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Art Review : Giacometti Show Quite Irresistible

January 20, 1987|ROBERT McDONALD

LA JOLLA — The Thomas Babeor Gallery is offering another of those exhibits that you would expect to see only in a museum, an exhibit of works so alien to San Diego that it causes astonishment.

Last year it was small works by German artist Hans Hofmann, one of the progenitors of Abstract Expressionism. More recently it was small works by contemporary Italian artist Mimmo Paladino.

Now it is furniture and decorative works of art by Swiss-born artists Alberto and Diego Giacometti.

Alberto Giacometti, the better-known of the brothers, created the attenuated figurative sculptures, which no less an eminence than Jean-Paul Sartre commented upon as epitomes of the philosophy of existentialism and the contingency of life. Alberto died in 1966.

Diego was much less well-known but began to achieve some measure of fame before he died in July, 1985. In September, 1985, the Picasso Museum opened in Paris. Diego had designed all of its furnishings, including chandeliers, lanterns, benches, tables and chairs. Four months later, a retrospective exhibition of Diego's work opened at the Paris Museum of Decorative Arts.

Considering himself to be an artisan, Diego lacked the ambition to gain a reputation as an artist. In the 1930s he lived with his brother in Paris, collaborating with him in the fabrication of decorative accessories for interior decorator Jean-Michel Frank. Since they worked in plaster, which was cheap and easy to mold, few of the pieces have survived. They were fashionable and meant to last only as long as the season.

Nevertheless, among the objects at the Babeor Gallery is a pair of table lamp bases with women's heads from a room decorated by Syrie Maugham, wife of writer W. Somerset Maugham. Her predilection for doing rooms in black and white appears in these lamps, one in each color.

After World War II, Diego made many castings in bronze from the lamp models that had survived the war. Both brothers had made the models for the lamps, but some seem, experts believe, to evince more of the invention of Alberto. Definitive attributions are not possible for some of the works.

The most famous of the lamps designed by Alberto and cast by Diego features a woman's head three-quarters of the way up the floor lamp pole. An example is included at the Babeor exhibit, in addition to an elegant "Star Lamp." The influence of the floor lamp form on Alberto's later sculptures is a matter for speculation.

Diego's unique specialty was furniture modeled in plaster and cast in bronze. The vision is humble, almost countrified, with owls, lizards and mice appearing as engaging details, sometimes nearly hidden. At the same time, the works evince a very sophisticated design sense, whimsical but classical. A hand-woven wool pile rug entitled "The Friends' Promenade" in the same distinctive style includes images of dogs, trees, a frog and a bat.

Also on view are a "Long, Low Cradle Table," a "Side Table with Branches, Leaves and an Owl" and two "Stools with Mouse Ornament," among other works.

It's an irresistible show.

A no-nonsense "Cat Butler" designed by Diego holds a bowl to receive your calling card.

The exhibit continues through Jan. 31.

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