Abstract

One of the primary critical investigations around the work of Alberto Giacometti has been his experience of a crisis in representation: the anguished realization of his inability to re-create his perceptions. Indeed, while this crisis came to the fore at various times in his life, it forms the hinge on which his career is taken to turn, because it marked his rejection of the principles of Surrealism. As the oft-repeated story goes, when André Breton heard that Giacometti had returned to study from live models, he scoffed, saying, “Everyone knows what a head looks like.” Breton was right to sense the chasm that separated him from Giacometti, but the latter's reply, that “no one has ever really looked at a face before,” suggests that Breton had failed to grasp the nature of the divide. Giacometti's return to study from life was precipitated by a profound sense of doubt about the most apparently basic artistic transaction, that of looking carefully and representing what he has seen. This skepticism about the very possibility of representation, which was nonetheless coupled with an abiding sense of purpose about the importance of attempting it, was central to Giacometti's approach to the figure. Giacometti knew well that artists before him, Cézanne and Picasso in particular, had shared a similar mix of compulsion and suspicion about representation. Giacometti, however, seems not only to have understood the extent of that dilemma to a degree that his predecessors had not, but to have been compelled by it. In short, the more that doubt seemed to fill Giacometti in the face of the Other, the more urgent the task of trying to represent it became.

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