Alberto the thief

Giacometti, a show of tormented genius and indisputable greatness? Not so
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With his Einstein hair and his perpetual aura of grizzled intensity, Alberto Giacometti always looked the part of the tormented genius. The notion that he actually was one has, gradually, been taking hold. Ever since his death in 1966, Giacometti has become an increasingly distant and lofty figure, propelled ever higher up the slopes of Parnassus by the windy rhetoric of his admirers. It has become conventional, indeed almost a commonplace, to describe his life as if it were one of the great mythic lives of modernist endeavour. Christ spent just 40 days in the wilderness but Giacometti, we are to recall with awe, spent 40 years, struggling with his demons in the cold, spartan quarters of his tiny Paris studio. Fuelled only by alcohol and an endless chain of cigarettes, he sought heroically to realise his "vision" - that melancholy view of the human condition embodied (if that is not too full a word to apply to such pinched and meagre forms) by the emaciated figures for which he is so well known.

The large retrospective exhibition of Giacometti's work that opens tomorrow at the Royal Academy is clearly not intended as an opportunity for audiences to reassess the artist's merit. He is considered to be above the indignities of reappraisal. That much was evident from the way in which the exhibition was installed on its previous showing, earlier this year, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, where dumb reverence before his genius was taken for granted and his least leaving accorded the sanctity of a relic. But before Giacometti is allowed to pass finally into 20th-century art's pantheon of indisputable greatness, it might be as well to detain him, at least for a moment or two, at the border. Perhaps his papers are not entirely in order.

Juvenilia apart, Giacometti's oeuvre may be divided into three quite distinct groups of work. First there are the various objects and constructions of his so-called Surrealist period, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Second, there are works of transition, culminating in the tiny figurines he made during the Second World War in a hotel room in Geneva and brought back to Paris, so it is said, in matchboxes. Third, there is the work that made him famous: that forest of attenuated statuary to which he so assiduously devoted the last 20 years of his life.

Had Giacometti not lived to create the third (and much the largest) portion of his life's work, it seems unlikely that he would have been remembered as anything other than an intriguing satellite of the Surrealist movement. His innovation was to give three-dimensional form to the erotically suggestive and malign universe of Surrealist painting. The artist himself referred to such work as "masturbation", but his own sense of its inadequacy need not trouble his hagiographers. Most agree that his claim to greatness rests not on his work of the 1920s or 1930s but on the work of the mid- 1940s onwards - when, according to the myth, he "truly" became Giacometti. It is on the art he created in the aftermath of the Second World War that he should, accordingly, be judged. Its inadequacies should be easily apparent to anyone who has not been intimidated into foolish, easy awe by his reputation.

Walking Man, the tall, skinny, rough-hewn creature Giacometti created in 1947, is exemplary of his later sculpture. If this were the only Giacometti left in the world, it would none the less convey a reasonably clear picture of the nature of his uvre during the last two decades of his life - a fact that itself suggests one of the chief weaknesses of his art. It is, in its way, a touching work. The skinniness of the figure evidently conveys anxiety and solitude. The roughness of the modelling enhances the figure's elusiveness. On the edge of disappearance, it is plainly meant as a metaphor for human mortality. There is perhaps something a little crass and exaggerated about the way in which it insists upon this point - a poignancy that teeters on the verge of the banal. But extremity of this kind was in the air, and Walking Man was a memento mori well adapted to the age of Absurdism. Jean-Paul Sartre, who did more than anyone to make Giacometti a figure of renown, instantly understood the connection between this art and his own, existential philosophy. "Between things, between men," he wrote, in an essay on Giacometti's art, "connections have been cut."

The thin, thin figure, Giacometti's chief contribution to 20th-century sculpture, was, undoubtedly, a good idea. But what kind of a good idea, exactly? It was certainly not a visually original one. Giacometti, one of whose greatest flaws was an almost complete lack of imagination, borrowed the forms of his post-war sculpture, in their entirety, from early Etruscan art. He did not like to discuss the close similarities and often tried to conceal them. He tried to pretend that the idea for The Chariot, in which the standard Giacometti figure is mounted on wheels, came from the tinkling pharmacy wagon wheeled around in the Bichat hospital where he once recuperated after a car accident. In fact, the sculpture derives directly from an Etruscan model.

Giacometti's worst fault, however, was not derivativeness but repetitiveness. The thin man walks. The thin man points. The thin woman is put through the same paces. Thin men and thin women are combined. Sometimes they are tall. Sometimes they are small. And on it goes. Repetition need not necessarily be a bad thing in art (think of Cezanne, to whom Giacometti vainly liked to compare himself, and of Mont Sainte-Victoire) but it is when combined with the absence of expressive development betrayed by Giacometti's art.

One of his solutions was to try to inject a frisson of existential horror vacui into his work by forcing the faces of his figures into curious paroxysms of clenched despair or disgust. The result (there are countless instances of this in the exhibition) was a terrible bathos. The motions of Expressionist angst are gone through, again and again, but without true emotion. The effect is the sculptural equivalent of overacting.

Another of Giacometti's ways of masking his sculpture's perpetual sameness was by attempting to individuate the different examples, to imbue them with the attributes of portraiture, hence the myriad Busts of Diego or Busts of Annette. The trouble with this is that it works so directly against the portentousness of the Etruscan model he stole in the first place - that hieratic, mysterious, atavistic form that depends absolutely, for its authority, on the impressive anonymity of the idol. When Giacometti tries to carve likeness into his sliverish creations, he produces patent absurdities, sorry hybrids of ancient and modern, like archaeological exhibits that have been hacked about by some third-rate carver of mildly Expressionist portrait busts. Giacometti's painted portraits, those pointlessly effortful, drab, monochrome daubs, painted in misguided homage to Cezanne, are the other unfortunate side-effect of his belief that reality might save him from manner.

The problem at the heart of his work is its lack of emotional genuineness. Giacometti tried to hide this by insisting that the imagery of his later work, the skin-and-bone figure he repeated so often and in so many forms, was compelled out of him by a sudden, terrifying insight into the futility of life to which he had been privileged a few years before. He described his traumatic experience in a characteristically devious text, "The Dream, the Sphinx and the Death of T", which appeared in a periodical called Labyrinthe in 1946. The revelation was, he said, the experience of watching a neighbour of his, T, on his deathbed.

"At that moment," he wrote, "I began to see people's heads surrounded by empty space." It was as if "I had crossed a threshold ... All the living were dead, and this vision often recurred, in the metro, in the street, in restaurants, or among my friends. The waiter at the brassiere Lipp, leaning over me, suddenly frozen into immobility, open-mouthed, dissociated from the previous moment or the next moment, his mouth open and his eyes staring with absolute immobility."

This might be plausible were it not for the astonishing resemblance between Giacometti's revelation of the Absurd nature of Existence, and that of Antoine Roquetin, the hero of Sartre's novel Nausea, published a decade earlier. The language, the tone of voice, and the very nature of the dispiriting, negative epiphany - Giacometti adapted them all to the telling of his own tale of alienation. It is almost invariably a bad sign when artists start trying to tell their life stories, because it suggests an awareness that their art, on its own, might not seem sufficiently impressive. In the case of Giacometti, it reveals something else, too. He tells the story to prove to us that he has had these feelings himself, that he, Giacometti, has lived in the hell of existential alienation, that he is not merely an opportunist; not merely a man who has read Sartre's work and has decided to create visual illustrations for the forms of experience it describes.

But that, in truth, was just what Giacometti was, and all that he did. Just as, during his Surrealist phase, he had illustrated the ideas of Georges Bataille, so from the 1940s onwards he illustrated the ideas of Sartre. He was not a great artist, but he was a good strategist. He had the cleverness to see that the forms of Etruscan art, adapted, varied, reformed as Modern Art, might convey just the right combination of pathos and portentousness to express the ethos of his time. It worked, and ever since people have been flattering themselves that they discern true profundity in his work. But it is stage-set profundity. It is not there in reality and it cannot be there, because Giacometti never could (despite his protestations) truly inhabit the feelings and the world-view he set out to illustrate. Sartre wrote the great text of existentialism, Being and Nothingness. Giacometti provided the jacket design: being and nothingness combined with perfect glibness, in a single image. The Royal Academy exhibition demonstrates with perfect clarity how rapidly, once he had done that, his method solidified into a formula, thus condemning him to play out the endgame of an appalling, empty mannerismn

Opens tomorrow, Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London W1, 10am-6pm daily, to 1 Jan 1997 (Booking: 0171-494 5676)