Exhibited only once since 1916, Flucht nach Ägypten is without doubt one of the greatest masterpieces by Augusto Giacometti, a work in which the artist’s talent as a colourist and his poetic vision are beautifully condensed as one, confirming this painter as a pioneer of early abstract painting.
Set against an impressive halo of concentric circles, is a small group of figures passing through with a donkey and a carriage. Lit from behind by the glowing moon, their features remain hidden in the darkness of the night. The title of this work is revealing of their identity: it is the Holy family, fleeing Egypt to escape King Herod.
Depicted with the artist’s typical staggered patches of colour that show an impressive richness of nuances in yellows, golds and greens, Giacometti’s moon is here an overwhelming element of nature which goes beyond human comprehension. However baffling, the artist’s analytical approach to colour and abstraction was a means to understand the laws of nature and to ascend to a higher dimension in a sort of ‘transfiguration’ which is reminiscent of some German Romantics. A similar circular composition imbued with deeper symbolism, and the contrast between human fragility and nature’s ‘sublime’ can also be found in Regenbogen, Kunstmuseum Bern, also painted in 1916.
Biblical subjects were not uncommon for the artist. When in Florence, where he lived between 1902 and 1915, he painted several works including L'annunciazione ai pastori (The Annunciation to the Shepherds), 1905, and Adamo ed Eva e Contemplazione (Adam and Eve and Contemplation), 1907. Medieval frescos and stained glass certainly provided inspiration for his work and might have been of comfort to him during those difficult years: his parents had separated and his younger brother had committed suicide. His dear aunt Marietta then passed away in 1914. Whilst Giacometti might have found comfort in religion, Flucht nach Ägypten also serves as a reminder of the constant struggles faced by his family, not least their forced departure from Florence due to the outbreak of WWI.
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