The riddle of the thin man

The RA's big autumn show is dedicated to one of the century's most popular artists. But was Alberto Giacometti really any good?
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Alberto Giacometti's high reputation is a mystery, and his Royal Academy retrospective gives little reason for admiring the late "existentialist" sculptures on which his fame depends. This is the exhibition recent- ly put on in Edinburgh, where it had a lot of praise from visitors to the Festival. It occurs to me that Giacometti is the least festive of artists. That's an achievement of sorts. It must be hard to spend a lifetime in creative work without any hint of pleasure entering the work you have created. But so it was with Giacometti. The act of making things never lifted his spirits and it looks as though depression was his muse.

For he wasn't badly treated by life. Giacometti did very well, considering his slender native talent, and had certain artistic comforts from an early age. He came from a beautiful place, the Bregaglia valley in southern Switzerland, to which he returned every year. He had support and allowances from his father, who was a well-known painter within his somewhat placid country, and he enjoyed the comradeship of two brothers who followed him to Paris. That was in the mid-1920s. It didn't take Giacometti long to get dealers interested in his work. He was latterly a wealthy man, and even in the lean 1930s, money seems never to have troubled him in the way it hurts truly poor people. Giacometti was happily or at any rate contentedly married after 1948 and from this period until his death in 1966 he was renowned. He was a legendary artist for years - and still is.

On top of all these benefits he had Paris, which in the earlier half of the century was surely as exciting a place for a free spirit as any capital in history. Giacometti owed everything to his life as a Parisian, from his early training with Bourdelle to his inflated reputation among the literary intelligentsia of the 1940s. He could never have had comparable success in another city.

The first rooms in the RA show immediately point out the ways in which Giacometti became a modern and sophisticated artist. His early works, both paintings and sculptures, are simply provincial. Then, in Paris, he started to make sculpture that was utterly of its time and place. Almost without effort, it seems, he joined the avant-garde.

At this stage in his life Giacometti had a keen eye for the art around him, a capacity he later lost. He understood what sculptors like Laurens and Lipchitz were up to. He also grasped the importance of Brancusi and saw that "primitive" or tribal art could liberate modern forms. Thus we have such crisp and accomplished pieces as The Couple and the large and ambitious Spoon Woman. A number of smaller pieces come close to abstract art. Technically, they belong to late Cubism, a movement that had run its course by the late 1920s. They are none the less truly sculptural works and it's a pity - an accident of time - that Giacometti never pursued their feeling for structure and mass.

Instead, he turned towards the dominant new movement, Surrealism, and began to invent magical or unusual objects. These lack artistic style, but at their best are hard to forget. They are enigmatic and questioning additions to the world. Disagreeable Object, a phallic but sharp and threatening piece, wins because it's disturbing. And that seems to have been Giacometti's intention. At this point in the restrospective we become aware of the darker parts of his nature. As all his biographers confirm, he had a fascination with violence and prostitution. He frequented brothels not occasionally but all the time. What he did in them is not recorded but if (as his friend James Lord suggests) he was impotent because of a childhood illness then he might have had sexual interests of a complicated sort.

Jean Genet (whose 1957 essay on Giacomotti is a wonderful piece of writing, but is not art criticism) was certain that the sculptor's art was connected with his life in brothels. However that may be, Giacometti's 1932 Woman With Her Throat Cut is clearly based on fantasies of rape and murder. Recent research suggests that it might have been inspired by a recent French article on Jack the Ripper. One might assume that such a background disqualifies the sculpture straight away. Yet it's Giacometti's best work, and the only Surrealist sculpture known to me that transcends the pseudo-aesthetic of shockingness. For once, Giacometti composes in original fashion. He was obliged to do so, since he worked from above the piece. It has no plinth but sprawls across the floor, and the viewpoint adds to the sort of crawling electric charge that the sculpture generates. Most of Giacometti's sculpture is by nature passive. By contrast this one is active, and for a moment it changes the atmosphere of the exhibition.

At the RA there are lots, really lots, of paintings and drawings. They seem the more numerous because Giacometti never solved the problems that were raised when he attempted to become an independent contemporary painter. He simply repeated his problems.

We have a sense of repetitious hopelessness. He had no command of colour, his touch was either hesitant or vague and when he drew, either on canvas or paper, he regularly brought in too many lines, scooping around the figure without defining it. These mannerisms prevented him from having direct or adventurous contact with his surfaces. He couldn't use the canvas as a whole. Characteristically, his subject sits in the middle, out of scale with the painting's perimeters. Everything peters out towards the edges and the undersized figures, whose features are seldom discernible, exist in a limbo of uncertainty.

Occasionally there's a ghost-like reverberation in such paintings, interesting to experience. Much more interesting are drawings from the figure whose real subject is despair. They are always best when one glimpses an artist in terror of his own existence. The sheet dedicated to Max Ernst stands out from the gloom. Surely we are looking at a self-portrait. I have a feeling from this drawing that I don't get from the paintings. That's because painting is an art. It has lots of procedures and tests. However, Giacometti fails every time that he is tested. Modern drawing allows the artist a more private expression, quite without rules, and Giacometti used this absence of convention to show his deep embrace of incapacity.

Without a doubt, the elongated figure sculptures produced after Hitler's war issue from some personal trouble or defect within Giacometti's eye and mind. He confessed as much to many people, who have then evolved their own theories about his vision. I prefer to comment that sculpture is also an art and that we must imagine these stick figures next to work in three dimensions by Picasso (who despised Giacometti), or Matisse, Gonzales and many others. They cannot compare in terms of modelling, true (rather than theatrical) use of scale, invention or honest emotion. Giacometti's most famous works are at bottom academic. Perhaps this is why he appeals to literary people - very illustrious ones too, like Genet, Beckett and Sartre. Admiration from such figures is not conclusive. Genet would swallow anyone for the sake of his own writing, Beckett had only a shaky sense of visual art, and as for Sartre - his writing on sculpture is as relevant as would be his writing on cricket.

! RA, W1 (0171 494 5676), to 1 Jan 1997.