termed “Memory and Presence” a “gentle introduction” to the artist and added a promise: “This is just the first (Giacometti) show we’re going to do.”