Alberto Giacometti
Swiss
1901-1966

Giacometti was born into a family of artists. His father Giovanni had a certain reputation as a landscape artist; his uncle Augusto was also a painter; Cuno Amiet was his godfather. He began to draw as a young child, was painting from 1913, and in 1914 at the age of 13 he sculpted his first bust, that of his younger brother Diego. In 1919, he attended the Ecole des Arts et Metiers in Geneva. In 1920 and 1921 he traveled to Italy, visiting the museums and copying the works by Cimabue, Giotto and Tintoretto. In 1922 he arrived in Paris as a pupil in the studio of Emile-Antoine Bourdelle at the Academie de la Grande-Chaumiere until 1925; he also worked with Alexander Archipenko. After three years he noted that the closer he came to reality with a view to penetrating it, the more it eluded him. So he deliberately moved away from this reality.

From 1925 to 1935, mind of the works of Jacques Lipchitz and particularly Henri Laurens, whom he admired throughout his life, he produced objects that were not imitative, but reduced to simple and essential forms, imaginary and symbolic, with sometimes erotic and sadistic effects. Many of these works brought into play connections between forms or paradoxical ideas: full, rounded form contrasting with hollow, curved with jagged, heavy with floating, and so on. The form they took leaned toward Abstraction in the tradition of Brancusi, and were often presented confined in a kind of cage, a materialization of the space surrounding it. The symbolic was at one with the magical, and the Surrealists saw in these works the sculptural materialization of visions and dreams.

From 1935 to 1945, Giacometti abandoned the creation of these objects. At the same time, he broke away from the Surrealist group, no longer able to endure its hierarchical organization. He returned to questioning nature, destroying more sculptures than he was producing. His practical objects, which were more extraordinary than functional, mostly date from this time: chandeliers and frames produced in collaboration with his brother Diego. At this time, all his sculptures met with the fate he himself recounted: “In 1940, to my horror, my statues started to diminish. I wanted to reproduce from memory a lady friend I loved…I wanted to make her 80cm high. And well, it became so small that I was no longer able to add any detail…All my statues ended up one centimeter high. One touch more and hop! No more statues!”

He said that when leaving France for the duration of the war, he could remove his entire sculpture collection, which was housed in his studio, in a box of kitchen matches. This period, from which not much remains, came to a difficult close in the post-war years: “I was fed up. I vowed to let me statues no longer diminish by an inch. Then this happened: I retained the height, but they became thin, thin, huge and spindly.” Although this decision was the basis for the work he produced in the second period of his life, the transition from one period to the next was not a smooth one and, over the future years, he had to endure his creations emerging from his hands without having much control over them. Throughout the endless experimentations that constituted this second period of his work, very few models posed for him: his wife Annette, his brother Diego, a Japanese teacher and on rare occasions a few others including Jean Genet or Aime and Marguerite Maeght.

With the exception of the paintings he produced in his youth (which were influenced by Impressionism, then by Cubism and Surrealism), and some very rare paintings dating from the 1930s, at the time when he returned to the human figure and his friendships with Francis Gruber and Pierre Tal-Coat, it was also during the second period, from 1946, that he produced almost the entire body of his paintings, at the same time as the sculptures. These paintings were treated as ‘grisailles’; if their content were not sensuously glazed, they would almost qualify as drawings using a brush. The labyrinth of sharp lines, scratches, erasures and reworkings, calls to mind a multi-faceted assault; feverish, dissatisfied; models, more or less the same ones as his sculptures, were tackled head-on; interiors, still-lifes and a few landscapes were added to the figures. As for the work which resulted from this somewhat obliterated life, it still has a sense of absence, with an elusive quality that Aragon, Breton, Sartre, Genet, Leiris, Ponge and Dupin so much wanted to grasp: ‘It’s an incredible misunderstanding,’ he said. ‘It began in 1948, with my first exhibition in New York. Since then the critics and writers talk of a metaphysical or poetic content in my work. But for me, it is purely optical exercise. I try to represent a head as I see it.’ Yet he was well aware that he was not sculpting as innocently as he appeared to let people think. In the pre-war period of his work, Giacometti was rooted in his certainties based on the recognition it had found with the Surrealists. While he distanced himself from their restrictive formalism, he was completely rejected by Andre Breton; it was evident that he experienced a long period of doubt, anxiety and solitude.

After 1946-1947, embarked on the other part of his work, in sculpture and painting, which lasted until the end of his life and earned him considerable fame. In some way, his return to representation, which was more pronounced in painting than in sculpture, was sometimes perceived a regression. On the other hand, his fragmented, labyrinthine, or reworked style in drawing and painting, as well as the emaciated elongation of the bodies, the disproportions of the feet or heads in sculpture could have seemed like a form of mannerism. However, those philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Pont and Jean-Paul Sartre, who were active after the Occupation, saw in his figures a ‘questioning apparition,’ took possession of this new phase in Giacometti’s work in support of their own ideas. Moreover, this realization of the impossibility of reaching the underlying existence of his models, and the limitation of merely capturing appearances without any real substance, brought him closer to the philosophy of the Absurd and Existentialism. This interpretation and appraisal of his work liberated him from the double-edged suggestion of regression and mannerism, and placed him, conversely, within the full tradition of the philosophical context that characterized the spirit of that particular era. 

He won the Carnegie Prize awarded by the Pittsburgh Foundation in 1961; the grand prize in sculpture at the Venice Biennale in 1962 and the national prize of the Arts in 1965. In the same year large-scale retrospectives were held at the Tate Gallery in London, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and the Louisiana Museum in Copenhagen.

Source: Benezit E., Dictionary of Artists, Editions Grund, Paris, 2006, Vol.6, pgs.123-4