In most cases, public awareness and discussion of an artist’s work serves to promote the artist’s vision. In the case of Alberto Giacometti, however, the great amount of exposure, public recognition, and discussion (even among art historians) has essentially drowned out Giacometti’s message. It has been argued that through his work, Giacometti was “making a judgment based on his understanding and evaluation of the scientific status of modern culture.” ((Richard H. Bell, “Giacometti’s Art as a Judgment on Culture,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 47 (1989): 16.)) His mature work–particularly his signature thin, attenuated sculptures of the human figure–are now almost synonymous with the ideas of existentialism, although it is quite apparent that no interpretation of the state of humankind was meant by Giacometti. Although it has been said that his mature work was meant to be a commentary on his culture, particularly an attempt to highlight the inherent isolation of modernism, it can be argued that Giacometti’s art was actually the result of his fierce and continuous efforts to capture accurately his uniquely personal view of the world.
Giacometti’s interest in recreating the visible led both his critics and peers to recognize him as a traditional artist. ((Patrick Elliot, “Paris: Drawings by Alberto Giacometti,” Burlington Magazine 143 (2003): 315.)) Although he is best known for sculpture and secondarily for his paintings, drawing represented his earliest and most consistent ventures into art, and the first place he learned to transcribe the visual world. ((Karen Wilkin, “Sculpture in the Void: Giacometti at MOMA.” The New Criterion 20 (2001): 33.)) He began drawing at a young age, influenced by the art of his father, the artist Giovanni Giacometti. ((Hubert Matter, Alberto Giacometti (New York: Abrams, 1987), 197.)) A great deal of his childhood in the tiny Swiss town of Stampa was spent experimenting with his power to render the natural world with his pencil. ((Laurie Wilson, “Giacometti’s Thin Figures: Dead Men Walking,” Art in America 90 (2002): 134.)) The consistency of his drawing during childhood had as much to do with the dominance and control he felt in copying and reproducing “whatever [he] wanted” as it did with artistic inspiration. ((Matter, Giacometti, 197.)) Giacometti consistently referred to this realist-based drawing as the grounding of his art; even later, when he focused his efforts on sculpture, he continued to sketch constantly. ((James Lord, Mythic Giacometti (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004), 21.)) Inspired by an “insatiable interest in people and the world around him,” Giacometti drew everything he saw, constantly scribbling on the edges of newspapers and revising his earlier drawings. ((Matter, Giacometti, 197.)) Even when he didn’t have a pen or pencil at hand–when he was talking with friends or performing various other everyday tasks–Giacometti was known for motioning with his finger as if he were sketching. ((Valerie J. Flectcher, Alberto Giacometti, 1901-1966 (Washington, DC: The Smithsonian Institution, 1988), 51.)) Despite his lifelong loyalty to the pencil, his drawings were never created as preparations for his paintings or sculptures; for Giacometti, drawing was a fundamental method for transcribing reality that should–and could–stand on its own. ((Matter, Giacometti, 212.))
It was this adherence to physical appearance, rooted in drawing, which would become the core of Giacometti’s aesthetic philosophy later in his life. His sojourn into Surrealism, for example, represents a departure from his previous veristic methods, but eventually his interest in the physical made it too difficult to continue in the abstract Surrealist vein. ((Elliot, “Paris,” 315.)) His brief dabbling was more of a period of experimentation for the young artist rather than a true expression of his goals. ((Elliot, “Paris,” 315.)) His Surrealist period occurred shortly after he moved to Paris in 1922, when the city was a hotbed of new artistic styles, and Giacometti was a young impressionable man of twenty-one. ((Fletcher, “Giacometti,” 23.)) Although he moved in order to study under Emily-Antoine Bourdelle, a relatively traditional sculptor, the creative storm of Paris in the 1920s soon opened his eyes to other styles, including Cubism, Surrealism, and the influence of African art. ((Yves Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of His Work (Paris: Flammarion, 2001), 127.)) It was not a lack of talent in Surrealism that led to his break from the group. Giacometti’s work of the late 1920s and early 1930s, during which he was officially included in the Surrealist group and frequently exhibited with them, solidified his place among the great Surrealist sculptors. ((Wilkin, “Sculpture,” 34.)) The group’s emphasis on non-reality, however, as well as its lack of grounding in physicality, proved to be too divergent from Giacometti’s values as an artist. ((Elizabeth Cowling, “Effective Affinities: Giacometti in the Palace of Bones,” Apollo 158 (2003): 34.)) He recognized his fundamentally realist tendencies and “returned to working from the model and embraced the visible world. . .as his theme,” a change that led to his official break with the Surrealists in 1934. ((Bonnefoy, Giacometti, 192.))
It was this adherence to physical appearance, rooted in drawing, which would become the core of Giacometti’s aesthetic philosophy later in his life.
As Giacometti’s work evolved, his traditional background conflicted with his growing need to construct a personal vision. Documenting his surroundings was not enough for the artist, and yet such documentation represented not only his background–especially in drawing–but also the very reason he had continued to pursue art. He struggled with the fact that his work, if it exactly copied the physical world, failed to convey his sensation of the subject, and invariably left him unsatisfied. ((Wilson, “Giacometti’s,” 134.)) His sculpture, in particular, caused him difficulty; the inorganic nature of his materials–clay, plaster, and bronze–made it necessary for him to compensate for their inanimate nature by changing their physical appearance. ((Bonnefoy, Giacometti, 132.)) As he told David Sylvester in 1965, he felt that veristic sculpture, like that of the Greeks, was “nothing but enormous rocks, enormous dead rocks,” whose mimetic qualities were false. ((David Sylvester et al., “Beyond Illusion,” Modern Painters 16 (2003): 23.)) In his attempt to convey in an instant the sensation of life (especially its inherent lightness), Giacometti needed to reduce and attenuate until the “dead rock” gave the sensation of movement and agility. ((Sylvester, “Beyond,” 23.))
Giacometti described his signature pieces–Man Walking, for example–as “involuntary” reductions, and the result of personal vision. ((Sylvester, “Beyond,” 23.)) He constantly found himself reducing and reducing until his figures were nearly “dust,” and despite the hatred he felt for the tiny figurines, he understood that he could not compromise his need to create them. ((Sylvester, “Beyond,” 23.)) For Giacometti, who labeled the search for truth greater than the search for art, the sacrifice of physical representation was not only unavoidable, but also ultimately necessary in order to convey his understanding of the world. ((Matter, Giacometti, 205.))
The development of Giacometti’s art, culminating in what is referred to as his “mature style,” was a direct aesthetic result, not only of the balance that he reached between objectivity and subjectivity, but also of his personal confrontations with death and crises of perception. He first encountered death at the age of nineteen, when he witnessed the passing of his friend, Peter van Meurs. ((Roxana Marcoci, “Perceptions at Play: Giacometti through Contempoary Eyes.” Art Journal 64 (2005): 25.)) Van Meurs’ sole companion on a journey to Italy, Giacometti stayed by his friend’s side and watched him slowly die of heart failure. ((Cowling, “Elective,” 38.)) The experience, which was only a matter of hours, was long enough to leave an indelible impression on Giacometti. Death’s power and immediacy became instantly apparent in a way he had never known. For the first time, he understood life’s frailty: “in a few hours van Meurs had become an object, nothing.” ((Lord, Mythic Giacometti, 38.))
It was a turning point in Giacometti’s life and his perception as he became impressed by the fine and fragile line between life and death. ((Lord, Mythic Giacometti, 40.)) He began to see living people–especially their heads–as objects: “an object. . .like any other object, but at the same time not like just any other object, but as something alive and dead simultaneously.” ((Lord, Mythic Giacometti, 40.)) Giacometti was terrified, but could not escape this morbid perception; it was repeated “in the subway, in the street, in the restaurant.” ((James Lord, Giacometti: A Biography, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983): 258.)) With the change in his perception came a major shift in his work’s evolution. Many of his works deal explicitly with death and its personal meaning for the artist; Head on a Rod, among others, captures Giacometti’s attempt to convey his distinct vision: the sensation of simultaneous life and death, object and animate being. Giacometti’s troubling vision presented an obstacle to his artistic production. Its terror might have subverted his faith in mankind, or at least might have impeded his creative process. ((Lord, Giacometti, 258.)) Nevertheless, Giacometti persisted in his studies of people, and attempted to convey their inner truth. Even with a vision that objectified the living being, Giacometti continued to overcome the influence of death. ((Bonnefoy, Giacometti, 102.)) At once, he acknowledged the mortality of the appearances from which he worked, and overcame that fact. ((Bonnefoy, Giacometti, 297.))
In 1945, while watching a film, Giacometti reports an equally important influence that prompted not only a change in his perception, but also made him “want to try to represent what [he] saw.” ((Bonnefoy, Giacometti, 300.)) As he watched a film in a Parisian movie theatre, instead of recognizing the forms and shapes on the screen, he saw “only black and white specks shifting on a flat surface. ((Cowling, “Elective,” 38.)) The film, he realized, was only an imitation of three-dimensionality. ((Lord, Giacometti, 258.)) When he turned to other members of the audience, he saw the same two-dimensionality, realizing that his “vision of the world had been photographic, as it had been for almost everybody, and that a photograph. . .cannot truly convey reality. ((Lord, Giacometti, 258.)) His perception was totally altered, punctuated by the knowledge that until then, he had not experienced this reality. Having experienced both the photographic perception that most people possess, as well as a perceptual revelation that awakened a “truer” reality, Giacometti sought thereafter to convey his new way of viewing the world. His aesthetic was to represent his own reality.
Giacometti recognized the need to base his work in physicality, but also to convey what he came to understand as a unique visual method. His overarching goal was to find the most essential truth in the human, and to make use of outer appearances to convey that special truth. ((Lord, Giacometti, 258)) His search for truth, which he defined as the primary project of his life, was pursued through the lens of his personal vision. ((Howard Cannatella, “In Defense of Observational Practice in Art and Design Education,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 38 (2004): 75.)) Except for his Surrealist period, Giacometti worked from a model, struggling to bring to the surface the inner force he felt in the human figure. ((Marcoci, “Perceptions,” 25.)) He spent extended time studying his model before he attempted to paint or sculpt him or her, and was infamous for forcing even young children to remain perfectly still in order for him to feel, through his sight, their interiors. ((Wilkin, “Sculpture,” 34.)) His gaze was so scrutinizing that one sitter described it as veritably tangible force, as if “Giacometti’s hands were actually touching his face.” ((Bonnefoy, Giacometti, 15.))
The dynamic, even violent, force he felt in the human form was so overwhelming that it was necessary for Giacometti to reduce his sculptures to parts of the body. ((Wilson, “Giacometti’s,” 138.)) This partial viewing of the human form was not simply an aesthetic focus; he truly saw people “as very small, as tiny figurines.” ((Wilson, “Giacometti’s,” 139.)) Such a vision made it “impossible [for him] to imagine they [were] life-size,” and if they came near to him, Giacometti could only see one part of them at a time. ((Matter, Giacometti, 205.)) He found sculpting an entire figure an enormous task. In order to cope when dealing with the force of such magnitude, he either reduced the figures to a manageable size, or focused solely on a single part of the body. Heads, and especially eyes, represented the core of what he took to be the animating force in humankind–what separated the human figure from becoming simply an “object”–and consequently free-standing heads became the subjects of his work more frequently, their gazes becoming more pronounced. Often, he stated that if he could “grasp the form of the eye, it would resemble the look.” ((Matter, Giacometti, 205.))
The human’s interior force, which Giacometti felt so vividly, represented the crux of his frustration with sculpture. He was never satisfied with his sculptures, constantly revising their plaster casts so much that at times they had to be taken from his hands in order to be cast into bronze. ((Matter, Giacometti, 205.)) His goal was to convey the energy of the human in outward appearance, an energy that was not only overwhelmingly powerful, but also in a constant state of flux. ((Matter, Giacometti, 205.)) To capture effectively the life-force of the human was impossible for Giacometti. Such a definite and permanent summation was antithetical to the formless, shifting, and unconquerable force of life, which could only occur in or after death, when it stopped its movement. ((Matter, Giacometti, 214.)) Thus, Giacometti had to reconcile himself to the fact that he was attempting an impossible task and could never be satisfied with his work. Despite this realization, he valiantly continued in his quest to find the essential in the human form.
Giacometti was profoundly invested in his work. It was deeply personal, and inseparable from other aspects of his life. He did not create his art as a means of accomplishing his goal, whether that goal involved an awareness of humanity’s isolation or not. His art was his goal, and he ardently sought to capture his way of seeing. His vision was in no way objective; it was undeniably shaped by Giacometti’s personal experience. His encounter with death at a young age, and his perceptual revelation in a movie theatre are only two examples of the influence of his personal life on his work. The fact is that his life is inextricably bound to his art. He had no impartial message to convey. Giacometti lived, both literally and metaphorically, in his studio. ((Bonnefoy, Giacometti, 16.)) His life and his vision were the motivation and goal of his art.
Bell, Richard. “Giacometti’s Art as a Judgment on Culture.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 47 (1989): 14-37.
Bonnefoy, Yves. Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of His Work. Paris: Flammarion, 2001.
Branch, Paul. “Alberto Giacometti and the Endless Search.” Art in America 90 (2002): 125-42.
Cannatella, Howard. “In Defense of Observational Practice in Art and Design Education.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 38 (2004): 70-81.
Cowling, Elizabeth. “Elective Affinities: Giacometti in the Palace of Bones.” Apollo 158 (2003): 31-47.
Elliott, Patrick. “Paris: Drawings by Alberto Giacometti.” Burlington Magazine 143 (2003): 297-318.
Fletcher, Valerie J. Alberto Giacometti, 1901-1966. Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution, 1988.
Lord, James. Giacometti: A Biography. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983.
Marcoci, Roxana. “Perceptions at Play: Giacometti through Contemporary Eyes.” Art Journal 64 (2005): 25.
Sylvester, David, et al. “Beyond Illusion.” Modern Painters. 16 (2003): 22-24.
Matter, Hubert. Alberto Giacometti. New York: Abrams, 1987.
Cartier-Bresson, Henri. “Giacometti” n.d. gelatin silver print. 13 3/4″ x 9 1/4 “. The Phillips Collection.
Giacometti, Alberto. “Man Walking.” 1960. cast bronze. 71 3/4″ x 10 1/2″. Albright-Knox Gallery.