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Alberto Giacometti | Surrealist sculptor

Giacometti, Alberto (1901-1966) - Sculptor, painter, draughtsman and printmaker, son of Giovanni Giacometti.

Early studies and works, to 1927

He began drawing around 1910-12, followed by painting and sculpting in 1913-15. While at secondary school in Schiers, near Chur (1914-19), he developed his drawing style primarily through portraiture.
In 1919-20 in Geneva he studied painting at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and sculpture at the Ecole des Arts et Métiers but was more impressed by subsequent visits to Italy (1920-21), where he worked without formal instruction.

In sculpture he worked in an academic mode, while in painting he emulated his father’s Post-Impressionist and Fauvist style, which he thoroughly mastered by late 1921, as in Self-portrait (Zurich, Ksthaus).
Consequently in January 1922 he began studying sculpture in Paris under Emile-Antoine Bourdelle at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where he continued intermittently for five years.
In 1925 he ceased drawing and painting to concentrate on sculpture, and his brother - Diego Giacometti joined him in Paris.
In 1927 they moved into the studio at 46, Rue Hippolyte-Maindron in Montparnasse, where Alberto worked for the rest of his life, with annual visits to his family in Switzerland.

Giacometti made few noteworthy sculptures before 1925, when he turned to more avant-garde sources.
After some interest in the formal simplicity of Brancusi’s style, for example in Torso (1925; Zurich, Ksthaus), he turned to Cubism, emulating the works of Jacques Lipchitz and Henri Laurens in his own sculptures of 1927, usually titled simply Composition (Man) or (Man and Woman).
He also turned to African art for inspiration, resulting in his first important sculptures: Man and Woman of 1926 (exhibited in the Salon des Tuileries, Paris) and Spoon Woman of 1926-7 (both Zurich, Ksthaus).
These totemic sculptures consist of radically simplified forms; their rigid frontality and use of male and female nudes as sexual types or symbols were to have long-lasting implications for Giacometti’s later work.

Surrealist period, 1927-1934

Giacometti’s first period of extraordinary creativity began in 1927; during the next seven years he produced sculptures in a wide variety of styles.
In 1927-8 he modelled flattened compositions, including a series of portrait heads of his parents and a group of plaques, notably Gazing Head (Zurich, Ksthaus) and several entitled Woman (e.g. Washington, DC, Hirshhorn).
The plaques reflect a new conceptual approach to sculptural form and space, as Giacometti reduced a head or figure to a few highly abstracted elements on the surface of a flat rectangle.

The plaques attracted the attention of André Masson, through whom Giacometti met Max Ernst, Miró, the French writer Georges Bataille and others who encouraged him to move toward Freudian themes of sexuality, violence and fantasy.
As he incorporated this new orientation, he worked increasingly in open, geometrically structured compositions of linear elements, as in Three Figures Outdoors (1929; Toronto, A.G. Ont.) and Reclining Woman who Dreams (1929; Washington, DC, Hirshhorn), whose semi-abstract imageries convey phallic innuendoes.

The following year he began making more three-dimensional constructions of mixed media, notably Suspended Ball (iron and plaster, 1930; Zurich, Ksthaus), whose kinetic sexual implications prompted André Breton to enrol Giacometti into the ‘officialSurrealist group.

An active member from 1930 until 1935, Giacometti emerged as the Surrealists’ most innovative sculptor, extending the parameters of sculpture both conceptually and stylistically.
In addition to modelling in plaster, he made constructed sculptures with varied and fragile materials, for example suspending elements such as plaster or glass in delicate structures of extremely thin wood and string.

Many sculptures of 1931-1933 exceed the traditional definitions of sculpture by coming tantalizingly close to other ‘categories’: No More Play (Dallas, priv. col.) and Man, Woman, Child (Basle, Öff. Kstsamml.) resemble table-top toy games with movable figures in abstracted landscapes, while Surrealist Table (Paris, Pompidou) approaches furniture design with strange permutations. (At the time Giacometti also did commissions for the interior designer Jean-Michel Frank.) Palace at 4 a.m. (New York, MOMA) resembles a miniature architectural stage set, filled with evocations of the artist’s own dreams, including the skeleton of a pterodactyl and a spine suspended in a cage.

Flower in Danger (Zurich, Ksthaus) threatens imminent destruction of fragile beauty, while Woman with her Throat Cut (Venice, Guggenheim) conveys the aftermath of gruesome violence, including an element of voyeurism, as the viewer stands enthralled by the sculpture’s extraordinary forms.
Hands Holding the Void (The Void; 1934; New Haven, CT, Yale U. A.G.) presents an enigmatic image of unfulfilled metaphysical longing, as the figure grasps at nothingness. In nearly all his Surrealist sculptures, empty space plays an active role, both compositionally and psychologically.

During 1930-36 Giacometti participated in many exhibitions, including Miró-Arp-Giacometti (Galerie Pierre, Paris, 1930), his first one-man show (Galerie Pierre Colle, Paris, 1932), and Surrealist group shows around the world (Galerie Pierre Colle, Paris, 1933; Galerie Charles Raton, Paris, 1936; Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1936; New Burlington Galleries, London, 1936; and others in Brussels, Zurich and Copenhagen).
However, precipitated by his work on the figure in the Invisible Object (1934; Washington, DC, N.G.A.), in 1935 he rejected Surrealism to return to representational art based on study from life.

Interim period, 1935-1945, and emergence of mature style, 1946-55

For the next decade Giacometti struggled through a period of frustrated effort, as he tried to capture the experience of perception, including subjective effects of spatial distance, without lapsing into a merely descriptive style.
He returned to drawing, often copying older art.
He sculpted busts repeatedly as his model posed for days or weeks, and by 1939 he was making obsessively reductivist plasters, some so small that they crumbled into dust.
Although his efforts in Paris and, during World War II, in Geneva (1942-5) produced only a few significant works, they laid the groundwork for his post-war style.
Woman on a Chariot (1942-3; Stuttgart, Staatsgal) prefigures his later female figures, while the Artist’s Mother and Still-life with Apple (1937) mark the start of his post-war linearist painting style.

Only after his return to Paris in late 1945 were Giacometti’s frustrated efforts redirected into producing his mature style, and so began his second phase of intense creativity.
Many factors may have contributed to provide the necessary catalysts: the vitality of post-war Paris, the renewed help and support of his brother Diego, his friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre, and his love affair and domestic life with the young Annette Arm, whom he had met in Geneva in 1943 and married in Paris in 1949.
Among these converging stimuli was a radical alteration of perception (see Charbonnier for the artist’s recollections), which caused him to ‘see’ figures as if at a distance, attenuated and undifferentiated, a vision that he translated into masterpieces of sculpture during the post-war years.

Vestigial traces of Surrealist eeriness are found in some, notably The Nose (Washington, DC, Hirshhorn), Hand (Zurich, Ksthaus) and Head of a Man on a Rod (New York, MOMA).
His best-known post-war sculptures portray single or grouped figures, all startlingly skeletal in proportions and often mounted on large or heavy bases. In bronzes such as the various Tall Figures (Washington, DC, Hirshhorn; Zurich, Ksthaus), Four Figures on a Base (Pittsburgh, PA, Carnegie) and The Chariot (New York, MOMA), his rigid female nudes stand like symbols of the irreducible essence of humanity, unapproachable and indestructible.

His males appear to know their purpose or destination and so are portrayed in motion, as in Man Pointing (New York, MOMA) and the energetically striding figures in Man Walking in the Rain (New York, priv. col.) and Three Men Walking (Zurich, Ksthaus).
The post-war sculptures often suggest an urban setting, as in City Square (New York, MOMA), Woman Walking between Two Houses and Man Crossing a Square (both Zurich, Ksthaus), and they nearly always incorporate a palpable sense of empty space surrounding the individual figures.

Giacometti’s figures, with their seeming emaciation, anonymity and isolation in space, immediately struck a responsive chord in critics and collectors.
His sculptures were perceived as appropriate metaphors for the human condition of post-war Europe: the horror of the concentration camps, displaced persons, destroyed lives.
On a more philosophical level, critics also viewed Giacometti’s art as Existentialist, an interpretation introduced by Sartre in his two essays on Giacometti’s art (1948 and 1954).
This Existentialist interpretation of his sculptures and paintings was the norm during the artist’s lifetime and precipitated a reaction by formalist critics (see Kramer).
Both the contextual and historical interpretations of his art have much validity, but they limit his work to a kind of philosophical illustration, whereas his art expresses a more personal and universal Angst than one specifically of his time and place.

After 1950 Giacometti narrowed his compositional range, eschewing multi-figure compositions and urban contexts for single figures and busts.
After 1952 he modelled many busts of Diego based on life studies and memory.
They range from relatively naturalistic portrayals to those characterized by a distorting vertical ‘pull’ or tension coupled with sharp contrasts between frontal and profile views, as in Large Bust of Diego (1954; Zurich, Ksthaus).
Both his busts and standing nudes are characterized by expressionistically modelled surfaces and fixed frontal stares, both of which tend to keep the viewer at a distance.

During the post-war period of intense productivity, Giacometti drew constantly and painted regularly after a hiatus of 20 years.
His drawing style consisted of rapidly executed, often continuous lines that swirl around, over, and through his subject, never quite defining it yet conveying a sense of its mass and mystery.
The earliest post-war drawings have heavy reworkings, often obscuring facial features in an expressionist vortex of lines.
Around 1954, just as he narrowed his range of compositions in sculpture and painting, he expanded his drawing scope.

His pencil drawings of portraits, nudes, still-lifes and interiors from the mid-1950s display a fusion of power and delicacy, as lines interweave in geometrically structured traceries overlaid with darker smudgings and greyed shadows in a ceaselessly moving realm where nothing appears solid or stable.
His mature painting style developed from that linear drawing method, as he used very thin brushes like pencils.

Many of his post-war paintings have a virtuosic bravura of these black, white, red, and yellow lines, as in Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1950; New York, MOMA), Diego Seated (1948; Norwich, U. E. Anglia, Sainsbury Cent.), Annette in the Studio with ‘The Chariot’ (1950; London, priv. col., see 1969-70 exh. cat., p. 93), Diego in the Red Plaid Shirt (1954; New York, priv. col., see Lamarche-Vadel, p. 97) and Annette (Stuttgart, Staatsgal).
In many compositions the figures appear in understated tension with the surrounding space, subtly isolated from contact with surroundings, interpreted by Sartre as beings in the void of existence.

Giacometti’s post-war work brought him immediate international acclaim.
He had an exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in early 1948 and again in late 1950 and May 1958.
In Paris the Galerie Maeght presented his work in mid-1951, May 1954 and June 1957.
Museums acquired his work, and the Kunsthalle in Berne mounted a one-man show in 1954; the next year he had separate retrospectives at the Arts Council Gallery in London and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Crisis of 1956-7 and late works, 1958-65

Continuing his narrowly prescribed formats in sculpture and painting, primarily busts and standing female nudes, Giacometti worked steadily during the 1950s.
Of particular note are the 15 (10 surviving) standing female sculptures made for exhibitions in Berne and Venice in 1956.
Gradually, however, Giacometti experienced increasing anxieties about his inability to accomplish fully in his work what he set out to do.
This neurosis culminated in late 1956, while he was painting portraits of a visiting Japanese professor of philosophy, Isaku Yanaïhara (Paris, Pompidou; Chicago, IL, A. Inst.; priv. cols).

The crisis of self-doubt initially and most visibly affected his painting, with which he became obsessed.
The rapid bravura linearity of the post-war years in works such as Annette (1949; priv. col., see 1969-70 exh. cat., no. 136) yielded to indecisiveness, to obsessive overpainting and obliteration, so that his canvases became increasingly characterized by grey miasmas overwhelming the figure (or object), as in Large Standing Nude (1958; Düsseldorf, Kstsamml. Nordrhein-Westfalen).

After the crisis period, Giacometti continued to suffer deeply but his work in all media became stronger, especially from 1959-1962.
These late works are characterized by tremendous intensity and expressive execution.
In 1959-60 he made a group of large sculptures (originally commissioned for the Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York but never finalized), as a summation of the three major themes of his oeuvre: the Large Standing Woman I–IV, which average 2.74 m in height, the Monumental Bust and the life-size Walking Man I-II.
From 1962-1965 he worked on a series of 10 busts of Annette and others of Diego and the Romanian-born photographer Elie Lotar (1905-69).

All have disturbingly obsessive gazes, vigorously modelled surfaces and distorted silhouettes; their staring faces, often deeply scored by cuts from the modelling knife, peer forward as if seeking to penetrate beyond their own reality.
In his paintings some linearity returned but in a subtly different way, merging with the grey nebulous space to produce a sculptural yet ghostly three-dimensionality, in tandem with a gestural expressiveness.
Along with a number of paintings of Annette in 1960-62 (e.g. Washington, DC, Hirshhorn), many of his most powerful late paintings depict a young prostitute called Caroline, of whom he was enamoured (e.g. 1962; Basle, Kstmus).
He also painted a series of ‘dark heads’ of Diego, modest in scale but haunting and almost morbid in effect (e.g. Head of Diego, 1961; Boston, MA, Mus. F.A.).

During the last years of his life, public fame claimed a significant amount of Giacometti’s time, as collectors, dealers, young artists, curators and the media flocked to his tiny studio.
Both Matisse and Maeght presented successful exhibitions of his work in 1961, followed by a major showing of over 100 works at the Venice Biennale in 1962.
The Kunsthaus in Zurich (1962-3), the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC (1963), the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1965) and the Tate Gallery in London (1965) all showed large retrospectives.
Early in 1963 he had surgery for stomach cancer, and he became increasingly unwell though he continued to work. | Source: by Valerie J. Fletcher © Oxford University Press.