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Alberto Giacometti : an art of impasse Masgaard, Roald


Within Giacometti’s concepts of what art must do, his own art has reached an impasse. He defines art as a means to see better and considers it a method of research into the nature of the exterior world. When the truth of this nature has been discovered and totally re-created on canvas or in sculpture, only then is his art complete. Instead of greater knowledge, however, his visual researches have only yielded more uncertainty and mystery; and the qualities of the exterior world have escaped him until he is in despair of ever reproducing them. He finds himself in the situation, consequently, of trying to represent in art that which he has no knowledge of. It is the terms and manifestations of this impasse that the present paper purports to discuss. As prefatory background to the discussion proper, I have proposed the contrasted images of the acrobat and the clown, a metaphorical framework suggested in criticism of Samuel Beckett, who, in literature, has reached an impasse comparable to Giacometti's in art. The acrobat represents the artist who, like Giacometti, despite an impasse pursues his impossible goal relentlessly, glad of the most miniscule achievement. The clown, on the other hand, accepts the failure of his art and creates a new art whose basis is failure. The clown acts as a foil to the acrobat. I note also the critics' failure to consider Giacometti in relation to his tradition, an unpardonable omission because the crisis in his art is as well an indication of a crisis within the tradition. When Giacometti defines art as a means to see better, he refers to no simple physical act of recording sensation. Seeing is a highly critical procedure which strips vision of the veil of culture which tradition has placed between the eye and the model, and frees the mind of outmoded forms and conventions of perception which have become irrelevant to the total experience and organization of the artist. Having performed this operation, the artist is free to observe the true nature of the exterior world and record its likeness in art. Giacometti's rigidly controlled seeing, however, has not revealed the desired knowledge, but has instead yielded the experience of the distance which forever separates the artist from everything he wants to depict. Instead of being able to re-create the human face and figure, Giacometti has only succeeded in producing those slim, attenuated, emaciated figures whose human characteristics disappear as we approach them, and whose gaze stares emptily and impenetrably into space, revealing nothing. His art has become a testimony to the common experience of contemporary thought: man's alienation and isolation. This is basically what denies the artist the intimate rapport with his model necessary in order to re-create its likeness. As contemporary science and philosophy have been limited in their researches by human finitude, so has Giacometti's art. His minuscule bit of knowledge is but a speck on the infinite scale of things; and partial knowledge is not truth. Finally the awareness of human finitude within art is traced through its development in the nineteenth century. The difficulty of realizing on canvas what he saw in nature became particularly evident to Cezanne in an age when, deprived of all relevant established traditions of art, he had to discover for himself a new artistic language and imagery. Cezanne began to suspect the impossibility of doing art which sought after truth, but he still had reference to metaphysical concepts as to the nature of the external world which made his success in art at least conceivable. Giacometti is deprived of such concepts and his contemporary sensibility denies his ever achieving a basis of certainty. Art for him will always be a tentative gesture in the direction of completion, but completion is inherently impossible. These are the terms of the impasse in Giacometti's art.

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