A-Level: Alberto Giacometti, The Palace at 4 a.m.

Alberto Giacometti, The Palace at 4 a.m., 1932 , wood, glass, wire and string (Museum of Modern Art, New York) 

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the Museum of Modern Art, looking at an early Giacometti. Giacometti is known best for his tall, thin, bronze sculptures or his erasure drawings, most of which were made after the Second World War. But before that, he was involved with Surrealism.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:22] We know that the Surrealists are interested in the unconscious. I feel like I’m looking at a dreamscape. This is a house, but it’s not a house. We have forms that seem to defy gravity. I’m looking at that form in the center where a ball seems suspended on this sled-like shape. It just reminds me of the irrationality of dreams.

Dr. Zucker: [0:45] This is called “The Palace at 4 a.m.,” and so this is that interior space of the dream that’s made into a stage set, and it’s so frail. It seems as if the architecture could be made and unmade, reconstructed at a moment’s notice the way that space is so easy to reconstruct in a dream.

Dr. Harris: [1:02] Or the way that you might construct something with child’s toys and then take them apart and rebuild them.

Dr. Zucker: [1:07] Well, this is a game. The woman that seems like such a maternal figure on the lower level is as if she is the queen in a chess set.

Dr. Harris: [1:14] But what makes her look so maternal? The way that she seems very upright, very erect, almost like a superego looking over the palace at 4:00 a.m.?

Dr. Zucker: [1:25] Although she has a cinched waist, she’s really been desexualized in that her skirt goes all the way to the floor. There is a sense of the matron. So immediately, my instinct is to read this through [a] Freudian lens, because these are the ideas the Surrealists were so involved with.

[1:41] The idea of the unconscious, the idea of releasing the dangerous but creative qualities that we repress during the day, during our waking state.

Dr. Harris: [1:50] We’ve interpreted that female figure. Someone instructing you about what should be done, that voice of your unconscious. We have other forms here, too. We have a vulture-like creature who flies above the house.

Dr. Zucker: [2:02] Almost pterodactyl-like, some sort of primordial creature. Similarly with the vertebrae or the tailbones that we see in the box to the right. But the thing that I have always been most fascinated by in this sculpture is the suspended plane of glass. It creates a drawn plane in this space.

[2:21] If this were not on a high pedestal, we would be able to look down through that glass, and the space below would be revealed through it.

Dr. Harris: [2:30] Something that you weren’t allowed to see or wouldn’t normally expect to see. You would have more of a feeling of being a voyeur.

Dr. Zucker: [2:36] Voyeurism makes sense to me because there’s also a sexual aspect here. You mentioned that ball in the center, which is framed against a flat board, but there’s also this very sensuous hollowed form and that ball that could move easily up and down it.

Dr. Harris: [2:52] We also have a sense of rigid geometry that that form breaks.

Dr. Zucker: [2:57] These are matchsticks. This is handmade. This is all frail. It’s all fragile. It could all be disassembled or it could break so easily. In that sense, I think it’s a beautiful echo of the fragility of the interior self.

Dr. Harris: [3:09] And the ephemerality of our dreams and the inability to come to terms with our unconscious, to really grasp it and understand it.

[3:18] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A-Level: Alberto Giacometti, The Palace at 4 a.m.," in Smarthistory, July 26, 2017, accessed July 15, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/alberto-giacometti-the-palace-at-4am-2/.