Alberto GiacomettiSwiss, 1901 - 1966
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It's a rather unusual thing for a person to spend more of his time trying to copy a head than in living life.1
From the beginning to the end of his career Alberto Giacometti (1901 - 1966) struggled to grasp the living reality of the human head. The problem, which pursued him through each phase of stylistic evolution, was insurmountable because he wanted his art to capture the ephemeral radiance of existence. The nature of his struggle, which would be hard to divine from his work alone, is known from the artist's own clear articulation (and at times dramatization) of his ambition in various interviews and in his writings. Giacometti's life story has been aptly described as "a saga in which the artistic search and stylistic crises are the adventures and turning points."2
Born in 1901 on the Italian border of Switzerland, Giacometti began making portrait sculptures at the age of thirteen. After working with his father, Giovanni Giacometti, a Post-Impressionist painter, he began in 1919 to study painting in Geneva at the École des Beaux-Arts and modeling at the École des Arts Industriels. In Paris between 1922 and 1927, he worked at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière with Émile Antoine Bourdelle, who strongly encouraged his students to make portrait busts.3 In 1923-24 Giacometti spent an entire winter drawing a skull, but a year later he all but abandoned working from life and, under the influence of Cubism and tribal art, began making abstract, geometrized figures. Even so, in the summer of 1927 he also did some portrait heads--remarkable images of his mother and father that pointed the way to the next phase of his work. In a bronze head of his father he simply engraved the features onto the face, while in a marble head he rendered his father's features as mere surface indentations. Giacometti's first mature sculpture, Gazing Head (1928),4 an abstract plaster with an elusive deep-set eye, drew elements from the simplified portraits of his parents while also hauntingly foreshadowing his heads of the 1950s, in which the gaze became his primary means for capturing the life of the sitter.
Giacometti's career is characterized by violent breaks from intensive study of live models to work from sources inspired by his imagination--it would almost seem that at times he found the confrontation with reality unbearable and had to retreat to the images in his mind. This was the case when he turned to Cubism and tribal art in 1926 as well as when he began to make Surrealist objects in 1931, yet he never completely ceased making heads.5 He was also challenged by the problem of how to represent figures seen from afar,6 which he solved in a mysterious series of tiny busts and figures placed on large pedestals to evoke distance. These showed the way, after 1945, to the minimal, elongated figural sculptures for which Giacometti is best known-the works in which he concentrated on the spatial environment in which figures exist rather than on their physical presence.
During the early to mid-1950s, a magisterial series of sculpted busts of Giacometti's brother Diego continued his fascination with articulating the distance from the model and heralded a return to creating works with greater substance. The portraits of Diego were treated in a highly expressionistic manner characterized by agitated surfaces, haunted, oversized eyes, and, in some of them, startling differences between frontal and profile views.7 Giacometti's lifelong desire to capture living reality seems finally to have concentrated in these busts, and it intensified in a later series created during the last years of his life, one of which is the Chiavenna Bust I,8 which also portrays Diego. In the late portraits of Diego and of the photographer Elie Lotar, Giacometti severely reduced the torsos to focus on large, spectral heads that jut forward on improbably long, thin necks. Here the sitter's elevated gaze no longer seems focused but instead stares into an indefinable zone that lies beyond the viewer. Attention is also drawn to the figure's strong, vigorous silhouette as well as to the artist's technique, which indicates passionate kneading and gouging of the sculpture's surface, allowing light to flicker over it and add a mysterious energy. According to Valerie Fletcher, Giacometti worked on his last busts over many weeks and months both from memory and from the sitters, and "considered them works in progress with no absolute state."9 Possibly in the end Giacometti had concluded that a head left in "no absolute state" might best capture the ephemeral quality of life he had been seeking for so long.
Innis Howe Shoemaker, from Adventures in Modern Art: The Charles K. Williams II Collection, (2009), pp. 153-155.
2. Reinhold Hohl, "Form and Vision: The Work of Alberto Giacometti," in Alberto Giacometti: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat. (New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1974), p. 15.
3. Reinhold Hohl, Alberto Giacometti (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1971), p. 30.
4. The bronze The Artist's Father (Flat and Engraved), the marble The Artist's Father, and Gazing Head are reproduced in Christian Klemm et al., Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art; Zurich: Kunsthaus Zurich, 2001), nos. 27, 26, and 31, respectively.
5. Such as the severely abstracted Head/Skull (1934), created soon after his father's death, which is reproduced in ibid., no. 62.
6. Apparently, in 1937 he discussed with Picasso the problem of how to make small sculptures of figures seen from a distance. See "Chronology," in ibid., p. 284.
7. Some of the busts of Diego from 1951-54 are reproduced in ibid., nos. 138-43.
8. Its title refers to the town of Chiavenna in Switzerland, near Stampa, where Giacometti's family lived.
9. Valerie J. Fletcher, Alberto Giacometti, 1901-1966, exh. cat. (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1988), p. 234, no. 104.