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America may finally be ready for Alberto Giacometti’s uncompromising art

The Swiss sculptor is the subject of a major traveling retrospective

Alberto Giacometti in his studio in 1951, photographed by Gordon Parks. (Archives, Fondation Giacometti/Gordon Parks Foundation)
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CLEVELAND — There are situations, extreme predicaments, which make notions like “optimism” or “pessimism” seem fatuous. You just have to get through them — and without any guarantees that you will.

Alberto Giacometti was the artist who made us aware that life itself is such a situation.

Giacometti died in 1966, having lived through two world wars. Born in Switzerland to an artistic family of Italian descent, he was at the center of cultural life in Paris for 30 years. He became an emblem of postwar existentialism and, among artists, a heroic exemplar of a studio practice based in unstinting observation of the human figure.

With his sunken, line-crossed cheeks, his dark eyes and curly hair, Giacometti had a charisma difficult to dissociate from his work. Many young artists and writers revered him and came to Paris hoping to spot him in a Left Bank cafe. Friends with Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, he was photographed by an impressive array of the 20th century’s finest photographers.

Some of these portraits — by Man Ray, Brassai, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon — appear in a major Giacometti exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art (through June 12). All convey a sense of his austere, quicksilver presence. The show, drawn from the Foundation Giacometti in Paris, will travel to the Seattle Art Museum; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo.

His studio was famously decrepit. But in his art, Giacometti was exacting and fastidious, bowing before a classical impulse that ran from ancient Egypt and archaic Greece through the classical French tradition, from Poussin to Cézanne and Matisse.

He made his name, however, as a Surrealist, creating, along with an array of fetish-like objects, two of the most indelible sculptures associated with the movement: “Woman with Her Throat Cut” and “The Palace at 4 a.m.” In 1935, after only about five years, he disavowed Surrealism. His return to the real epitomized a cultural shift that, under the pressure of poverty, political extremism and war, could no longer tolerate dreams, fantasies and whimsy. It sought truth.

Giacometti spent his last 20 years sculpting and drawing portraits from the same four or five people. His sculptures can be tiny enough to fit into a matchbox or so tall they threaten to scrape the ceilings of large galleries. He rejected the impulse to harmonize his figures with ordinary human scale or with their architectural surrounds, so as to dramatize their presence.

His sculptures have the alien force of ancient totems pulled out of dark tombs and, at the same time, the elusive, fragile specificity of old photographs. They are attenuated or “flattened out,” as the critic Jed Perl once wrote, “by the pressure of their coming into being.” The experience of walking past them or around them can be haunting. But it’s only when you stand in front of them, or in some way stand with them (from the side or directly behind can be just as effective) and focus in on them that they give up their devastating secret (which is also your secret and mine): that we’re alone, that no one else knows what’s in our heads and that we will cease to exist.

Giacometti’s father was a Post-Impressionist painter and printmaker. His way of working, based in close observation of fleeting effects, had a lasting impact on his son.

Giacometti’s Impressionistic touch took up where Rodin’s tousled, light-smashing surfaces left off. But where Rodin mobilized light to create effects of erotic vitality, Giacometti expressed an equally forceful, almost Beckettian or Kafka-esque sense of stuckness and insecurity.

Giacometti’s sculptures appear to be the result of a process of distillation, but it depends on how you look at it. Just as Claude Monet was more concerned with painting the envelope of air around his motifs than the motifs themselves, Giacometti tried to sculpt the space between himself and his subjects. That space kept getting bigger — and his human subjects skinnier — the longer he looked.

And how he looked! Giacometti lavished attention on his sitters almost as a form of prayer, a way of approaching an essence. (“The only truth,” wrote Frank O’Hara in another context, “is face to face.”) It can seem, as the critic John Berger wrote, that their “entire reality is reduced to the fact of being seen.”

But being seen is not the same as being known. Giacometti understood that other people are, in the deepest sense, unknowable. That is why he didn’t believe it possible to finish a portrait. What would “finish” look like? His apprehension was that you could spend countless hours in someone’s presence — meeting their gaze, looking away, looking back again, conversing, laughing, breaking for lunch, resuming in intimate silence and so on. You could do all this and, far from accumulating into knowledge and mutual understanding, all this experience might rather eat away at such understanding, reveal it as illusory and reinforce your ultimate isolation.

The invisible acid eating away at his figures was not pessimism, or doubt, or the expression of a passing crisis. It was factual and permanent. It was, in short, mortality.

The timing of this traveling show feels excellent. American audiences have not had quite the same relationship with Giacometti as audiences in Europe. While major painters in Europe and the United Kingdom (one thinks of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and, above all, Frank Auerbach) took him as an authentic master and a model to emulate, Americans have treated him more as a curiosity.

They saw that he epitomized a certain idea of mid-century Paris, that he was the great visual poet of existentialism and that his emaciated figures had something to do with the camps, the gulags, the ghosts of so many murdered still striding among the shellshocked living. But aside from Willem de Kooning (who was born and raised in Holland) and Cy Twombly (who lived mostly in Europe), I can think of no important American artist who took anything significant from Giacometti.

Perhaps that’s unsurprising. Giacometti was part of a generation in Europe that was neither pessimistic nor optimistic but rather forced by dint of circumstance to dispense with illusions. It was a generation that had lost interest in make-believe.

Americans, who did not experience war on their mainland, succumbed to some of this mentality, but they had less reason to let go of their illusions. And both during and after the post-war boom, American culture proved generally more concerned with proposing solutions to mortality than honestly facing it. (Americans are more religious, they smoke less, they keep plastic surgeons busier, they prefer movies about superheroes to those about real people, and many of them have taken to fantasizing about living tax-free on Mars.) Though art lovers here may admire him from afar, the general public in America has found no real use for an artist like Giacometti.

But since taking on the mantle of world leadership, America has lost several draining, ill-conceived wars. Life expectancy is declining. Almost a million people have died, profoundly isolated in their deaths, from a respiratory disease. Once a beacon of democracy, America has been seriously flirting with authoritarianism, and despite overwhelming evidence, it cannot get its political class to agree that its patterns of consumption are laying waste to the environment.

The stories with which America has long soothed itself are falling off like dead bark. Beyond optimism, beyond pessimism, America is ready for Giacometti.

Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure through June 12 at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd., Cleveland.