SAM Giacometti Exhibition: Figures Inciting a Peculiar Curiosity


The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) is hosting a temporary exhibit entitled “Toward the Ultimate Figure,” showcasing the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, a Swiss artist of the postwar era. Giacometti’s work is on display at the SAM from July 14 to Oct. 9 and is the only West Coast stop on its North American tour. The special exhibit features several bronze sculptures that range from figures so slight  that they can fit in the palm of a hand, to towering lengthy giants that stand taller than a doorway. Several photographs and sketches are featured, as well, to allow the viewer a glimpse into the sculptor’s tumultuous studio which remained his place of work for his whole artistic career. 

The viewer is guided through an exhibit filled with Giacometti’s profound, surrealist work that experiments with scale and the human form, which often appears distorted as the sculptor was known to work from memory. His objective was to capture the emotion he felt in the moment of creating rather than portraying perfect anatomy. 

“There’s an intimacy, and it also feels very fast. A lot of the time when you feel the hand of the artist not wanting to create something kind of smoothed and refined, you get an emotional sensation of the perfection that the artist is seeking is one of truth or earnestness,” Dawn Cerny, Seattle University’s visual artist in residence with a MFA in sculpture, said. 

Giacometti was interested in exploring the creative freedom in which he could convey the spectrum of emotions through his sculptures, and that’s what he did. Each piece Giacometti created possesses a differential individuality. 

“Alberto Giacometti: Towards the Ultimate Figure” a retrospective focusing on the artist’s successes during his postwar period. On display at the Seattle Art Museum through Oct 9. /Jake Nelson

“The thing that interests me about sculpture is its rotational potential. With sculpture, there is a 360 degree story that’s being told and Giacometti is very good at giving us different stories from every angle,” Cerny said. 

Giacometti’s sculptures incite strange feelings as their proportions are typically heavily distorted, usually being very thin and lengthy. Most of his sculptures greater in scale require the viewer to walk all the way around the sculpture because the way it appears from one angle can drastically change from another. 

“The Nose,” “The Dog” and “Tall Thin Head” are three sculptures on display at the SAM in this exhibit. These pieces challenge the viewer’s spatial awareness as the front will appear very thin in a way that makes it difficult for the viewer to make out what it is they’re looking at. That is, at least, until it is viewed from the side and you can recognize its profile. The distortion of proportion is a consistent stylistic choice of Giacometti’s work. However, what it aims to incite is an experience that varies for every viewer. 

“I think he’s a good sculptor trying to depict the experience of a modern life. The art we experience in our lives is in objects and materials. Sculpture deals with that 3D dimensionality and introduces different materials to create forms and express our experience,” Fr. Trung Pham S.J., Seattle U’s associate professor in the department of art, art history and design, said. 

It’s likely that even if you are unfamiliar with Giacometti, you’d probably recognize the names of poets, playwrights, and painters that he called his friends during his lifetime. Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Samuel Beckett are a few influential individuals he fostered friendships with. 

Fans of Alberto Giacometti browse through rooms of his work at the Seattle Art Museum. /Jake Nelson

“I had never heard of him. Walking through this [exhibit], I didn’t really know what to expect at first, but so far I’m very impressed. After reading through the timeline, he was friends with a bunch of artists I have heard of. That’s just really fascinating to me and honestly makes me want to learn more about him,” Nicole Vescovi, a local Seattle resident and photographer, said. 

The pandemic took away most in person art experiences, and Cerny feels she has a new appreciation for art with this new opportunity to view it in person again. SAM has had the special opportunity of showcasing Giacometti’s work, and for the first time in the Pacific Northwest. 

“The show at the SAM was really extraordinary. It’s looking at the way he is thinking about photography and how you document sculptures. It’s also a show about how sculptors use photography to help people know how to look at sculptures,” Cerny said. 

As the exhibit is coming to a close on Sunday, it’s definitely worth making a visit to the SAM before Giacometti’s sculptures move on to the next museum.