- Curious Peoples
- Alberto Giacometti
Sculpting the Essence of Reality
Alberto Giacometti, born in 1901 in Switzerland, was a sculptor, painter, draftsman, and printmaker. He emerged as a pivotal figure in post-World War II modern sculpture with his iconic elongated figures, reflecting existentialist themes akin to those found in literature.
Alberto Giacometti by Emmy Andriesse, 1948
Giacometti grew up in the scenic Val Bregaglia, near the Swiss-Italian border, as the son of Giovanni Giacometti, a renowned Impressionist painter. Influenced by his father and godfather, Cuno Amiet, a Fauvist painter, Giacometti explored art from an early age, experimenting with pencil, oil, and sculpture. By 13, he was sculpting likenesses of his brothers, Diego and Bruno, who also pursued creative paths as a furniture designer and architect, respectively.
At 21, Giacometti moved to Paris to immerse himself in the city’s vibrant art scene, exploring Cubism and primitive art. His artistic breakthrough came with his first significant bronze piece, Spoon Woman (1926–27), unveiled at the Salon des Tuileries.
Spoon Woman by Alberto Giacometti, 1926–27 (cast 1954)
He settled in a modest studio at 46 rue Hippolyte-Maindron, a space he once described as “just a hole” due to its cramped conditions. Despite initial plans to move, this studio became his lifelong artistic haven, frequented by cultural luminaries such as philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, novelist Samuel Beckett, artist Henri Matisse, and actress Marlene Dietrich.
Alberto Giacometti in his studio by Robert Doisneau, 1957
During his 30s, Giacometti crafted decorative items like lamps and vases, collaborating with designer Jean Michel Frank and enjoying features in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, never viewing these works as lesser than his sculptures.
In the early 1930s, Giacometti became part of André Breton’s surrealist group, actively participating in its initiatives. Despite being expelled later for the realistic elements in his art, he continued to explore surrealist themes, especially those related to sexuality and trauma. At the same time, he became deeply interested in portraying the human head, with a special emphasis on the eyes. He saw them as gateways to the soul, aiming to capture life’s essence through his subjects’ gazes.
Gazing Head by Alberto Giacometti, 1929 © Succession Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris et ADAGP, Paris)
The onset of World War II in 1940 forced Giacometti and his brother Diego to flee Paris by bicycle, narrowly escaping the German advance. After a brief return to Paris, they relocated to Geneva until 1946. During these tumultuous years, Giacometti began creating tiny, roughly textured sculptures of figures and heads, so small they seemed to be distant in space.
The City Square by Alberto Giacometti, 1948–49
Post-war, a revelatory experience altered Giacometti’s perception of reality, inspiring him to scale up his sculptures, albeit in a more slender form. His fame grew with these unique figures, yet he maintained a modest lifestyle, often using familiar models for his work, including his wife Annette and brother Diego.
His sculptures in the 1940s and 1950s, particularly Man Pointing and The Chariot, showcased distinct treatments of male and female figures. His male figures typically depict motion, either walking or pointing, while his female figures are often stationary, standing on wedge-shaped bases.
Man Pointing, 1947 (left) and The Chariot, 1950 (right) by Alberto Giacometti © MoMa
When questioned about the different treatment of male and female figures, Giacometti acknowledged that women felt inherently more remote to him. This perception was influenced by his adolescent experience of becoming infertile due to mumps, which he later associated with his impotence issues.
Giacometti’s portraits, whether in painting or sculpture, present the model as a mysterious presence that can’t be fully understood. These pieces, lacking in emotion and expression, invite viewers to interpret them in their own way. Giacometti was more often interested in capturing the energy and essence of his subjects rather than their inner thoughts or feelings.
Rita by Alberto Giacometti, c.1965 © Succession Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris et ADAGP, Paris)
In 1948, Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay The Search for the Absolute, written for a New York exhibition, highlighted Giacometti’s intense psychological struggle with art-making, often leading him to spend years on works he eventually deemed satisfactory. Frequently, he destroyed more pieces than he completed. Following this, Giacometti’s figures began to symbolize existentialist ideas and the collective post-war distress. A critic noted, “Reduced, as they are, to their very core, these figures evoke lone trees in winter that have lost their foliage.”
The Walking Man I by Alberto Giacometti, 1960
Despite achieving international recognition in the 1960s, Giacometti’s health declined. He continued to create until his death in 1966 due to heart disease. In 2010, his life-sized bronze sculpture, The Walking Man I, was sold at auction for one of the highest prices ever for a sculpture. This same piece was also featured on the 100 Swiss Franc banknote, cementing Giacometti’s impact on modern art and celebrating his exploration of the human condition through sculpture.
Words of wisdom
“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” —Maya Angelou
“We gain the strength of the temptation we resist.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
“In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” —Abraham Lincoln
“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” ―Mark Twain
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