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A CRITICAL HISTORY
OF 20TH-CENTURY ART

by Donald Kuspit
 
Chapter 3, Part 2
Subjectivity and Society: The Third Decade

4

If there is any one, consistent purpose to Surrealism, it is to bring into question, and finally undo, the conventional idea of reality as stable and self-evident.

As Breton wrote, "let us not forget that for us, in this era, it is reality itself that is involved."(23) The heroes of this era are Einstein and Freud, as Breton says, because they show that reality is not what it seems to be. Both show that reality is relative to the observer. That is, they suggest "the sovereignty of the mind" over reality, to use Breton's lofty phrase, or at least the mind's implication in it. At the same time, they reveal the "hidden reality" in which "there is more to be found" than in immediate reality, as Breton says, quoting Gaston Bachelard. Surrealism's task is to confirm all this -- to demonstrate the mind's rule over immediate reality, while at the same time showing what can be found in hidden reality. Or, as Dalí more simply stated, the Surrealist work of art "systematizes confusion. . . and so assist[s] in discrediting completely the world of [everyday] reality."(24)

For all the diversity of its works, Surrealism involves two fundamental processes: the suspension of reality testing and, correlatively, the construction of what Wilfred Bion calls "bizarre objects," that is, dream objects or objects with a dream-like, indeed nightmarish, reality. It involves a deliberate regression to the paranoid-schizoid position, as Melanie Klein calls it, and with this, "simulations of mental diseases," to use Dalí's words. The more interesting Surrealist artists -- or artists who were at one time or another associated with Surrealism, for many moved on or came into conflict with Breton -- like Jean Arp, Antonin Artaud, Hans Bellmer, Victor Brauner, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, René Magritte, André Masson and Yves Tanguy, never abandoned the splitting and fragmentation characteristic of the paranoid-schizoid position, suggesting that they never really emerged from it into the mature depressive position, and that their works are expressions rather than simulations of mental illness.(25)

Michael Balint's account of reality testing is useful in understanding just exactly what the Surrealist suspension of it involves and how it results in what might be called a lame duck, bizarre reality, in which objects are composed of incongruous parts, making them "surreal" (all the more so because the parts never form an organic whole). The Surrealist object remains unfinished and ill-formed, that is, permanently arrested in its formation, and as such, "unsightly." Reality is, as Dalí might say, diseased, mental illness reified. Reality testing involves four steps, Balint writes: "The first is to decide whether the sensations are coming from within or from without. The second step is to infer from the sensations what it is that causes them. I shall call this step the object formation. Very closely connected with it is the third step, to find the significance of the sensations. The problem to solve is: what does it mean to me that I perceive them? This step could be called the interpretation or finding of the meaning. The fourth step is then to find the correct reaction to the perceived sensations."(26)

How do the Surrealists subvert these steps? First, they equivocate about the source of the sensations, refusing to decide whether they come from within or from without. Secondly, they assume that the sensations appear spontaneously, as though they caused themselves, or have no cause. They are mysteriously given. Such enigmatic sensations can never congeal into a clear and distinct object. It is hard to interpret the resulting aborted object, or rather, one can find whatever meaning one wants in it, since it has no clear meaning of its own, that is, no meaning bound to its integrity or wholeness, for it has none. It is a sum of exciting sensations -- rudimentary fragments of sense experience -- which do not add up to a whole object. As such, it has no overall meaning or, ultimately, any meaning, for the sensations, unintegrated, seem primordially given, that is, so consummately concrete they preclude symbolization. Finally, there being nothing correct or exact about the Surrealist object -- it is inherently incorrect and unintelligible, as its bizarreness indicates -- there can be no correct or proper reaction to it: It becomes a stimulating screen -- the exciting surface of Leonardo's wall -- in which every viewer can find his or her own mental landscape. The Surrealist hallucination is a composite of conflicting sensations in a state of suspended reality, which adds to their bizarreness, that is, their sense of unreality.

In fact, the basic goal of the Surrealists is to generate a sense of unreality -- not simply of aborted reality, but of the not-real, indeed, the never-to-be-real. Surrealist artists want the viewer to experience unreality through their works, and find in them a clue to his or her own hidden reality. The works themselves are fantasies of unreality generated by the hidden reality in the artist: the "more" that can be found in hidden reality is the ultimate unreality of it all.

5
The epitome of the Surrealist work of art is the so-called "exquisite corpse." It originated in a kind of group game. One player writes a phrase on a piece of paper, folds it to conceal part of what had been written, and passes the paper to another player, who writes something in response to the words that remain visible. This continues until every player has his say.

The assumption is that the collective unconscious of the group will produce a sentence that, however technically unintelligible, makes profound emotional sense. One sentence thus produced was "The exquisite corpse will drink the young wine" -- whence the label "exquisite corpse." It's suggestiveness is a function of its contradictoriness. "Corpse" implies death; "young wine," fresh life. Thus the beginning and the end are brought together. It also seems contradictory, not to say perverse, to call a corpse "exquisite." The sentence is absurd, but its details are evocative, separately and in combination. The importance of the exquisite corpse is that it is a collaborative work of art, and as such undermines the traditional idea of the independent author. More subtly, it suggests that each of its authors has something unconscious in common.

In fact, what they usually have in common are those old standbys, sex and aggression. Thus the visual exquisite corpse made by Jacques Hérold, Yves Tanguy and Victor Brauner about 1932 shows a manneristically elongated female figure with a small head and a huge erect penis. It is a crudely executed cartoon, with some amusing details. Appended to the tip of the penis is a text in a balloon, as though the penis could talk. The figure's womb is a niche in which a female head and a male hand, caressing it, appear together. Bubbles emerge from the mouth of the head, as though it was underwater. Both head and hand seem to be photographs, indicating that the work is a collage. The figure holds an apple in its left hand, a perfume sprayer in its right hand, and wears, on its head, what look like three bonnets or lamp shades, one on top of each other. The body, with its poorly matched breasts, is sexually mature, but the face high above it, on a long neck, is that of a very young, innocent-looking girl. The headdress is a kind of fetish that turns the figure into a phallic woman. Indeed, she belongs to the same family of fantasy as Henry Fuseli's authoritarian woman, as the resemblance in phallic coiffure indicates. The Hérold-Tanguy-Brauner exquisite corpse is a perverse if comic construction of a perverse if tragic young woman -- the seductive femme fatale. The first such temptress was the sexually inexperienced and emotionally naive Eve with the apple, as the work itself makes clear. Here the girl-woman Eve adds perfume to her stock of charms, modernizing her. The comic effect is a defense against what is emotionally disturbing. In short, while the exquisite corpse may look surprising at first, it is not hard to read. The image readily creates associations. In the end, one finds oneself looking at something familiar, however distorted, as though in a dream.

Exquisite corpses are still being made, as "The Return of the Exquisite Corpse," a '90s exhibition, indicates. The newer ones seem more like virtuoso performances than spontaneous expressions, more visually provocative than unconsciously evocative. The sense of unforced revelation has been replaced by the facile manipulation of the already revealed, often by popular culture, which seems to have a monopoly on sex and aggression.

The already seen -- indeed, the all-too-often-seen -- has replaced the freshly seen. Perversity has become stylized, indeed, high style, suggesting that it has lost its novelty and mystery. The obscene has become "the scene," and a standardized one, with mass appeal, at that. Indeed, the bizarre has become a populist cliché. There is really no emotional tension -- indeed, nothing even visually startling -- in the slick juxtapositions of the 1992 exquisite corpse of Julie Ault, Cindy Sherman and Marc Tauss, however bold their contrast. The work is clearly manufactured and seems unfelt, compared to the Hérold-Tanguy-Brauner exquisite corpse, which in its naiveté seems created out of experience. There is a sense of subjective immediacy to it that is lacking in the over-mediated, mechanically sophisticated images -- all appropriated and thus doubly objectified -- in the Ault-Sherman-Tauss exquisite corpse. The friction between Ault's phallic rocket in the upper register, Sherman's ironically grotesque female nude construction in the middle register, and Tauss' dirty feet in the lower register ignites no emotional spark, however intellectually clever. (One wonders if the rocket is a reference to Robert Rauschenberg, who had made it into a theme in the '60s. If so, Ault's rocket is a bit of postmodern nostalgia, that is, the backward, self-conscious look at art history that signals the end of avant-garde advance, not to say the conclusion of its history. Rockets in general have become a standard part of the cultural landscape rather than technological miracles, suggesting that Ault is bogged down in postmodern nostalgia with or without reference to modern art.)

The rocket head, dummy body, and feet form a whimsical figure, like the Hérold-Tanguy-Brauner figure, but the result remains an accumulation of sophisticated signifiers -- a tower of visual Babel, as it were, for the images are from different discourses -- rather than an ironical restoration of a sinister archetype. It is the difference between the modern and postmodern exquisite corpse, and modern and postmodern Surrealism. Jaded Pop Surrealism, which cynically knows everything beforehand -- with postmodern pseudo-sophistication -- without having experienced it, has replaced the Surrealism that was once an adventure into unknown visual territory, where it found what it knew to be emotionally true, however strange. Thus what was unexpected has become expected, even foreordained.

In a sense, every Surrealist work is the detail of an exquisite corpse, with the viewer's imagination.

6
For all their provocative wishes and cunning inventions, the Surrealists were concerned with the tragedy of being human. Psychoanalysis confirmed it, and rationalized it, but their rebellion against pure art -- art which eschewed the human and tragic sense of life -- began with their experience of the first world war. Breton's first Surrealist manifesto was written six years after the end of the war, but his experience of the conflict shaped his ideas. His fascination with violence suggests as much. His famous description of Surrealism as psychic automatism without the inhibiting controls of reason, morality and esthetics sounds like a diagnosis of the war mentality. It involves the uninhibited expression of aggression with no concern for the moral consequences, let alone its devastating effect on the world, which becomes an ugly place. No doubt ugliness, irrationality and moral indifference can be estheticized, which is what the Surrealists and Neue Sachlichkeit artists did, but this fact hardly redeems them.

It has been said that Cubism arrived on a wave of optimism about modernity, but the first world war turned it to pessimism. But even Cubism internalized the insidious negativity of modernity -- its pursuit of efficiency seemed to spoil the pleasure of life -- and defensively estheticized it. At the very least, like a good deal of early avant-garde art, it struggled to master what seemed unavoidable in modernity, and thus unconsciously traumatizing, for one could do nothing about it: the machine, which came to symbolize not only efficiency but uniformity and standardization. Geometricizing the organic and finally, in Synthetic Cubism, replacing it altogether, or at least allowing the geometrical to dominate and subsume the organic -- the struggle between organically alive nature and unchanging geometric form, along with the slow but steady transformation of the former into the latter, is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Cubism -- the Cubist picture becomes a kind of machine, an abstract construction functioning as a "picture," if no longer exactly a window on the world.

It is because of the tension between the organic and the geometric -- emblematic of the authority of modern analytic intellect and technological innovation -- that Cubism is the first genuinely modern art, that is, the first art to truly engage modernity. Fauvism celebrated the organic, unconsciously in defiance of the machines that were taking over the world -- certainly appearing everywhere in everyday life -- while Dadaism and Surrealism fetishized the machine, often substituting it for the organic human body. Sometimes machine and body seamlessly fused -- a hopeful reconciliation of opposites, resulting in a new modern "integrity." Abstract mannequins and robot-like figures begin to proliferate, such as those that appear in George Grosz's Republican Automatons (1920) and on Oskar Schlemmer's Bauhaus Staircase (1932). In Dix's Dr. Mayer-Herman (1926), the globe of the X-Ray machine competes uneasily with the bulbous body of the doctor for our attention. He may in fact be a kind of machine underneath his sterile white smock. There is a subtle absurdity to the portrait, no different in principle from the sense that the machine has made the lifeworld an absurd place, which is what Cubism conveys.

In the '20s, with the emergence of the Bauhaus, with its credo of applied abstraction -- abstraction in the service of design, whether of buildings, furniture or tableware, and, more generally, the integration of abstraction and technology -- the great divide in 20th century art became explicit. It had already appeared at the beginning of the century: An unprejudiced look at early modern art reveals that, alongside Cubism, which is a kind of art pour l'art, the human figure, as a vehicle for tragic humanism, remained an enduring theme, most obviously in the so-called peintres maudits, for example, Marc Chagall, Amadeo Modigliani and Chaim Soutine -- all Jewish outsiders who came to Paris to assimilate avant-garde art without abandoning their "difference," not to say idiosyncratic identity and personal history. The so-called "return to order," and the magic realism associated with it, had less to do with a rebellion against avant-gardism and a return to the idea of a timeless art -- avant-garde art is inherently transient, for the sensation of newness must be sustained, so that exciting breakthrough follows exciting breakthrough, startling innovation follows startling innovation, with a quixotic mania that leaves little time for development let alone maturation, corrupting the idea of originality -- than with the determination to develop a modern humanistic art. Surrealism was part of that determination, as was the Neue Sachlichkeit.

Clement Greenberg once wrote: "The present age as much as any in history lacks an operative notion, a viable concept of the human being -- a lack that is one of the 'still centers' around which the crisis of our times revolves."(29) Many artists struggled to develop a viable concept of the human being -- not a new concept of art, however much they sometimes used trendy new ideas from avant-garde art, that is, modern art pour l'art, to make their all-too-human point more emphatically, suggesting that the traditional means of doing so had become stale and that the traditional concept of the human being had become an obsolete stereotype -- or at least sustain the idea of the human in a world that seemed increasingly inhuman, as the first world war and the dominance of technology demonstrated. Just as Cubism involved an expanded sense of art pour l'art, deepening and refining it so that it came to involve the deconstruction and reconstruction of the image and, simultaneously, the articulation of the medium as an end in itself, so the new humanist artists sometimes used Cubism to convey the modern sense of the human being as basically conflicted, that is, torn between the destructive and constructive, the regressive and progressive, irrational impulses and rational ideas, and, above all, obsessed with and dominated by time rather than eternity, as in Chagall's Homage to Apollinaire (1911-12).

Perhaps the most important of the modern humanist artists was Alberto Giacometti, especially because his work shows the conflict -- which he never entirely resolved -- between surreally inspired art pour l'art, that is, suggestive abstraction, and the attempt to re-articulate the human being in modern terms, that is, to articulate the situation and mentality of the modern self-tortured human being. Giacometti had briefly been a Surrealist (1930-34) and became a painter and sculptor of all-too-human figures, using people who were personally meaningful to him, such as his wife Annette and brother Diego, as well as, after the Second World War, Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet, to make his existential point. Brilliantly reconciling the Surreal sense of the mystery hidden in every human being with the tragic sense of human vulnerability, these uncanny portraits, whether in two or three dimensions -- each figure is in fact simultaneously flat and rounded, as though to convey the tension between its mental reserve and its body, its seemingly flat affect and unequivocally mortal presence -- are dream pictures of human suffering at its most subtly intense, even as each solitary figure seems to epitomize the miseries of modern social history.

Like the Surrealists and Neue Sachlichkeit artists, Giacometti struggled with the trauma of world war, but while they revealed, with whatever defensive irony and graphic ingenuity, its disastrous effects on human life, suggesting that there was no way to repair it and thus in a sense capitulating to their own trauma, Giacometti showed human beings holding their own against the meaninglessness the war left in its wake -- human beings with enough ego to emotionally survive, however traumatized they were. Giacometti's portraits are an amazing act of faith in humanity at a time there was no reason to have any. In a sense, the disillusionment that began with the First World War, which betrayed the civilizing ideals of reason, morality and beauty, reached its inevitable climax with the Second World War, whose atrocities destroyed the last vestiges of faith and hope in modern life. Giacometti's empathic re-affirmation of human dignity, in the face of overwhelming emotional as well as physical annihilation, and the anxiety that accompanied it -- annihilative anxiety is what makes the skin of Giacometti's figures crawl and crumble, for all their apparently invincible uprightness -- is a triumph of human belief in a situation in which there is nothing human to believe in.

In a sense, Giacometti fell back on the personal and the individual as the last hope for the ideal, while the Surrealists and Neue Sachlichkeit artists saw only anonymous impersonal forces, whether in the unconscious or in mass society, that devalued the individual they animated. Giacometti's figures are not puppets of forces beyond their control, but beings who will themselves into existence despite the nothingness -- the immense empty spaces, whether actual or fictional, that are an essential part of Giacometti's works, and whose stillness suggests death -- that surrounds them. Self-preservative in a social vacuum, they are dispassionate milestones of inner life, that last refuge. Giacometti, for all his sense of human tragedy and frailty, and the ultimate futility of human life, was a desperate optimist, trying to reverse an irreversible tide of death, or stand up to its strong undertow, while the Surrealists and Neue Sachlichkeit artists were complete pessimists, for they saw no alternative to human self-destructiveness, the final confirmation of human irrationality.

Giacometti's portraits are an artistic as well as existential feat: They reconcile the modern idea that the work of art is fundamentally abstract whatever it communicates with the modern sense that human beings are fundamentally conflicted however outwardly integrated they may appear. What these apparently irreconcilable ideas share is a sense of fragmentation: The modern figure tends to be a tense construction of abstract fragments. They often seem at odds with each other, so much so that the whole they form seems imposed and merely technical. Indeed, they seem mechanically manipulated rather than imaginatively transformed. Like the modern human being, the modern work of art often looks like a precarious balancing act, so that it seems to be about falling apart as much as hanging together, that is, about anarchic disintegration and nominal integration. As the poet W. B. Yeats famously wrote, "the center does not hold, all things fall apart" in modernity. The problem of modern art and modern man is how to create a center that can anchor a whole while showing that modern human beings sooner or later fall apart. Giacometti is one of the few artists who are able to give human beings a center that enables them to hold their own and hold together while showing them in a precarious state of being -- in danger of self-loss, for both personal and social reasons, and thus spiritual and even physical collapse.

In 1927, Giacometti made three portraits busts of his father, one naturalistic and two abstract, that is, one carefully describing his father's face, seemingly down to the least detail, and two reducing it to a shadowy sketch inscribed on the shape of his head, presented as an abstract form in itself -- as almost pure geometry. In one abstraction the head is carved, in the other it is molded, and in both cases it is flattened into a plane, making its shape more emphatic. In 1925, he had already made Torso, an abstract figure, and in 1926-27 he produced Cubist Composition: Man, a rather chunky figure made of heavy blocks arranged in a geometrical composition. The Dancers of that same year seems pre-Columbian in spirit, the totemic Spoon Woman of 1926-27 has a more African look, although the use of a giant spoon for the torso seems ironical, even subliminally Dadaist. The flattened spoon curves outward, suggesting a bosom, and then slopes inward, becoming concave where there should be a belly, a reversal of physical reality that implies a certain misogyny. Indeed, Giacometti seems to be scooping out woman's body -- flattening it and reducing it to an abstract icon which seems to have more formal than feminine reality. This anti-woman attitude becomes explicit in perhaps his most sensational Surrealist work, Woman with Her Throat Cut (1932). The spoon body has now been cut open, as though on an anatomy table -- this already occurred in Project For a Passageway (1930) -- with some of its parts strewn around, if still attached to one another, and the throat manneristically elongated, the cut becoming a kind of crease in a series of ridges. The figure, which resembles a kind of praying mantis -- the female consumes the male after copulation -- has all but lost its sexual identity (a semblance of breasts remain), suggesting that it has been emotionally as well as physically eviscerated in Giacometti's fantasy. But this act of hatred and revenge is also ingeniously abstract: It is a tension of curves and angles, condensations and elongations, that show Giacometti struggling for epigrammatic brevity with no loss of emotional complexity and mystery.

For all the abstract wit and sexual innuendos of Giacometti's Surrealist works, which become increasingly abbreviated, theatrical and toy-like, as The Palace at 4 A.M. (1932) and Flower in Danger (1933) indicate, he remains deeply attached to the figure, as Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object) (1934) makes clear. Even such works as Disagreeable Object, To Be Thrown Away and Disagreeable Object (both 1931) are figures, however perversely phallic. They are in fact derived from Family Portrait (1931), one of several works in which Giacometti articulates his sense of family hierarchy. In Man, Woman and Child (1931), the open-armed woman seems to be protecting the baby ball from the knife-like man. Giacometti in fact never escaped his family, as his 1937 painting of his mother -- ten years after his portrait bust of her -- indicates. That same year he painted Apple on the Sideboard twice, a domestic interior which suggests his continued sense of his humble position in the family as well as his desperate need for its comfort. The Surrealist abstract ball has been transformed into a real apple, and the tabletop of the Surrealist table pieces -- their flattening of the pedestal on which the figures stand is an innovative triumph -- has become the stone top of the sideboard. Giacometti is desperate for the safety of domestic life, with its promise of shelter, intimacy and support.

The need grew acute during the second world war. Such sculptures as Small Bust on a Double Pedestal and Small Figure on a Pedestal (both 1940-45) convey the sense of isolation he felt -- he had moved back to Switzerland, his homeland, after living in Paris -- but also the sense of determination. After the war he returned to his studio in Paris, which had been kept intact by his brother Diego, and married a Swiss woman, Annette. Diego became the subject of several of his most remarkable postwar portrait busts and portrait paintings, among them the Bust of Diego and the painting Diego in a Plaid Shirt (both 1954). Annette, whose naked elongated figure had already appeared in the sculpture Woman with Chariot and the painting Nude (both 1942-43), became the model for many similar indomitable, archaicizing figures. All of Giacometti's figures, whether full-bodied or spare flesh, tend to be both manneristic and expressionistic. They are doubly dynamic. Richly textured, with a fluid surface that resembles a sea of turbulent, forceful gestures, their bodies stretch into space, marking it with their mournful yet vivid presence. Are they evanescent wraiths or indestructible individualists? They seem marked by death but intact and indomitable -- disintegrating yet majestically self-assured and integrated. For all their ambiguity, they are authentically who they are -- self-identified rather than playing a role. They are the epitome of D. W. Winnicott's True Self, rooted in the spontaneous gesture and personal idea, in a false world that has abandoned it. Confronting us with their bodies and penetrating us with their eyes, Giacometti's figures are symbols of endurance in an unbearable world.

Commenting on his emaciated, elongated, static sculptural figures, with their ambiguous aura of abandonment, nobility and detachment -- emancipation and emptiness, both connected to the fact that they are incapable of relating to others -- Giacometti stated: "The form undid itself; it was little more than specks moving in a deep black void."(30) What we see in such sculptures as Walking Man (1947) and Standing Woman (1948) is the form of the figure undoing itself without completely dissolving into space. It may assert itself, as Man Pointing and The Nose (both 1947) do, but in vain: however vigorous, it is a gesture in the void -- a temporary erection, as it were, like the figure itself. The world is a void for Giacometti; it hardly exists outside his studio, which he sketches and paints many times. Giacometti's model was Tintoretto, whose figures he admired. But Tintoretto's figures dissolve into the light and space of heaven, while Giacometti's figures are morbidly earthbound, weighed down by a heavy pedestal. Without that primitive anchor rooting them in the ground, they would float away into the void, finally dissolving like a cloud.

It is only in the paintings that the deep black void becomes luminous -- but never completely. As has been much noted, they are suffused with grayness, which seems to shroud the figure, as though cocooning it in death. Life-negating gray often unites with life-affirming red, conveying profound ambivalence towards his subject, as in the two paintings of The Artist's Mother (1950 and 1951) and the painting of Annette at Stampa (1950). But depressing gray usually dominates, as in the poignant Apples in the Studio (1953) -- a speck of passionate color in the gray void -- and finally banishes the red, as in the colorless portraits of Diego and Yanaihara (both 1956). Traces of red subliminally remain, but they are no match for the sober gray, which becomes a fatal brown in the Caroline portraits of 1962. These stark, vivid images, full of inconclusive gestures that seem to veil the figure they delineate -- undermine it without denying its intelligibility -- are supposedly Giacometti's most memorable portraits, but it seems to me his last works deserve that honor.

The paintings Large Black Head (1961) and Large Nude (1962) and the 1965 sculptures of Lotar, his head held high on a body that has melted into a heap of mortal clay, epitomize human presence, in all its desperateness and defiance. It is at once tumescent and detumescent, tangible and intangible. An amazing blend of amorphous abstraction and mimetic structure, chaotic formlessness and unsettled form -- human presence deformed by its own formative process, which it seems to have willed -- these dialectically indecisive last works are the most inherently dramatic, tense, equivocal and uncanny that Giacometti ever made. They are his most consummate articulation of the basic conflicts that make for all-too-human being. None of these conflicts can ever be resolved for all time, which is why they erupt again and again. One is between libidinous and destructive feelings, the other between inner necessity and outer necessity. That is, one conflict is located within the self, the other between the world and the self struggling to separate from it, at the same time as it belong to it. The self may negate the world -- declare it meaningless, empty -- but it cannot escape its space. In the end it is a family space, from which there is no separation, which is why Giacometti's self remains insecure. Giacometti's late works are his most deeply moving, intimate images, not only because they are his boldest statement of the existential and formal issues he struggled with from his Surrealist days, but because they explicitly reveal the eschatological mood that has always informed his art.

It is as though he himself only slowly became aware of its eschatological purpose, finally, with his last works, gaining clear insight into it and into the final truth about life. The Large Black Head is in effect a skull -- it has become one with the deep black void, thus losing its illusory purity -- but the triumph of death it implies is compromised by its own open eyes, which suggest a powerful, alert consciousness. Human beings remain conscious to their deaths, and are conscious of their deaths. Death and consciousness are in conflict in the late portraits. Each stands in awe of the other, neither dominating. The late portraits are filled with profound stillness, silence, melancholy: Giacometti has at last become conscious of the death in his unconscious and of its connection with the death in the world. But they also show the triumph of consciousness and self-consciousness over fate and inner conflict.

Notes

    (23) Breton, "Surrealism and Painting," p. 3
    (24) Quoted in Chipp, p. 422
    (25) Hanna Segal, "The Klein-Bion Model," Models of the Mind, ed. Arnold Rothstein (New York: International Universities Press, 1985), p. 36 notes that "there are always fluctuations between the two positions," which "persist throughout life.  The paranoid-schizoid position is the earlier one; the later, depressive position leads to maturity." In the splitting that is the characteristic way "the infant tries to organize his perceptions and instinctual drives and emotions. . . he attributes all love, goodness and bliss to an ideal object and all distress to a bad object. . . . The absence of satisfaction is felt as a persecution by a bad object. All love and desire is directed to the ideal object which the infant wants to introject, possess and identify with. All hatred is both directed to the persecutory object and projected onto it, since the infant wants to rid himself of everything within that is felt to be bad and disruptive."
    "Excessive anxiety," Segal writes (p. 37), "leads also to fragmentation, giving rise to typical schizoid fears of annihilation and disintegration. Another feature of excessive anxiety is what Bion described as pathological projective identification. In pathological projective identification, part of the ego is fragmented and projected onto the object, fragmenting it, and giving rise to terrifying perceptions of what he calls 'bizarre objects' -- those objects being fragments of the object, containing projected fragments of the self and imbued with hostility and anxiety."
    "The depressive position," Segal states (p. 38), "is defined by Klein as the infant's relation to the mother as a whole object. The infant begins to realize that his good and bad experiences come from the same object and from himself as the same infant who can both love and hate his parent. . . . With the discovery of this ambivalence and the growing capacity to recognize absence and loss, the infant or growing child is open to feelings of guilt over hostility to a loved object and loss of mourning. The working through of this situation of mourning initiates reparative feelings and capacities for symbolization and sublimation. . . ."
    (26) Michael Balint, "Contributions to Reality Testing" (1942), Problems of Human Pleasure and Behavior (London; Maresfield Library, 1987), pp. 165-66  
     (29) Clement Greenberg, Arrogant Purpose, 1945-1949, The Collected Essays and Criticism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 26


DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.

His new book, A Critical History of 20th-Century Art, is being serially published in Artnet Magazine. For an archive of the chapters posted so far, click here



 



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