There are two chunks of history to consider at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s retrospective of Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, hosted at the museum’s annex, the newly renovated and renamed Eyal Ofer Pavilion.
There are the 130 works by Giacometti, the Swiss-born sculptor whose iconic sculptures, drawings, photographs and sketches trace the story of his 40-year career, most of which was spent in Paris, creating art in a 23-square-meter (247-foot) studio.
And there is the refurbished pavilion, no longer named for cosmetics empress Helena Rubinstein, now reconfigured as an open, airy exhibition space, with a staggered, open-floor plan that allows visitors to glimpse what’s being exhibited from nearly any vantage point.
Giacometti’s works take up the entire building, including his impossibly thin sculptures “Three Walking Men,” “Walking Woman (I),” and “The Cage,” as well as pieces from the earlier part of his career in the 1920s, when he joined the surrealists in Paris and explored sculpture through different lenses.
This opening exhibition, Israel’s first retrospective of Alberto Giacometti, said Tania Coen-Uzzielli, director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, “is a unique opportunity for the Israeli audience to be exposed to the best-known and least-known works of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.”
Part of the exhibit is devoted to Giacometti’s works from the 1940s, before and after World War II, including some of his tiny, eight-centimeter sculptures, some of which could fit into a matchbox.
The last portion of the exhibit is devoted to Giacometti’s thin sculptures, as well as photos of his lifelong Paris studio and his sketches.
But this inaugural exhibit is also the story of this building — originally designed in 1952 by Tel Aviv-born architect Yaakov Rechter, whose father Zeev Rechter is known for designing many of early Israel’s iconic buildings including Binyanei Hauma in Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv courthouse.
The pavilion was intended to be the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s permanent home to replace Dizengoff House, which used from 1932 as the museum’s home while mayor Meir Dizengoff lived in a small apartment on the roof.
It was designed to be part of the city’s cultural hub, known as Heichal HaTarbut, which includes the Charles Bronfman (formerly Mann) Auditorium (home to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra), designed by the father-and-son Rechter architects with Dov Karmi in the Brutalist style, the second generation of Tel Aviv architecture in which utilitarian buildings were created to meet social needs.
The pavilion, situated on the corner of Tarsat and Dizengoff boulevards, was inaugurated in 1959 under the name of Helena Rubinstein, the Jewish cosmetics doyenne who funded the construction. But it quickly became clear the pavilion wasn’t the right size for the emerging Tel Aviv museum.
Still, until a new building on Shaul Hamelech Boulevard was inaugurated in 1971, the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion housed the museum’s offices and library and exhibits, along with miniature period rooms from Helena Rubinstein’s art collection.
In March 2019, the museum announced the pavilion would be renovated and renamed for Eyal Ofer, the billionaire son of shipping magnate Sammy Ofer who donated $5 million for the refurbishment and new name.
It wasn’t the first time the Ofers tried to buy their way into the museum. In 2006, the elder Ofers offered a $20 million contribution to the museum, under the condition that the museum be renamed the Sammy and Aviva Ofer Tel Aviv Museum. Following a public outcry, the plan was scrapped.
The donation and name change for the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion also received pushback from a group of Tel Aviv activists who petitioned the Tel Aviv district court, but they lost their bid.
“With all the shouting, we’ve lost $20 million because of this nonsense,” longtime Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai reportedly said at the time.
Now the museum annex is reopening May 6 with the Giacometti exhibit, in the redesigned annex, undertaken by architect Amnon Rechter from the family’s third generation, along with architects Dana Gordon, Roy Gordon and Lidor Bar.
“Architecture is a work of integrity,” said Amnon Rechter. “It was important to extract the building on the democratic values with which it was built, and to return the building to its intended purposed, to open it to the city and make it accessible to all.”
There is a different feel to this renovated pavilion from its former incarnation.
With each level of the exhibition space visible from the Tarsat Boulevard entrance, there’s an immediate view of the entire body of Giacometti’s work, said co-curator Hugo Daniel, who is in Tel Aviv representing the Giacometti Foundation.
The exhibit begins with Giacometti’s arrival in Paris in 1922 from Borgonovo, Switzerland, the eldest of four children of Giovanni Giacometti, a well-known post-Impressionist painter, and Annetta Giacometti-Stampa.
He moved to Paris to study under the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, an associate of Rodin, where he began experimenting with Cubism and Surrealism and joined the Surrealist artists, including Miró, Max Ernst, Picasso, Bror Hjorth, and Balthus.
“He was experimenting with avant garde, what he saw in the Louvre, Egyptian arts, and non-Western arts,” said Daniel. “He was taking from everything that he saw and defining his own path,” flattening his busts with scratches on their metal surfaces and sculpting symbolic figures.
His “Disagreeable Object,” a phallic-like shaped object, was seen as groundbreaking, as was “Point to the Eye,” in which a miniature eye is threatened by a large, pointed object.
Giacometti was already showing his work in a New York gallery in 1934, but by 1935, he had a disagreement with his fellow surrealists over his desire to represent reality and they asked him to leave the group.
Giacometti spent the next 15 years sculpting alone, including the war years, when he spent time working in his hometown and from a small Geneva hotel room.
It was a period when he played with the concept of places and space, exploring an idea of human beings gathered in a space that they share, but not necessary a place that they meet, explained Daniel, adding that he and his co-curator, Ronili Lustig Steinmetz, considered that idea in their placement of the Giacometti works in the renovated pavilion, and on the white pedestals used throughout the exhibit.
Giacometti’s works became smaller and smaller — some could fit inside matchboxes — and he then moved to his thin figurines, before focusing solely on sculpted heads of his models, and particularly on their eyes and pointed gaze.
His tiny “Head of Colonel Rol-Tanguy on a Double Base,” an eight-centimeter (around 3.14 inches) commissioned bust of the French war hero, was a tiny monument to the colonel who posed for Giacometti.
“It’s telling about the very definition of what a hero is to him,” said Daniel. “It’s humility, the fact that a hero can be represented in eight centimeters.”
Daniel pointed out a photograph of Giacometti’s home village, La Stampa, hung on a nearby wall, showing the artist’s village in the shadow of towering trees and mountains, demonstrating the question of scale as the very definition of humanity.
That question of humanity was one that Giacometti pondered throughout most of his working life, during the days spent at his small Paris studio, where he worked until his death in 1966.
He repeated his sculptures again and again, in order to recapture the moment, explained Daniel — to experience the feeling of failure, of incompleteness, of something still to be done.
“Alberto Giacometti: Beginning, Again,” May 6 to October 7, 2023, Eyal Ofer Pavilion.
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