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

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Alberto Giacometti made drawings and paintings and sculptures. The sculptures are what he's best-known for, these long, skinny bronze bodies striding through life like shadows. Today New York's Guggenheim Museum opens a big show of his work. And NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg tells us that the show plus a recent movie give Giacometti his moment.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: If you like zaftig, Giacometti is not your man. If you like confidence, he's not there either.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FINAL PORTRAIT")

ARMIE HAMMER: (As James Lord) Have you always been like this?

GEOFFREY RUSH: (As Alberto Giacometti) Like what?

HAMMER: (As James Lord) So doubtful of your own ability.

RUSH: (As Alberto Giacometti) Of course.

STAMBERG: The film "Final Portrait" shows Giacometti in 1964, agonizing over a painting he's doing of American writer James Lord.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FINAL PORTRAIT")

RUSH: (As Alberto Giacometti) It gets worse every year.

HAMMER: (As James Lord) But you become more successful every year.

STAMBERG: What's a better breeding ground for doubt than success? - Giacometti mutters.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FINAL PORTRAIT")

RUSH: (As Alberto Giacometti) Don't smile.

HAMMER: (As James Lord) Well, you did.

RUSH: (As Alberto Giacometti) No, I didn't.

HAMMER: (As James Lord) You did.

RUSH: (As Alberto Giacometti) I did not smile.

STAMBERG: Geoffrey Rush plays the prickly Italian-Swiss artist to a shuffling, smoking, obsessive fare-thee-well. The film was written and directed by Stanley Tucci, based on James Lord's eyewitness account of the artist at work. Tucci says Giacometti's agony is universal.

STANLEY TUCCI: There's torment in every one of us. Giacometti wasn't afraid of displaying it.

STAMBERG: Whenever I feel most hopeful, Giacometti once said, that's when I give up. Catherine Grenier of the Giacometti Foundation in Paris says his small Paris studio was full of unfinished works, pieces produced after the trauma of World War II, made of clay, plaster, bronze - elongated, super slim, vulnerable-looking men and women, their surfaces knobby, pulled and pushed at, changed obsessively.

CATHERINE GRENIER: It's like if he was struggling with the sculpture. And what he's doing, which is different from the other sculptors, is that man - the humankind that he is representing is not made of heroes.

STAMBERG: No heroes, no generals on horseback, no Greek gods - ordinary people, wrenched apart and reconstructed by a sculptor waging manic hand-to-hand combat with his vision.

GRENIER: You can see his fingerprints in the clay. And even in the bronze, you can see, like, scars, as there is a part of violence in his work (ph).

STAMBERG: Sometimes, this struggle led to disaster. The clay figures got so thin, they fell apart.

GRENIER: Very often, he has destroyed his sculpture, not because he wanted to destroy them but only by working and reworking and reworking. can't stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FINAL PORTRAIT")

RUSH: (As Alberto Giacometti) We can't stop. I have to stop.

HAMMER: (As James Lord) It looks really good. What'd you do?

RUSH: (As Alberto Giacometti) I have no idea.

STAMBERG: In "Final Portrait," Giacometti reaches a magnificent point in his portrait of James Lord. And then he paints on top of it over and over until Lord's head seems wrapped in white bandages, as if Giacometti had killed him. The film's writer-director Stanley Tucci shows the struggle going on and on.

TUCCI: We find him, you know, on Day 3, on Day 5, on Day 6, on Day 10, finally Day 18, and this thing is never-ending. He's constantly deconstructing or undoing what he has done again and again and again because he wasn't finding what he wanted. He wasn't finding he was able to achieve what he wanted.

STAMBERG: Like so many creative people, actor-director-writer Tucci finds resonance here with his own work.

TUCCI: You're constantly sort of questioning - why do I do what I do? And then, how do I do what I do? And how do I do it well? And how do I keep continuing to do it well?

STAMBERG: Guggenheim curator Megan Fontanella says that perpetual questioning is part of the human condition.

MEGAN FONTANELLA: I think everyone can identify with this kind of struggle and this ambition that he had to start again and persevere.

STAMBERG: Giacometti Foundation director Catherine Grenier finds something heroic in this persistence.

GRENIER: He made something positive of this idea of failing, of difficulties, of starting again every day and starting anew every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: Alberto Giacometti is considered one of the giants of 20th-century art. His creative struggles give humanity a slender chance and hope.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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