Giacometti's Sculptures Bare The Scars Of Our Daily Struggles Alberto Giacometti worked obsessively on super-slim sculptures that stride and slink like shadows. A Guggenheim exhibition and a new film explore the life of this talented, tormented artist.
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Giacometti's Sculptures Bare The Scars Of Our Daily Struggles

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Giacometti's Sculptures Bare The Scars Of Our Daily Struggles

Giacometti's Sculptures Bare The Scars Of Our Daily Struggles

Giacometti's Sculptures Bare The Scars Of Our Daily Struggles

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/617638893/618163043" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Alberto Giacometti didn't sculpt heroes on horseback; he depicted everyday humans — and animals — struggling to get through the day. Above, his 1951 bronze sculpture Dog (Le chien). Cathy Carver/Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden/Smithsonian hide caption

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Cathy Carver/Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden/Smithsonian

Alberto Giacometti didn't sculpt heroes on horseback; he depicted everyday humans — and animals — struggling to get through the day. Above, his 1951 bronze sculpture Dog (Le chien).

Cathy Carver/Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden/Smithsonian

Alberto Giacometti is considered one of the greatest artists of the 20th century — but he was consumed by self-doubt. He painted, drew and sculpted, and his sculptures made him famous.

After the traumas of World War II, the Italian-Swiss artist prodded and pushed and punched his materials — clay, plaster, even bronze — into skinny, blobby bodies of men and women, striding through life like shadows. Many of his works are on view at New York's Guggenheim museum until September 12.

Giacometti's impossibly thin bronze bodies stride like shadows. Above, his 1960 sculpture Walking Man I (Homme qui marche I). Alberto Giacometti Estate/Licensed by VAGA and ARS, New York hide caption

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Alberto Giacometti Estate/Licensed by VAGA and ARS, New York

Giacometti's impossibly thin bronze bodies stride like shadows. Above, his 1960 sculpture Walking Man I (Homme qui marche I).

Alberto Giacometti Estate/Licensed by VAGA and ARS, New York

A film starring Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, written and directed by actor Stanley Tucci, also brings Giacometti to life, in all his shuffling, smoking, obsessive glory. Final Portrait is based on American writer James Lord's eye-witness account of the artist at work. Lord posed for him, and then in 1965 wrote the memoir, A Giacometti Portrait, about watching the artist agonizing over every brush stroke.

In the film, Giacometti (Rush) tells Lord (Armie Hammer) that he's always doubted himself. Lord doesn't understand — and points out that the artist gets more successful every year. Giacometti replies that there's no better breeding ground for doubt than success.

"There's torment in every one of us," Tucci says. "Giacometti wasn't afraid of displaying it."

At the Guggenheim, Catherine Grenier, Director of the Annette and Alberto Giacometti Foundation in Paris, says the painter-sculptor's small Paris studio was full of unfinished works — sculptures of elongated, super-slim, vulnerable-looking men and women. Their sculpted surfaces are knobby; they've been pulled and pushed, parts of the clay ones pinched off, re-shaped, stuck back.

Giacometti paints in his Paris studio in 1958. Ernst Scheidegger/ Stiftung Ernst Scheidegger/Archiv, Zürich hide caption

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Ernst Scheidegger/ Stiftung Ernst Scheidegger/Archiv, Zürich

Giacometti paints in his Paris studio in 1958.

Ernst Scheidegger/ Stiftung Ernst Scheidegger/Archiv, Zürich

"It's like he was struggling with the sculpture," Grenier says. And what's distinctive about him is that he wasn't creating generals on horseback or Greek gods — nothing heroic. Instead, he represented ordinary human beings slogging through their days: He shaped them, changed them, shaped them again.

"You can see his fingerprints in the clay ... like scars," Grenier says. "There is a lot of violence in his work."

Giacometti created The Nose (Le nez) in 1949 out of bronze, wire, rope and steel. Kristopher McKay/The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation hide caption

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Kristopher McKay/The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Giacometti's obsessive changes often led to disaster. The clay figures became so thin, through all the changes, that they fell apart. Some pieces were destroyed, not because he wanted to destroy them, Grenier explains, but they broke as he reworked them over and over again.

As he worked, Giacometti was frustrated that he couldn't achieve what he wanted to create. Stanley Tucci finds resonance with his own work as an actor-writer-director. He says creative people are always questioning why they do what they do, how they do it, and how they can continue doing it well.

Guggenheim curator Megan Fontanella believes there's something universal in Giacometti's obsessive process.

"I think everyone can identify with his kind of struggle," he says. "And this ambition he had to start again and persevere."

Grenier agrees, and finds something heroic in the persistence: "He made something positive of this idea of failing, of difficulties, of starting again every day," she says. "Starting anew every day."

His was an admirable struggle.

Correction June 8, 2018

A previous Web version of this story incorrectly said Alberto Giacometti was born in Italy. He was born in Switzerland.