Installation view of “Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure” at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (photo by Dana Anderson)
A traveling exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art revisits the iconic oeuvre of a Modernist master
Every second the people stream together and go apart . . . they unceasingly form and re-form living compositions in unbelievable complexity . . . It’s the totality of this life that I want to reproduce in everything I do.Alberto Giacometti
“Giacometti’s works can talk to everybody,” says Romain Perrin from the Fondation Giacometti in Paris, co-curator of “Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure,” a traveling retrospective of the famed Swiss artist’s work at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. “Viewers don’t need to have a cultural background to see that.”
Organized with the Fondation Giacometti, the exhibition at the Nelson, co-curated by William Keyse Rudolph, Deputy Director, Curatorial Affairs, is its fourth iteration, following stops in Seattle, Cleveland and Houston.
The exhibition showcases Giacometti’s iconic figures — delicate and anonymous, typically standing in isolation and belonging to no specific time or location. Many of the figures in his works after 1945 project the existentialist alienation and anxiety felt by many post-World War II Europeans.
As Perrin described in a recent interview, the artist’s process in using such materials as clay, plaster, filasse (oakum) and bronze allowed him to elongate his figures, seemingly removing their musculature and leaving remnants of skin and bones.
In fact, some of his two-dimensional lithographs, such as “Standing Nude II” (1961) appear to render more volume and mass than some of his sculptures. Working tirelessly in a variety of materials and reworking many of his sculptures with knives and even painting them, Giacometti acquired an intimate understanding of the human body.
The Nelson-Atkins is an ideal location for the show because its permanent collection contains works that complement those owned by the Fondation Giacometti. Giacometti’s “The Chariot” (1950) is part of the Nelson-Atkins’ collection, as are a number of ancient Egyptian objects, which Giacometti grew familiar with while he lived in Paris and mimicked in many of his sculptures.
One of the most striking aspects of the exhibition is the attention to Giacometti’s studio, which the curators describe as a “site of inspiration.” Upon digging deeper, that seems to be an understatement. In a nine-minute interview clip between Ernst Scheidegger and Giacometti, visitors can preview Giacometti’s 23-square-meter Paris studio, which appeared dim and uncomfortable, yet was filled to the brim with sculptures and tools. Works such as “The Nose” (1947-49) or “The Cage” (1950) could be Giacometti’s visual response to his experiences working assiduously in the small studio. His “Four Women on a Base” (1950) is described by the wall label as “elongated and distorted for emotional effect,” but it also visually simulates stalagmites growing from the bronze base, as if the works emerging from his studio are indicative of his experience working in a cave.
According to the Fondation, Giacometti’s studio became a “veritable extension of himself,” and witnessing the studio was necessary for understanding his work. The Fondation reconstructed the studio for visitors to see in Paris, and their process included assessing the inventory from the original studio, conducting conservation studies, restoring objects for display and building scenography and lighting for the studio to be shown to the public in Paris. The exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins visually reconstructed the studio through photographs and video footage.
Another important aspect of Giacometti’s works highlighted at the Nelson-Atkins is his background in art history and the philosophical questions the artist asks through his art. In the video interview with Scheidegger, Giacometti admitted that it takes “thousands of years to get it right,” referring to the evolution of art and his understanding of art history. Because he was interested in the visual aspects of the modern artistic movements of Surrealism and Cubism, as well as traditional African art and art from the Bronze Age, he participated in the same type of “primitivism” as his contemporaries Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and the German Expressionists.
Two of Giacometti’s most famous works, “Walking Man I” (1960) and “Tall Woman IV” (1960) were public art commissions for the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City. However, the sculptures were never installed at their intended destination because Giacometti was disappointed in them, especially because of their appearance standing among the Manhattan skyscrapers. His thoughts and exercises in scale are visually explained to the viewer through miniscule versions of the figures, entitled “Project for Chase Manhattan Plaza: Walking Man, Standing Woman, Head on a Base,” (1959) positioned next to the large figural sculptures.
The Nelson-Atkins also provides interactive stations, where visitors are invited to trace raised lines inspired by Giacometti drawings and to touch plaster and bronze materials with which the artist frequently worked.
In 2026 the Fondation Giacometti will open the Giacometti School and Museum in Paris, near the Seine and other famous museums and monuments. The Fondation has about 10,000 objects and they are interested in displaying and providing these resources not only to scholars and art historians, but to everyone.
At the Nelson, contemplating figures that may at first appear isolated and aloof, one might also discern a utopianism at play in the exhibition, as the individuals exist in liminal spaces outside the contexts of human suffering and trauma. A journey to discover “the ultimate figure” may be a metaphor for the voyage through life itself.
“Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure” continues at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St. through June 18. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday. For more information, 816.751.1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org.