Giacometti's world. His anxious, somber figures may be less symbolic than we thought

Alberto Giacometti hammered out his reputation as a celebrated 20th-century sculptor with attenuated, anxious bronze figures that some consider a symbol of contemporary alienation. But a Giacometti retrospective that opened recently at the Hirshhorn Museum here suggests it was the artist's own strange vision and not symbolism which moved him. Valerie Fletcher, curator of the show, explains, ``He said he didn't see people the way other people saw them. He saw them sometimes as thin streaks or stains or blobs - not clearly. And that had nothing to do with eyesight. It was just a sort of sudden dichotomy between normal vision and a sort of hallucinatory vision.''

In the show's catalog, Ms. Fletcher notes that Giacometti had described an experience in a Montparnasse movie theater in 1945, ``when he suddenly noticed a discontinuity between normal vision and the way he saw the world.'' She quotes him as saying there was a schism in his vision of the world. ``Everything was different: depth, objects, colors, silence ... and [it was] completely new.''

In this retrospective exhibition (1901-66) there are 105 works, among them 30 paintings and 24 drawings, which may surprise those who invariably think of Giacometti in terms of sculpture (represented by 51 of the works here).

Standing in the middle of this artist's sculptural world, which sometimes looks like a giant, bronzed taffy pull, you wonder how much relationship there was between his sculpture, painting, and drawings. ``Oh, yes,'' says Ms. Fletcher. ``The artist himself said any number of times that drawing and painting and sculpture were significantly interrelated in his art.''

In some cases the drawings and paintings help to unlock the mystery of the sculpture. You can almost trace the refining of his sculptural style as he moves from pictures of forms, like the 1951 oil ``Standing Nude'' of his wife, Annette, elongated as an El Greco, her small head and narrow body a ghostly gray. His bronze sculpture ``Large Standing Woman IV,'' done in 1960, is nearly nine feet tall, slender as a reed, with similar, rigid hands at her sides and large feet that become platforms for the figure.

This is the first American museum retrospective in 15 years to pay homage to this Swiss-born artist. The exhibition includes masterpieces and little-known works. It jumps the decades, from the curved primitivism of ``Spoon Woman'' (1920s) to the Surrealist Freudian nightmare ``Woman With Her Throat Cut,'' to his Existentialist period (Sartre and Beckett were among his friends), to his mature style - with such major sculptures as ``Head of a Man on a Rod,'' ``The Nose,'' and ``The Chariot.''

The Giacometti show continues at the Hirshhorn until Nov. 13, then moves to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Dec. 15-Feb. 5, 1989.

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