Thursday, October 14, 2010

Giacometti's Women by Emily Larsen

While in Venice this past Summer on an Art History study abroad, a few of us spent hours and hours soaking in the art at the Peggy Guggenheim museum. For the past three weeks we had been looking at the sculpture and architecture of Ancient Greece, monumental Roman ruins, Early Christian and Byzantine mosaics, and countless religious artworks of the Renaissance and Baroque periods ( I know, rough life ;) ) - needless to say, we were craving some 20th century visual culture! Towards the end of our stay at the Guggenheim we found ourselves in front of two startlingly different depictions of women by the 20th century Swiss sculptor, Alberto Giacometti. We stood in the gallery discussing the complexity of the two works, displayed just feet away from one another, with one of the gallery interns.

The first image, Woman with her Throat Cut, 1932, is a violent, abstracted depiction of the female form. The Peggy Guggenheim museum website states, from 1930 - 1933 Giacometti was making surrealist works that used anatomical representations to express subconscious fear and anger (partially due to his associations with André Masson and other surrealist artists). On her back, with no head to think with, this woman is weak. But although weak, and incompetent, she is still dangerous - a temptress, scorpion like - wild and vicious. She is the ultimate depiction of the femme fatale - abstracted, sexualized, and dangerous - but with no real intellectual threat, or ability. In my opinion (feel free to disagree), it is one of the most demeaning images of women in the art historical canon.

However, just four years after creating this gruesome, brutal image of a woman - he created Woman Walking, 1936 - a beautiful, elegant, elongated depiction of the female form. Her sexuality is not emphasized. She is not dangerous, or violent, or gruesome. In fact, Giacometti is hearkening back to early Greek Cycladic figures with their simplified, flat anatomy (as well as referencing Egyptian sculptures, and Archaic Kouros figures source). This is significant because women were extremely important in Ancient Aegean societies - both being worshiped, and as worshipers, carrying out the most important aspects of religious ceremonies.

What do you think caused this drastic change in Giacometti's visual representation of women? The intern at the museum recalled that between 1932 and 1936 Giacometti had met a girl and fallen in love.

What are your other thoughts about these sculptures? Do you find Woman with her Throat Cut as problematic and misogynistic as I do? How would you compare Giacometti's more well-known sculptures of women walking with these two earlier works? Why do you think Peggy Guggenheim would have collected these works?


  1. While much less violent and much more traditionally beautiful, I still find the second sculpture problematic in a Ralph-Lauren-photoshoping-his-models-into-oblivion kind of way. Also, I would argue that her sexuality is still emphasized (she is all torso and no head!) Woman with her Throat Cut is problematic, don't get me wrong, but if it is a legitimate expression of his fear of female kind (which I do not know it to me or not to be) then I think it is no more problematic than other artists who exploited female sexuality. If it was an expression of anger, then it is all kinds of scary. Maybe I am overly psychoanalyzing this.

    As far as Peggy Guggenheim's purchase, I wonder when she acquired both statues and if it was just a way of promoting a favorite artist, or a more culturally/socially motivated decision.

  2. I actually have to disagree with you here Emily. I too find the 2nd sculpture by Giacometti to be much more problematic. I went to the Hirshorn today and was thinking a lot about women's bodies in relation to subjects of art. It has led to me to the question of. . . why? Why always the body, and more explicitly the torso? Why a woman's body and not men's? Why male desire instead of female? Or should we shun desire altogether? But that's for another post.

    In response, I personally don't like the idea of over-sexualizing a woman, even in an abstracted form, but I do appreciate the passion given to "Woman with her Throat Cut." So often in art women are given bodies to look at, but are never allowed to feel those dangerous passions typically associated with male genius, be it anger, sexual drive, or just that "I don't know what I'm feeling but I'm kind of going crazy" feeling. I'm also not trying to say that all "passions" are justifiable, especially given that the title leans to the idea of violence & abuse. However, I feel like the form matches the intensity, whereas I can't reconcile myself to a headless torso that constantly shows the classical normalized sexual aspects of a female body.

    We are more than bodies, and while I don't like the idea of manipulating a woman's body in art, I think that it is the idea of a woman as a real human being capable of feeling all of the thoughts, insights, and frustrations that a male can that needs to be considered.

    On another note, I saw a female Giacometti work today at the Hirshorn that I quite liked, so at least I can be comfortable with the fact that he eventually came around.

  3. I think you both are right - the second is also problematic. But, I feel like it isn't as problematic for the following reason: I read on the Guggenheim website that he chose to depict the second sculpture headless and armless to reference Classical Greek statuary, that is the same reason she is nude (or one of the reasons). Because he is hearkening back to Classical times, it doesn't bother me as much - because I feel like it is a more empowering connection to make (in this case - I don't think all references to Antiquity justify nudity/objectifying the female form, but I feel like in this case it makes the nudity/headlessness more explainable).

    Kalisha - I agree, I quite like most of Giacometti's sculptures - and I think it is OK that he depicted the first one, I just think it is such an awful way to depict a woman and I think it is WAY more about Giacometti's feelings towards women (at the time) than about a woman's own feelings of anger or passion.

    However, I think the most intriguing thing is how different the two sculptures are! It fascinates me how different the two depictions are in only four years ... and I think also, that they are so different from each other makes both of them less problematic - as obviously there is a wide range of thought and opinion and view of women and the female form from Giacometti.

  4. Yes, I know what you mean- it is definitely fascinating to see the differences in the way that he has approached these. And you're probably right about the way he treats his subjects as being reflective of his own feelings of treating women. As a note, I find almost anything in the 1930's & 40's dealing with women's bodies to be problematic. . . to say nothing of Surrealism, Man Ray, and de Kooning. Oh well, way to bring it to public light!

  5. I just finished a book on Giacometti; his life revolved around prostitutes and apparently he was often impotent; he was abusive in his relationships yet had his share of beauties fighting for his affections. In short, he was the 1950s archetype, the man who was raped or molested as a boy, filed with self hatred and an inability to express emotions and perhaps even gay. He carried the virgin / whore desire but it was for himself, not others - the portraits of woemn, in other words, were really of him. That is my take.

  6. Wentworth - thanks for the comment, this was just an off the cuff kind of analysis as I know very little about Giacometti, so it is nice to hear from a true expert.