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Thursday, June 15, 2006

ALBERTO GIACOMETTI

Sculptor's immobile muse helped him see inner man


Special to The Japan Times

Art is often likened to a mirror, suggesting that what viewers really want is a glimpse of themselves. In Japan, this frequently means that any exhibition of Monet, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec -- just about any Impressionist or post-Impressionist painter, really -- is sure to elicit a few catalog essays on the dusty old ukiyo-e print that appears in a photograph of the artist's atelier.

News photo
Japanese existentialist Isaku Yanaihara (portrayed below left) would pose for hours for Alberto Giacometti while discussing philosophy with the sculptor. Curator Mina Lee believes the influence of their conversations can be seen in later Giacometti works such as 1965's "Buste d'Homme (New York II)"

Such efforts to highlight a "Japanese connection" usually feel forced and overstated, so it was with some trepidation that I visited the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art Hayama that pairs the name of the greatest sculptor of the 20th century -- Alberto Giacometti -- with a comparatively unknown Japanese intellectual -- Isaku Yanaihara. What could have possibly driven the curators down there on the Kanagawa coast to give the lowly Yanaihara equal billing with the great Giacometti, except the need to localize the exhibition for the consumption of Japanese audiences?

Curator Mina Lee is quick to counter such skepticism.

"I'm surprised that people would think that," she says, "because usually these kinds of connections were originally made by European and American curators."

The exhibition strives to cover the full span of Giacometti's career with some fine examples of his early Cubist and Surrealist works, but it is the post-World War II work and the connection with Yanaihara, which lasted from 1955 to 1961, that forms its core. There is no denying the intimacy of the two men's connection, especially as the exhibition makes it clear that Yanaihara was -- with the full knowledge of Giacometti -- the lover of Giacometti's wife. In a very Parisian way, this was a convenient situation for everyone, as it left the artist free to pursue affairs elsewhere.

Following WWII, Giacometti started to develop the two main forms for which he is famous -- elongated standing or walking human figures with barely recognizable facial features and busts that concentrate on the face. His rudimentary figures have been interpreted as symbols of the endurance and dignity of mankind in the 20th century, and it's even been said that they were inspired by the emaciated inmates of concentration camps. Whatever the inspiration, the figures fill a large space with their presence.

News photo
Giacometti's ``Yanaihara I'' (1960)

Lee's favorite piece, "Petit nu debout" (1956), is a 9-cm high plaster figure which fits perfectly in an exhibition room filled with letters, doodles and sketches. It is this quality of a single figure surrounded by space, or combinations of figures separated by it, that appealed to intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, the founder of existentialism, who introduced Yanaihara to Giacometti. The artist himself was deeply interested in this philosophy, which emphasizes the separateness and loneliness of the human condition.

More important to the concept of the exhibition, though, are Giacometti's busts, which, in contrast to his elongated standing figures, have complex and recognizable facial features. Because he required models to sit or stand for hours, Giacometti often had trouble finding suitable people to pose for him.

"That's why his main models were his brother Diego and Annette, his wife," Lee says. "Outside his family, Yanaihara was Giacometti's most important model. From 1956 to 1961, Yanaihara posed for Giacometti on 230 days. Whereas Annette and Diego wanted to take a break every two hours, Yanaihara never moved. It's even said that he had enough patience to pose for 10 hours at a time."

Another advantage that Yanaihara had as a model was his ability to converse with Giacometti, while he worked, about existentialism and other intellectual subjects -- something that Diego and Annette were less apt to.

Giacometti's busts up to the second half of the '50s, such as 1954's "Buste de Diego," and especially 1957's "Buste de Diego," are attempts to deal with the problem of combining a frontal view with a profile, something he almost pulls off in the 1957 work by making the head so thin that you can switch between a recognizable front view and profile by merely swaying a few centimeters to the side. Despite his stylistic tendency to create extremely narrow heads, Giacometti at this time was actually striving for heightened realism. Through his association with Yanaihara, though, the actual shape of the head and the true physical appearance of the subject became less important than the mental impression Giacometti had.

"Giacometti never said that sculpting an Oriental face is difficult or different," says Lee. "When he worked with Yanaihara, he was more interested in his model's inner mind than his head shape."

Two large plaster busts and many sketches and oil paintings depicting Yanaihara document this more cerebral modeling, with Giacometti's efforts focused on capturing the spirit of the man.

"Before, in his busts, we can clearly find the face of Diego," Lee comments. "He is focused on the proportions and the technical problems of art. But through his relationship with Yanaihara we see that he starts to look at art in a more symbolic way."

Later busts such as 1961's "Buste d'Homme" and 1965's "Buste d'Homme (New York II)" seem to bear this out. They are less about angles and effects and have a more expressive or emotive atmosphere than their predecessors, giving a greater sense of the artist meeting and understanding the man.

If this was due to the influence of the Japanese intellectual Yanaihara, then this is one exhibition of a major Western artist in which the "Japanese connection" should truly be celebrated.

"Alberto Giacometti and Yanaihara Isaku" at the Museum of Modern Art, Hayama, runs till July 30 before traveling to the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art (Aug. 8-Oct. 1) and Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art (Oct. 10-Dec. 3). For more information, call (046) 875-2800 or visit www.moma.pref.kanagawa.jp/museum


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