Vancouver Art Gallery sculpts pleasing portrait of Alberto Giacometti

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      Alberto Giacometti: A Line Through Time
      At the Vancouver Art Gallery until September 29

      Let me say, straight out of the gate, that Alberto Giacometti: A Line Through Time is a wonderful exhibition. It’s no secret that I’ve been critical of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s imported shows of European modernism—group shows that hook their appeal on one or two big-name artists, often promising more than they actually provide. But this fine selection of bronzes, drawings, paintings, and prints by one of the most renowned sculptors of the 20th century—and, yes, by his friends and colleagues, too—really delivers. The show spans Giacometti’s career, from the small, realistic portrait bust of his brother Diego, created in 1914 when the artist was 13 years old, through the tiny, gilded bronze female figurines of his prewar years in Paris, to Paris Sans Fin (Paris Without End), a series of lithographs based on drawings that he produced in the last decade of his life and that remained unfinished—sans fin—when he died in 1966.

      There are also a number of good examples of the work we most strongly associate with Giacometti, the rough-textured, exaggeratedly thin and elongated bronze figures of his mature style of the 1950s and ’60s. It is through this characteristic approach to form, seen in Standing Woman at the exhibition’s opening, and Walking Man (Version 1) in the small gallery just off the atrium, that Giacometti expressed his experience of existential angst. Returning to Paris from his native Switzerland after World War II, the sculptor became part of the existentialist movement that arose out of the devastation of conflict. Through his art, Giacometti struggled to find meaning in a godless universe. His walking-man figures stride forward on their impossibly attenuated legs, but at the same time, they register a sense of isolation and introspection, their arms hanging numbly at their sides, their hands mere clumps of inarticulate matter.

      Man Walking (Version I) by Alberto Giacometti, 1960.

      The exhibition originated with the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, an institution that possesses the largest collection of Giacometti works in the U.K. That collection was assembled in the 1950s and ’60s by Robert and Lisa Sainsbury, whose passion and discernment, along with their friendship with Giacometti, are the subtext of the show. Not everything illustrated in the original catalogue has made it to Vancouver, but happily VAG senior curator Bruce Grenville has supplemented core works with loans from leading international collections, both public and private.

      Lynn Chadwick's 1954 sculpture The Stranger.

      One of the most powerful works in the show is Frink’s Birdman, with its helmetlike head and stunted, misshapen wings. Placed nearby is Giacometti’s The Dog, which Grenville sees as a self-portrait. With its drooping head and tail, it’s a “hangdog”, he said at a recent media preview, “loping through the city at night”. Both works explore aspects of the animal in us and with us.

      Not to be overlooked here are Giacometti’s many fine pencil drawings, as distinctive in their contradictory impulses as his sculptures. There’s a sense of existential uncertainty in the repeatedly worked and reworked lines, so unlike the confident contour drawings of early modernists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Giacometti struggles to find a likeness, striving to express a “sense of what it is to be human”, Grenville tells us. At the same time, his work reveals his belief that finding a true likeness is impossible.

      Alberto Giacometti in his studio, 1960.
      Rene Burri/Magnum Photos