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Finding a sense of isolation and anxiety in Alberto Giacometti's 'Man Pointing' at the BMA

Finding a sense of isolation and anxiety in Alberto Giacometti's 'Man Pointing' at the BMA
Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

I first started thinking about the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti when I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, more than 20 years ago now. Space, in the arid high desert, seemed so much different than it had in the humid and small-skyed southeast. It's not at all original to say that Giacometti's sculptures, with their small, skittery figures with blurred outlines, are a kind of representation of distance, the way a person seems from afar—even when you see it close up.

It's also not original to connect the artist with the existentialist philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom he shared a milieu. But looking at 'Man Pointing' on a late, gray Sunday, the connection between the philosophy and the perspective became shockingly clear.

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Martin Heidegger, whose "Being and Time" was the primary inspiration for Sartre's "Being and Nothingness," calls the human being Dasein, which means literally "to be there" because, contrary to most previous philosophers, Heidegger thought it was foolish to try to separate the human—or consciousness, or whatever—from the world. We are always in the world and the world always appears to us through a mood—and the only authentic mood, the one that shows our own possibility of death, is anxiety.

And that's what this Giacometti sculpture does so well: It uses the surrounding space to create a sense of isolation and anxiety, of being thrown into the world, of longing, in some sense, to escape our anxiety and fall back into the they-self, with which we offer ourselves comfort and pretend we won't die.

Like the best modernist works, this sculpture feels both avant-garde and primitive, endlessly belabored and thrown off—blasting off the alien smoothness of Brancusi and mocking the playful contortions of Hans Arp. In this work, we meet our own distance from ourselves and address it—and if we spend enough time standing in the gallery in front of it, we may even become friends with our own alienation.

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