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Giacometti, Walking Man II

Alberto Giacometti, Walking Man II, 1960, bronze, 188.5 × 27.9 × 110.7 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Dr Stephen Zucker] We are in the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and we're on one of the high bridges that spans the large atrium, and right in the middle, as if walking across, is Alberto Giacometti's sculpture: Walking Man II from 1960. - [Dr Beth Harris] This figure is striding forward so intentionally, the upper part of his body leans forward, and I wonder where he's going. - [Dr Steven Zucker] Giacometti was a Swiss artist, who worked in France before the Second World War. Much of his work is associated with surrealism and was often horizontal and was interested in the unconscious. - [Dr Beth Harris] The figure is incredibly thin, and elongated, almost seems to be disappearing before our eyes. It's hard not to think about the horrors of the war when one looks at this, although this is clearly decades later. - [Dr Steven Zucker] During an immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Giacometti made very small figures, that almost seemed as if they had been dissected, as if the flesh had somehow been taken off them, they were so thin. When you see those in person, you wanna get very close to them, because they seem to vanish before our eyes, but even here, decades later, in this much larger figure, what we might expect to feel monumental, we still have a human body that seems distant, that we still need to approach it to be able to see it, but no matter how close we get to it, it's not available to us. - [Dr Beth Harris] When you think about the tradition of bronze sculpture, we think about heroic ancient Greek athletes or Roman Emperors or Pagan Gods or Goddesses, but this is just Walking Man. - [Dr Steven Zucker] It's a sculpture that has been stripped of allegory, its stripped of meaning, and this is central to post-war intellectual thought which we often associate with existentialism. In fact the French writer and philosopher, Sartre, wrote the forward to an early post-war exhibition of this artist. Existentialism is associated with the idea that the spiritual does not construct meaning in the universe but that man is alone, isolated and responsible for meaning. In a sense the horrors of the first and the second Word War had culminated in a philosophical idea than man was abandoned, that man existed alone. - [Dr Beth Harris] And so it makes sense that there is no cultural meaning attached to him, he have no attributes to indicate who he is, or what he is, he is simply a human figure who exists in a way alone in the universe constructing meaning for himself. - [Dr Steven Zucker] Through is intention, through his movement, through his walking. - [Dr Beth Harris] And here that walking seems so intentional but also very unmoored to me, which is ironic because his feet are so moored in that bronze that forms the earth that he's walking on. Normally we think about bronze sculptures on pedestals, we think about them moored in meaning, for example, I think about Rodin and The Burghers of Calais and even though those figures are meant to be eye level or ground level those are still heroic figures, figures who gave their lives for a cause, but here, all of that heroism seems gone and yet there is still in his isolation, in his intentionality, something beautiful and noble about him. - [Dr Steven Zucker] Walking Man seems to ask us to focus, not only on the attenuated body, not only the way the body dissipates, but on it's rough surface, on it's tactility. - [Dr Beth Harris] If we think about bronze sculptures, there is a long tradition of interest in human anatomy, that is completely gone here and we have a surface that feels very much like the clay that this bronze sculpture was made from. - [Dr Steven Zucker] Here the figure seems stripped of any interior space, this is literally a stick figure. He is absolutely static and rooted, even as he's a symbol of a figure moving through space. (heavy piano music)