Woman With Her Throat Cut: Why We Can't Look Away
By Editor Janis Petzinger
I walked in on a crime scene in the Scottish Museum of Contemporary art. A misshapen, gruesome figure lay on the floor. Giacometti has challenged us to face a woman’s final moments in his sculpture Woman with her Throat Cut. Is she riving in pain abused? Or is she an abuser herself? And what does this piece show of the inter-war period of the 20th century? My observations show the tangled relationship between the archetypes “woman as victim” and “woman as femme fatal” in surrealist art. Additionally, we find that Giacometti depicted the alienation and isolation endured between the two world wars by mastering the treatment of the human figure and its interaction in space. Finally, though Woman with her Throat Cut was made while he was a major artist in the surrealist movement, we see the sculpture foreshadow the figurative style he would soon develop later in his career.
Mass accumulation of emotionally charged objects is central to surrealist sculpture. Her nicked neck arches back as two bug-like legs spread open, while the wide, heavy hands (one plated and one cylindrical) drape in surrender. Viewed from the side, she suffers. We see a woman raped and murdered, with swollen hands and struggling legs. But when viewed from above, the object’s convex and concave balance creates a sense of rocking back and forth that suggests panting breath and gyrating hips. The body arches as if embodying the phrase ‘petit mort’ (little death)—a French term for orgasm. Now, we suddenly become actors in the story, as if she reacts to our position above, and we wonder: is this figure a victim of a shocking death? Or has she made herself sexually available?
Her angled arms and legs together with the pointed chest and breasts allude to the praying mantis—which, according to Michael Brenson, was an insect used by the Surrealists to connote dangerous sexual tendencies of the female since the female consumes the male after a sexual act. This was one of the many ways Surrealists used misogynistic imagery in their work: women were often treated as deviant, sexual objects. Perhaps this is why her throat was slit in the first place—once she was sexual, she needed to be stopped. The ribbed neck suggests that of a violin, but rather than standing for romantic, musical imagery, Brenson states it is just playing on reoccurring cubist iconography: “Here there is no more play. The neck is broken. The music is over.”
The “music” that ended must be the music of the submissive, harmless woman. She was replaced with Manet’s Olympia (promiscuous, challenging, and aware of herself) and from there she transformed into to Gustav Klimt’s Salome (a menacing murderer who got her way through seduction). Now, in Woman with her Throat Cut, she has reached her literal climax as a sexual fiend and has become another object to be controlled by the gaze and power of the man.
Beyond the gender politics surrounding her experience, the figure is still strikingly dejected. She is alone, dying, and with wide round eyes we see her contemplate her own mortality. This illustrates the general smell of death and pain that lingered after world war one. The use of metal harks back to war too. It is a harsh and mechanical medium that reflects violence, brutality, and artillery. Giacometti hammered the metal to add a worn texture of exhaustion. Her experience reminds us of a soldier on the battlefront, riving in pain, knowing that his time has come.
He made this sculpture two years before Andre Brenton excommunicated him from the surrealist circle for creating an almost realistic figure of the human head. Jerry Saltz points out in his essay on Giacometti for the Village Voice that he was going in a deeper, more figurative direction: “We find Giacometti no longer telling stories, nor being clever or literary. Instead, he circumvents the intellect and goes directly for the nervous system.”
In Woman with her Throat Cut we see Giacometti on the brink of this entirely new sculptural style. The figure, though surrealist in form, seems aware of itself, as if it exists in a realistic, lonely reality, rather than the depths of the psyche. This sculpture does not serve the same function as his other surrealist works, which suggest dream sequences and general irrationality. Here, he is pointing to our existential isolation and alienation—the dark fact that life is hard and we have no answers why. The figure has authority in the space that surrounds it, but also vanishes within it. Clearly, the artist outgrew Surrealism through his own vulnerability.
Saltz reminds us that this is what eventually makes Giacometti so important: his ability to represent all people. Woman with her Throat Cut is just like another fallen soldier, another victim of disease, another person facing the deprivation and solidarity that comes with modernity. But she still serves as a bridge to the surrealist fantasy—a place where we can exist within our own dreams that are sometimes sexual and violent. Whether a sufferer or a villain, Woman with her Throat Cut relentlessly speaks to our own anxieties of facing pain and suffering.
Brenson, Michael. “Art View; The Disturbing Allure of A Giacometti Woman,’ New York Times. 3 January, 1988.
Saltz, Jerry. Alberto Giacometti, Seeing Out Loud: Essays from the Village Voice. Great Barrington: The Figures, 2003.
Gallery label from The Erotic Object: Surrealist Sculpture from the Collection, June 24, 2009–January 4, 2010