The many masks of modern art-IX

The question of identity in 20th-century art There is a tendency on the part of certain artists to sweep the darker side of life under the rug -- and then decorate the rug with beautiful designs.

Not so Alberto Giacometti, whose subject matter is human existence painted and sculpted as simply, starkly, and fully as he himself experienced it.

Unlike Edvard Munch, who cried out to the heavens in dread over his deepening awareness of human frailty, Giacometti calmly accepts this.

Munch asked, "Without God, can there be man?"

Giacometti asks, "Without God, who is man?"

And asks it without anger, petulance, or fear. Asks it simply as the primary question in his search for self.

Giacometti is one of the very small handful of major 20th-century artists whose art is predicted on the question "Who am I, and where am I going?"

And who risks everything to find out.

I must admit that I am heavily prejudiced in favor of this kind of artist, the kind who not only doesn't sweep the dark side of life under the rug -- but who pulls the rug back to see what lies hidden underneath, and then tosses it aside to get to the business of cleaning it up.

But these artists are hard to find. And for the simple reason that altogether too many artists, once they have peeked under the rug, spend the rest of their lives playing with what they find rahter than confronting it and turning it into art.

In many ways this is understandable. Freudian theory and dogma made it very clear in the early decades of this century that what was under the rug should be brought out into the open. And Surrealism, coming on the scene about the same time, insisted that painting this material as it was exposed to the light was the new and primary mission of art.

It was a doctrine hard to resist, for it gave license to the idiosyncratic and gave birth to the notion that the artist who had direct symbolic access to his unconcious was in many ways semi-divine.

Viewed in this light, the artist who attempted to impose rational values upon this raw material, or tried to shape it according to reasonable goals, was guilty of trying to subvert the truth unconscious inspiration. Hadn't human will, the argument went, already done enough to stifle genuine creativity?

Small wonder, then, that so many artists were perfectly content to play with -- or at most rearrange attractively -- what they found under the rug. The assumed near-sanctity of the unconscious made any tampering with its symbols, forms, or environments something very close to sacrilege.

The trouble with this uncritical compliance with Surrealist theory was that it tended to create a formal universe hermetically sealed off from human reality. A universe within which everything was everlastingly still, arid, and alien -- and where art tended more toward the visually exotic than to the emotionally and spiritually relevant.

What Surrealism ddi have going for it was a profound sense of what this century had lost when it turned its back upon the past. Its aching voids and endless spaces are reflected our cultural homesickness for greater and more monumental times. Surrealism, of all the major art movements of the 20 th-century, remembered what it was like to be great. Its tragedy was that its monuments were artificial ones constructed from the rubble of what had been torn down -- and that its space was the void previously occupied by powerful beliefs and powerful gods.

Giacometti was a Surrealist until 1935, when his views and those of the movement began to differ -- and he was "officially" expelled. This break had been precipitated by his renewed interest in working from life and by his incresing fascination with the processes of perception.

No longer satisfied with the inventive and emotionally detached games played under the protective canopy of Surrealist dogma, Giacometti turned to grappling with the nature and the act of seeing.

This opened the whole question of the optical phenomenon of reality -- the relationship between a figure and its enveloping space, the relationship of man to the void and of being to nothingness. At the same time he claimed to have little or no interest in the philosophical or metaphysical implications of these questions, claimed only to be interested in the dynamics of perception, in the aesthetic application of these questions to his art.

And there is no reason to doubt him, for he was an artist before all else, and so to him life's most profound questions could only engage him through the realities and the issues of art.

This is something too little understood by the general public. To a profound extent, an artist ism his art, his craft, his medium. Art is not merely something he uses to clarify his position or to give point to his vision of life , but is, rather, the very substance of who he is and what he wants to say.

Paint squeezed onto a palette by Van Gogh underwent a profound transformation as it encountered his sensibilities and then burst onto the canvas as a living part of that artist's creativity. The same was true of the more monumental Cezanne, the more delicate Lautrec, and the more exuberant Matisse. Each of them became a bit more himself by the externalization and projection of a portion of his creative identity onto canvas.

The same was true of Giacometti. By struggling with the problem of what he actually saw of a figure within enveloping space, he was also struggling with the problem of who he was within his enveloping universe.

Now I realize I am on dangerous ground, that neither Giacometti's writings nor his recorded interviews substantiate such a statement. But I have what I think is irrefutable evidence for my position. And that is the work itself, the thousands of drawings, paintings, and sculptures Giacometti produced from 1935 on.

If ever there was evidence of soul-searching it is here in these stark, direct, frontal studies of humanity within a totally 20th-century space predicated both upon Surrealist void and Cubist structure. "Diego," pictured on this page, is a good example. It is about as typical a piece from his hand as one can find, and it literally begs the question of identity.

"Who am I?" it asks, "embedded as I am in the middle of 20th-century perceptual and philosophical realities -- and where am I going?"

The question is asked with infinite patience, and without shouting or crying out.

The painting itself is the question, the question Giacometti asked over and over again, day after day, as he confronted the evidence before him. He never found the answer, but his questions remain among the most profound and disquieting ones of our century.

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