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Art & Architecture A visit with Alberto Giacometti’s beautifully imperfect sculptures at the Vancouver Art Gallery

Swiss painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti is the focus of a new show at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Rene Burri/Magnum Photos

Alberto Giacometti’s Man Walking (Version 1) (1960) stands tall, leaning forward as if striding with purpose toward you as you enter the Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibition galleries. The sculpture is actually at the midpoint of the VAG’s new show, Alberto Giacometti: A Line Through Time, but you get a peek of him from a distance. He is just beyond the rotunda, where a display of work by Emily Carr provides a meaningful, if unintentional, frame. We see him between two of Carr’s trees, also tall, stately and rooted to the Earth. On his right, Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky (1935) in particular, with its isolated tree-trunk bare and a bit of greenery at the top, seems to mirror Man Walking.

Alberto Giacometti's Man Walking (Version I), 1960.

Albright-Knox Art Gallery/Estate of Alberto Giacometti/SOCAN

Giacometti sculpted emaciated, elongated bronze human figures that suggest a strong sense of alienation, even a risk of disappearance. These are the works for which he is best known and that have made him a major figure in 20th century sculpture, with pieces selling in the past few years for more than US$100-million at auction.

But he was an insatiable artist who sketched wherever he could – including on the walls of his studio – and painted as well as sculpted. Relentless and prolific, he would go at his works again and again, reluctant to let them go, never quite satisfied, never quite finished. This impossibility of completion became an obsession.

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Self-portrait, 1935.

PETE HUGGINS/Estate of Alberto Giacometti/SOCAN

A film as part of the exhibition shows the artist creating this work: pushing and pulling the clay, twisting it, manipulating it in a studious frenzy – sometimes with a cigarette in one hand.

“The more I take away, the more it grows,” he says.

Giacometti was born into an artistic family in Bregaglia, Switzerland, in 1901. He moved to Paris in his 20s, bought a studio, and became immersed in the artistic community. He spent the Second World War back in Switzerland and returned to Paris in 1945. He died in 1966 of heart complications connected to chronic bronchitis and years of chain-smoking.

A Line Through Time was organized by the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts in Britain in collaboration with the VAG. The show includes some of Giacometti’s magnificent sculptures, as well as drawings, lithographs and paintings and biographical ephemera, as well as photographs of the artist.

The 61 Giacometti objects are displayed in context – with work he was influenced by, and work he influenced. There are sculptures going back to ancient Egypt and the Cycladic era, such as he would have seen during museum visits. And there is work clearly made in dialogue with Giacometti, such as Francis Bacon’s painting Study of a Nude (1952-53) and a magnificent painting by the Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle; the two were friends in Paris and shared a passion for materiality.

Standing Woman, 1958–59.

JAMES AUSTIN/Estate of Alberto Giacometti/SOCAN

The exhibition begins with an overture-like installation, with five works on plinths at various levels, facing away from one another. Setting up the show’s major theme exploring context and influence, only two of these works are by Giacometti: Standing Woman (1958-59), and behind her, what is believed to be Giacometti’s earliest sculpture, Portrait of Diego, made in 1914 – when Alberto was only 13.

Diego was Giacometti’s most frequent model, followed by Alberto’s wife, Annette. There are some terrific works portraying both of them in this exhibition; including, in another grouping, two side-by-side busts of Diego, one from 1955 and one from 1957, and, staring off in another direction, Annette Without Arms (Annette IX) (1958-59).

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Annette Without Arms (Annette IX), 1964.

JAMES AUSTIN/Estate of Alberto Giacometti/SOCAN

The painting Diego Seated (1948) was the first work of Giacometti’s purchased by the Sainsburys, who became great collectors of his art. Beside it, the pencil drawing Portrait of the Artist’s Brother (1948), Diego’s head seems afloat on the white paper, his face shadowed with the artist’s effort.

“You can see him going over and over and over again, trying to bring clarity to it and only make it darker and more obtuse,” the VAG’s co-ordinating curator Bruce Grenville says. “It’s such a lovely piece.”

For me – a Giacometti fan mostly from afar since my 20s – the highlight of the show was getting up close and personal with his large-scale signature sculptures, tall and emaciated, full of lumps and imperfections and yet so beautiful; and so human-like in spite of their many fantastical attributes. I think of, and refer to, each as a “he” or “she” rather than an “it.” Walking through the gallery to see them doesn’t feel like a viewing, but a visit. I will be back. They’re here all summer.

A Line Through Time is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Sept 29.

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