AUM Art Collection “Spotlight”: Fall 2020

The Fall 2020 semester is in full swing (we are already seven weeks in!) and it is strange, to be sure. In order to stay safe at AUM during the COVID-19 pandemic, we wear face masks, maintain social distancing, and avoid large gatherings. This also means that normal on-campus events and programming – like Gallery exhibitions – have been cancelled for the duration of the semester. Because of this, Goodwyn Gallery will start highlighting works of art from the Department of Fine Arts Collection on its website. These short catalogue descriptions are authored by students in Dr. Slipp’s Art Since 1945 class and will introduce you to a variety of fine art prints in the Collection created by mid-twentieth-century artists. We hope you enjoy reading along!

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The first “Spotlight” focuses on Head of a Man for “Derrière le Miroir” of 1961 by Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966). Giacometti was born in Borgonovo, Switzerland, but spent his career working as an artist in Paris, France, having moved there in 1922 at the age of 21 to study sculpture. Giacometti was associated with French Cubism and Surrealism, before hitting upon his signature style: tall, slender human figures that look like linear wraiths. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art explains in relation to Three Men Walking II, 1949: “Almost without volume or mass (although anchored with swollen, oversize feet), these skeletal forms appear weightless and remote.” Likewise, Man Pointing (1947; Tate Museum) is typical of Giacometti’s mature style. The toothpick-like figure is unnaturally elongated, its limbs appear skeletal, its proportions impossibly tall.

In his artwork, Giacometti attempted to relay his own version of reality, which was deeply informed by post-War existentialism: a pervasive world-view characterized by pessimism and a sense of meaninglessness that was brought about by the tragedies of World War II and horrors of the Holocaust (Fineberg, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being, pp. 138-139). We can see this interest reflected in Giacometti’s artistic process, which achieves a distinctive aesthetic of “unfinish.” He said, “That’s the terrible thing: the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it.” (“Unfinishing school,The Economist) Giacometti would build up a sculpture or the surface of a painting and then destroy it or scrape over it, again and again, day after day, until someone came to the studio and removed the work for exhibition.

Alberto Giacometti (Swiss, 1901-1966), Head of a Man for “Derrière le Miroir,” 1961. Lithograph, 15 x 11 inches, Franco Collection, Auburn University at Montgomery.

While Giacometti is best known as a sculptor, he also made numerous prints throughout his career. Preferring to use lithographic crayon on transfer paper – rather than work directly on lithographic stone, his prints maintain the fluency and texture of a sketch. For example, Head of a Man for “Derrière le Miroir” of 1961 conveys the rapid execution of a line drawing and depicts a seated male figure looking out at the viewer. This was one of fourteen original prints commissioned by Galerie Maeght, Paris, for issue no. 127 (May 1961) of the French art magazine “Derrière le Miroir” (translates to “Behind the mirror”) and released in conjunction with a 1961 exhibition of Giacometti’s painting and sculpture. At least three lithographs depict this man – slowly zooming in on the figure, from seated view to bust length (AUM’s version) to head.

At 15 x 11 inches, Head of a Man is intimate and encourages close looking. Despite its two-dimensional format, the print engages with the language of sculpture. The swelling line work is volumetric and renders the form of the body with solidity and weight. At the same time, because of the open drawing technique, there is a contradictory translucency and weightlessness to the figure; the white of the paper shines through. The man is both there and not. He is at once dematerializing and becoming. Giacometti defines the details of the model’s face with an attention towards the underlying anatomical structure: proportions are marked out with medial lines on the forehead and chin, while circles around the eyes outline the orbital sockets of the skull and – perhaps – indicate glasses. In the related seated view, we see that the model casually rolled the sleeves of his collared shirt to his elbows, implying a degree of comfort or familiarity. In the more alarming head study, Giacometti’s interest in anatomy is on full view. He traces the figure’s bone structure in swooping arcs and quick diagonals, marking out the deep nasal cavities and eyes. At a glance, it looks more like a skull than a face and carries with it a sense of immateriality and mortality. Giacometti’s lithographs for “Derrière le Miroir” demonstrate an existential angst and align with the works of his contemporary Francis Bacon (1909-1992), who similarly engaged with translucency, bodily instability, and de/materializing figures.

Overall, the 1961 lithograph Head of a Man for “Derrière le Miroir” conjures Giacometti’s studio process, encouraging the viewer to imagine the artist bent over the paper and quickly dashing off the sketch as he studied the model. It also, however, speaks to broader concerns at the time regarding the in/stability of the human form, mortality, and humanity.

Further Reading:

Alberto Giacometti, TATE Artist Index

Albert Giacometti, Wikipedia Entry

The Alberto et Annette Giacometti Foundation website

MoMA Chronology of Giacometti’s Life

Derrière le miroir, Wikipedia Entry

Three Men Walking II, 1949, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Man Pointing, 1947, Tate Museum, UK

“Giacometti,” in Jonathan Fineberg, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being (3rd ed., Prentice Hall/Pearson, 2011), pp. 138-139.

Tom Shone, “Unfinishing school,The Economist, March 23, 2016.

Authored by Dr. Naomi Slipp, October 1, 2020

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