There are many remarkable things about this summer’s major exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, the most important, of course, being the extraordinary work of the man at its centre. Alberto Giacometti: A Line Through Time surveys the Swiss-born artist’s masterful work in sculpture, but also brings together an impressive collection of paintings, drawings, and lithographs that serve to deepen our understanding of his art and philosophy.
Born in 1901, Giacometti moved to Paris in 1922, where he lived and worked (excepting a return to Switzerland during the Second World War) for most of his life. Best known for his bronzes of human figures, elongated into impossibly emaciated silhouettes—and considered one of the most important sculptors of the early 20th century—Giacometti was driven and despondent in equal measures. He thought his art a failure, constantly working and reworking it (the figures in some of his drawings threaten to disappear under the weight of this attention).
The Giacomettis on display here come in large part from the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in England, where a significant selection of his work is held, collected by benefactors Robert and Lisa Sainsbury, who first met the artist in Paris in 1949. Giacometti had a strong connection to British artists, and many of those influenced by his work are also—thrillingly—part of this exhibition: Francis Bacon, Eduardo Paolozzi, Lynn Chadwick, William Turnbull, and Isabel Rawsthorne (among others). There is also a collection of small sculptures from as early as the Cycladic period, showing the influence of these representations of the human form (and its endurance as subject) on Giacometti and his contemporaries.
And it is Giacometti’s exploration of the human figure that forms the line through this exhibition, delivering a powerful emotional resonance. It’s evident that this artist lived through two world wars and witnessed the rise of fascism and its debasement of humanity. In response, his figures are alienated, trapped, and, in one stunning piece, literally caged. They are fuelled by existential angst, demanding that we ask what it is to be human—a question that, as we look at the world around us today, could not be more prescient or urgent.
Alberto Giacometti: A Line Through Time runs until September 29 at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Dive into more from the Arts.