Thursday, August 31, 2017

Derain, Balthaus, Giacometti, An Artistic Friendship

Alberto Giacometti, Aika, 1959
The goal of this exhibition is to bring together the lives and work of the three artists to illustrate their mutual influence, and consequently, to appreciate the art of each in a new light. For me, the exhibition works to illustrate one thing: the extraordinary imagination and unique talent of Alberto Giacometti. Hanging next to works by Derain and Balthaus, Giacometti’s paintings and sculpture are more moving than when viewed on their own, if that is possible. The exhibition will convince everyone who sees it that Giacometti was a genius in his own time, and remains one today.
André Derain, Geneviève à la Pomme, vers 1937-38

Giacometti’s portraits are exquisite. That he made them all in various shades of grey while the other Derain and Balthaus were still using a full color palette must have been so daring at the time. It is true, the subject matter and form of what the three artists paint may be similar at times, and again the texture of the paint as Giacometti explored it may resonate with the same in the work of the other two. But Giacometti takes everything to an extreme that sees his painting stand out in unimaginable ways, thus lifting his art into a whole different realm. The other two don’t go to the same extreme of placing frames around frames around frames, both within and external to the canvas of a portrait. I have always understood Giacometti’s portraits to be about entrapment, much like the sculpted figures are stuck to the base of their statues. The portraits are like sketches; they are worked over again and again in pencil, rubbed out, smudged, drawn again. The heads make the figures anonymous, held within a drawn frame, then that of the canvas, and again by that of the picture frame. There is always something unfinished about Giacometti’s portraits, as if the reworking wants to go on into infinity. It is as though he wouldn’t let the figures go until he was finished, so they become eternally trapped in a mise-en-abîme of frames. I also noticed in the portraits on display here that the space behind the head often opens up within the painting, as if the figure is on a stage with exits and entrances, curtains and backdrops. This changes everything: because the figures are free to end the performance and leave the stage whenever they want.
Alberto Giacometti, Apple on the Buffet, 1938
If I have to admit a similarity between or mutual influence of Derain, Balthaus and Giacometti, it might start with apples on tables. All three are interested in still life, and all three put apples on tables. For the other two, there is usually the attempt to create a scene, with a cloth, a knife, water, and for Derain, even the woman Geneviève. Thus, for Derain and Balthaus, apples on tables are placed in a narrative. Giacommeti pushes further towards abstraction. He takes the image over the edge so that still life becomes literally that: lifeless, frozen, to the point where everything is taken out of the picture until all that is left is an apple on a table scratched into and onto the surface of a grey painting. It’s similar to the portraits in which Giacometti removes human the expression until they become “portraits.” Likewise, the still lives verge into abstraction until they are a composition in a frame, as both become the genre in skeletal form.
Alberto Giacometti, L'Homme qui Chavire, 1950-51
I thought the greatest indication of the expanse between Giacometti and the other two was realized when Derain and Balthaus made traditional costumes for Cosi Fan Tutti, while Giacometti made the tree by which Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot. From classical opera to absurdist drama, it’s difficult to find the connections. I was struck in one of the final rooms by a hanging of two paintings with Giacometti’s L’Homme qui Chavire, 1950-51 placed between them, in the middle of the room. The movement of Giacometti’s fragile figure in the wind is breathtaking to be sure, and the resonance of the movement between sculpture and paintings is identifiable, Balthaus and Derain put women not men in motion in their paintings. For Giacometti, it’s almost unheard of to place women in motion. Rather, in his painting and sculpture, men move while women are stuck in their iron base, in the frames around them, and by extension, in the dark reality of the world of their time. Some might want to argue that Giacometti’s vision of women was misogynist, but to me it’s realist, and even more so next to the fantasies of Balthaus and Derain.

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