Alberto Giacometti († January 11, 1966 in Chur) was a Swiss modernist sculptor, painter and graphic artist who lived and worked mainly in Paris from 1922. He remained attached to his native mountain valley Bergell; there he met his family and devoted himself to his artistic work.
Giacometti is one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century. His work is influenced by cubism, surrealism and the philosophical questions surrounding the condition humaine, as well as existentialism and phenomenology. Around 1935 he abandoned surrealist works to devote himself to “compositions with figures”. Between 1938 and 1944, the figures were no more than seven centimeters tall. They were intended to reflect the distance at which he had seen the model.
Giacometti”s most famous works were created in the post-war period; in the extremely long, slender sculptures, the artist carried out his new experience of distance after a visit to the cinema, in which he recognized the difference between his way of seeing and that of photography and film. With his subjective visual experience, he created the sculpture not as a physical replica in real space, but as “an imaginary image in its simultaneously real and imaginary, tangible and inaccessible space.”
Giacometti”s painterly œuvre was initially a smaller part of his oeuvre. After 1957, figurative painting took its place on an equal footing with sculpture. His almost monochrome painting of the late period “cannot be assigned to any stylistic form of modernism,” said Lucius Grisebach reverently.
Childhood and school years
Alberto Giacometti was born in Borgonovo, a mountain village in Bergell, near Stampa in the canton of Graubünden, the first of four children of the Post-Impressionist painter Giovanni Giacometti and his wife Annetta Giacometti-Stampa (1871-1964). They were followed as his siblings Diego, Ottilia (1904-1937) and Bruno. In the late autumn of 1903, the Giacomettis moved to Stampa to the “Piz Duan” inn, which was family-owned and had been run by his brother Otto Giacometti since the death of his grandfather Alberto Giacometti (1834-1933). The inn was named after the nearby mountain Piz Duan. In 1906, the family moved into an apartment in a house diagonally opposite the inn, which became the family center for the next sixty years. Giovanni Giacometti converted the adjacent barn into a studio. From 1910, through an inheritance, the family had a summer house with studio on Lake Sils in Capolago, Maloja, which became their second home. Alberto”s cousin Zaccaria Giacometti, later professor of constitutional law and rector of the University of Zurich, was also a frequent visitor there.
In addition to his native Italian, Alberto Giacometti spoke German, French and English. His father taught him to draw and model. His uncle Augusto Giacometti was involved in the Zurich Dada circle with abstract compositions. Brother Diego also became a sculptor as well as a furniture and object designer, and Bruno became an architect. Giacometti”s godfather was the Swiss painter Cuno Amiet, who was a close friend of his father.
In 1913 Giacometti executed his first accurate drawing, based on Albrecht Dürer”s engraving Knight, Death and the Devil, and painted his first oil painting, an apple still life on a folding table. At the end of 1914 he created his first sculptures, the heads of the brothers Diego and Bruno in plasticine. In August 1915 Giacometti began a school education at the Evangelische Mittelschule in Schiers. Due to his above-average achievements and artistic skills, he was granted his own room, which he was allowed to furnish as a studio.
Giacometti spent the spring and summer of 1919 in Stampa and Maloja, where he was constantly occupied with drawings and divisionist painting. The decision to become an artist was made, so that after four years he stopped his schooling before taking the Matura and began studying art in Geneva in the fall of 1919. He learned painting at the École des Beaux-Arts and sculpture and drawing at the École des Arts et Métiers. In 1920 Giacometti accompanied his father, who was a member of the Federal Art Commission at the Venice Biennale, to Venice, where he was impressed by the works of Alexander Archipenko and Paul Cézanne. In the lagoon city he was fascinated by the works of Tintoretto and in Padua by Giotto”s frescoes in the Cappella degli Scrovegni.
In 1921 he made a study trip through Italy, staying first in Rome with relatives of his family. Here he visited the city”s museums and churches, filled sketchbooks with drawings after mosaics, paintings, and sculptures, attended operas and concerts, and read writings by Sophocles and Oscar Wilde, among others, which inspired him to make drawings. He fell unhappily in love with his cousin Bianca; the work on her bust did not satisfy him. From the beginning of April he visited Naples, Paestum and Pompeii. In Madonna di Campiglio in September, his 61-year-old travel companion Pieter van Meurs died suddenly of heart failure. Giacometti then returned to Stampa via Venice.
Living and working in Paris
In January 1922 Giacometti went to Paris and continued his training until 1927, taking courses in sculpture with Émile-Antoine Bourdelle and in nude drawing at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière on Montparnasse, which he often did not attend for months. He socialized a lot at first with Swiss artists of his own age, such as Kurt Seligmann and Serge Brignoni. A fellow student, Pierre Matisse, later became his art dealer. He maintained a loose relationship with Flora Mayo, a U.S. sculptor, until 1929; they made portraits of each other in clay. In Paris he became acquainted with the work of Henri Laurens, whom he met in person in 1930, as well as Jacques Lipchitz and Constantin Brâncuși.
Three years after beginning his studies in Paris, Giacometti had his first exhibition at the Salon des Tuileries in Paris. Invited by Bourdelle, he showed two of his works in 1925, a head by Diego Giacometti and the post-Cubist sculpture Torse (Torso). The torso, reduced to a few angular block forms, aroused the displeasure of his teacher Bourdelle: “You make something like that for yourself at home, but you don”t show it.”
In February 1925, his brother Diego followed him from Switzerland to the studio he had moved into at 37 rue Froidevaux in January of that year. In the early summer of 1926, the brothers moved to a new, smaller studio at 46 rue Hippolyte-Maindron, which Giacometti kept until his death. Diego Giacometti found his profession in the design field and supported his brother in his work; he became not only Alberto”s favorite model, but from 1930 beyond that his closest collaborator.
To earn a living, the brothers made decorative plaster wall sconces and vases for Jean-Michel Frank, whom they had met through Man Ray in 1929, and made jewelry for fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Frank made the bronze Figure Version Étoile floor lamp for Schiaparelli, also based on a design by Alberto Giacometti. Through Frank, they became acquainted with Parisian haute société; the Vicomte de Noailles and his wife acquired sculptures and commissioned a 2.40-meter-high stone sculpture, Figure dans un jardin (Figure in a Garden), a stele-like cubist composition, for the park of their Noailles villa near Hyères, which was completed in the summer of 1932.
Since 1928, acquaintances with artists and writers, such as Louis Aragon, Alexander Calder, Jean Cocteau, Max Ernst, Michel Leiris, Joan Miró and Jacques Prévert date. Leiris published a first appreciation of Giacometti”s work in the fourth issue of the newly founded Surrealist magazine Documents in 1929. Together with Joan Miró and Hans Arp, Giacometti was represented at the 1930 group exhibition at Pierre Loeb”s Galerie Pierre, where André Breton saw and bought Giacometti”s art object, the sculpture Boule suspendue (Floating Ball). During a subsequent visit to Giacometti”s studio on rue Hippolyte-Maindron, Breton was able to persuade the artist to join his Surrealist group. In 1933, Giacometti published poems in Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution as well as a Surrealist text about his childhood, Hier, sables mouvants (Yesterday, Flying Sand). In the same year, he learned the techniques of etching and engraving in the workshop of the British Stanley William Hayter, the “Atelier 17″; in 1933 he provided the book of the Surrealist writer René Crevel Les Pieds dans le plat with an illustration, followed by four engravings for Breton”s L”Air de l”eau in 1934.
Giacometti”s father, who had been a strong point of reference for the artist, died in June 1933, and only a few works were created that year. Giacometti still participated in further exhibitions of the Surrealists, but began – after a long time again – to model after nature, which Breton saw as a betrayal of the avant-garde. In August 1934, together with Paul Éluard, Giacometti was best man and Man Ray photographer at Breton”s wedding to the French painter Jacqueline Lamba. A few months later he withdrew from the group himself, before an official expulsion could take place. André Breton accused Giacometti during a dinner in December 1934 of doing “bread work” for the Parisian furniture designer Jean-Michel Frank and therefore of being a renegade to the Surrealist idea, and in 1938 at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris he labeled him a former Surrealist. The separation caused Giacometti to lose many friends, with the exception of René Crevel, who took his own life in June 1935, depressed and ill.
After breaking with the Surrealists, Giacometti found himself in a creative crisis. He turned to other artists such as Balthus, André Derain and Pierre Tal-Coat, who were dedicated to reproducing nature in art. He had already met Pablo Picasso in the Surrealist circle, but a friendship between them did not begin until the latter was working on his monumental painting Guernica in 1937. Giacometti was the only artist besides Matisse with whom he talked about art, but he never took his painting and sculpture entirely seriously. While he understood that Giacometti was struggling for something, he saw this struggle – unlike Picasso”s struggle for Cubism – as having failed because, according to Picasso, he would never achieve what he demanded of sculpture and wanted ” to make us regret the masterpieces he will never create.”
A new friendship developed with the British Isabel Delmer, née Nicholas (1912-1992), who had married the journalist Sefton Delmer shortly after her arrival in Paris in 1935. Isabel Delmer became Giacometti”s model for drawings. He made sculptures of her increasingly elongated and with overlong legs. The first sculpture of her head from 1936, called The Egyptian, is reminiscent of Egyptian portraiture.
In October 1938, Giacometti suffered a serious traffic accident. While traveling in Paris at night, a drunk driver lost control of her vehicle and hit him on the sidewalk in the Place des Pyramides. He was injured in the foot – his right metatarsal was broken in two places – and did not heed the rest prescribed by his doctor until the fracture healed. Since then he had a walking defect and required crutches and a cane until 1946. He often recounted this accident, describing it as a drastic experience in his life that had acted “like an electric shock on his creative and personal life.” Giacometti”s biographer Reinhold Hohl dismissed speculation that the artist had been traumatized by fear of amputation and had therefore endowed his later sculptures with oversized foot sections.
In 1939, Giacometti met the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and his partner Simone de Beauvoir at the Café de Flore. Not long after Sartre”s first meeting with Giacometti, the philosopher wrote his major work L”Être et le Néant. Essai d”ontologie phénoménologique (Being and Nothingness. Attempt at a Phenomenological Ontology), first published in 1943, which incorporated some of Giacometti”s thoughts. Phenomenology occupied Giacometti throughout his life. Since his student days in Geneva, he had been searching for a new form of artistic expression. In 1939 he began to model busts and heads that were only the size of a nut.
Due to the mediation of his brother Bruno, Giacometti participated in the Swiss National Exhibition in Zurich in the summer of 1939. A plaster drapery he had planned for the façade cladding of the “Textile and Fashion” building proved technically unfeasible; the presentation of a tiny plaster figure on a large pedestal in one of the 6 × 6 meter courtyards of the same building was rejected because the work was considered a mockery of the participating artists. Instead, Giacometti”s nearly one-meter-high plaster Le Cube (The Cube) from 19331934, which had been shown at the Lucerne exhibition in 1935, was brought to Zurich and placed at ground level.
When war broke out in September 1939, Alberto Giacometti and his brother Diego were staying in Maloja and returned to Paris at the end of the year. Giacometti buried his miniature sculptures in his studio in May 1940 – shortly before the invasion of the German Wehrmacht. The brothers fled Paris by bicycle in June, but turned back after cruel wartime experiences. On December 31, 1941, Alberto Giacometti, who was exempt from military service because of his disability and had received a visa for Switzerland, left for Geneva, while Diego remained in Paris. From January 1942 to September 1945 Alberto Giacometti lived in Geneva, first with his brother-in-law, Dr. Francis Berthoud, later he took a simple hotel room; in the summer months he stayed in Stampa and Maloja.
Giacometti”s sister Ottilia had died in childbirth in 1937, and grandmother Annetta helped raise the child. In the hotel room created tiny plaster figures on larger plinths, including the figure of his nephew Silvio. The plaster Femme au chariot (Woman on the Chariot), created in Maloja in 19421943, was Giacometti”s only large-scale work during his stay in Switzerland. In Maloja in 1943 he met the Swiss photographer Ernst Scheidegger, who photographed Giacometti”s sculptures and first published autobiographical and poetic texts by the artist together with his photographs in a book published by Arche Verlag in 1958. In Geneva he met the publisher Albert Skira, for whose magazine Labyrinthe Giacometti wrote the autobiographical text Le rêve, le sphinx et la mort de T. (The Dream, the Sphinx and the Death of T.) in 1946.
From September 1945 Giacometti lived in Paris again, initially in a rented room on rue Hippolyte-Maindron, together with his longtime girlfriend Isabel, who had separated from Sefton Delmer and returned from London. She left him in December but continued to visit him occasionally in his studio; in 1947 she married Constant Lambert and after his death in 1951 Alan Rawsthorne. On the occasion of a planned exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London in 1962, Isabel arranged for Giacometti to meet Francis Bacon, who had also painted her portrait.
In 1946 Giacometti moved in with Annette Arm (1923-1993), whom he had met in Geneva in 1943 and married in 1949. With her as a model, he produced an extensive number of drawings, etchings, paintings, and sculptures. The sculptures became increasingly longer and thinner and showed the change in style that made him internationally known in the following decades: “pin” figures on high pedestals gave way to overslim figures at meter height, stick-thin figures with indistinct anatomy, but with exact proportions and only implied heads and faces, which are given a grasping look.
Giacometti”s first solo exhibition was very successful in 1948 at Pierre Matisse”s gallery in New York, which subsequently represented the sculptor in the United States. Collectors and influential art critics such as David Sylvester, whom Giacometti met at the exhibition, took notice. The exhibition, which was the first time the slender figures were presented to a larger audience, established his fame in the Anglo-Saxon world. Jean-Paul Sartre had written the almost ten-page essay La Recherche de l”absolu (The Search for the Absolute) for the exhibition catalog, and the American public thereupon saw Giacometti as a sculptor of French existentialism.
In 1950, the art historian Georg Schmidt bought two paintings, La Table and Portrait d”Annette, as well as the bronze Place for the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation in the Kunstmuseum Basel at a price of 4800 Swiss francs, thus in that year the first works by Giacometti entered a public collection in Switzerland.
In 1951 the slender figures were shown for the first time in Paris at the Galerie Maeght, numerous exhibitions in Europe followed. Giacometti received commissions to make etchings for publications by Georges Bataille and Tristan Tzara. In November 1951 he and his wife visited the publisher Tériade at his country house in the south of France, after which they traveled to Henri Matisse, who lived in Cimiez near Nice. A visit the following day was to Pablo Picasso in Vallauris. After a quarrel, their long friendship ended. In occasional further encounters, Giacometti behaved politely but distantly.
In February 1952, at the Café Les Deux Magots, Alberto Giacometti met his future biographer James Lord, who occasionally served as a model for drawings. In 1964, when his portrait was made, Lord gathered material in the sessions for the first book, A Giacometti Portrait (Alberto Giacometti – A Portrait), published in 1965 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In 1954, the year of Matisse”s death in November, Giacometti drew the wheelchair-bound painter several times from late June to early July and again in September in preparation for a commemorative coin commissioned by the French Mint, but it was never minted. In 1956 Giacometti modeled a standing female figure, which he sculpted in clay in various versions. Of the 15 frontal and immobile standing figures, his brother Diego made plaster casts. Ten were on display in the French pavilion at the 1956 Venice Biennale under the title Les Femmes de Venise (The Women of Venice), nine of which were later cast in bronze. This group of figures, consisting of “different versions of a single female figure that never received a final form,” was first shown as a bronze casting at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in 1958.
In November 1955, at the Café Les Deux Magots, Giacometti met the Japanese philosophy professor Isaku Yanaihara, who was to write an article about the sculptor for a Japanese magazine. Yanaihara became his friend and served him as a model starting in 1956; several paintings and sculptures of him were created until 1961. The Japanese professor published the first biography on Giacometti in Tokyo in 1958.
In 1956, the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, one of the largest banks in the world, planned to enliven the spacious area in front of a new sixty-story building with works of art. The architect Gordon Bunshaft asked Giacometti as well as his American colleague Alexander Calder for designs. Giacometti agreed, although he neither knew the local conditions in New York nor had he previously created works of the required size. He received a small model of the bank building and then developed his designs until 1960: a female figure, of which he created four life-size versions, a head that resembled Diego, and two life-size striders. Since Giacometti was not satisfied with the result, the commission fell through. One work from the group is L”Homme qui marche I (The Striding Man I).
In 1957 the artist met the composer Igor Stravinsky, whom he drew several times. During this period he also met the French author Jean Genet and created three oil portraits and several drawings of him. Genet, in turn, wrote about the artist L”Atelier d”Alberto Giacometti (The Studio of Alberto Giacometti) in 1957. The text is said to have meant a lot to Giacometti, as he saw himself understood in it. Picasso described Genet”s 45-page work as the best book he had ever read about an artist. In 1959, Giacometti”s work Trois hommes qui marchent (Three Striding Men) from 1947 was on display at documenta II in Kassel.
Giacometti”s acquaintance with the 21-year-old prostitute Caroline (whose real name was Yvonne-Marguerite Poiraudeau) in October 1959 at the bar Chez Adrien led to an affair that lasted until his death. The connection with the young woman from the red light milieu proved to be a burden for Annette and Diego Giacometti. Caroline became an important model during this period, and Giacometti created many portraits of her. The artist was now world famous and received large sums of money for his works from his dealers Pierre Matisse and Aimé Maeght. He did not change his habits, continued to live modestly but unhealthily – he ate little, drank a lot of coffee and smoked cigarettes. He distributed the acquired wealth to his brother Diego, to his mother until her death in January 1964 and to his night acquaintances. In 1960 he bought a house for Diego, and apartments for Annette and Caroline, the apartment for his model being the more luxurious.
Samuel Beckett, whom Giacometti had known since 1937 and with whom he often debated the difficulties of an artist”s existence in Parisian bars, asked him in 1961 to participate in a new production of Waiting for Godot, first performed in January 1953. Giacometti created a barren tree of plaster as a stage decoration at the Théâtre de l”Odéon in Paris, where the drama of human loneliness was shown under the direction of Roger Blin in May 1961. The following year Alberto Giacometti received the Grand Prize for Sculpture at the Venice Biennale, which made him famous worldwide. In 1963, in February of that year, he had to undergo surgery because he had stomach cancer.
In 1964 Giacometti realized the multi-figure square composition in the courtyard of the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, consisting of L”Homme qui marche II, Femme debout III and L”Homme qui marche I, and was represented one more time at the documenta in Kassel. In the same year there was a break in his friendship with Sartre when his autobiographical book Les mots was published. In it Giacometti saw his accident and its consequences misrepresented. Sartre had mistakenly named the Place d”Italie as the site of the accident and quoted Giacometti as saying, “For once I”m experiencing something! So I wasn”t destined to be a sculptor, maybe I wasn”t even destined for life; I wasn”t destined for anything.” Giacometti refused to reconcile with Sartre. The following year, despite his failing health, he traveled to the United States for a retrospective of his works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Giacometti died in 1966 in the Graubünden Cantonal Hospital in Chur of pericarditis as a result of chronic bronchitis. He was buried in his birthplace of Borgonovo. Diego Giacometti placed the bronze cast of his brother”s last work on the grave, the third sculpture by French photographer Eli Lotar. Diego had found the clay figure wrapped in damp rags in the studio. He placed his own small bronze bird next to it. In addition to the relatives and many friends and colleagues from Switzerland and Paris, museum directors and art dealers from all over the world attended the funeral, as well as representatives of the French government and federal authorities.
Alberto Giacometti Foundation
In 1965, while the artist was still alive, the Alberto Giacometti Foundation was established from private and public funds by a group of art lovers around Hans C. Bechtler and the Swiss gallerist Ernst Beyeler in Zurich, who acquired the Giacometti holdings of the Pittsburgh industrialist David Thompson. Thompson owned numerous important sculptures from the avant-garde period of 1925 to 1934 and specimens of most of the major works from 1947 to 1950, Giacometti”s most creative phases. The artist himself supplemented the later work with a group of drawings and several paintings. In 2006, close friends of Hans C. Bechtler, Bruno and Odette Giacometti donated 75 plasters and 15 bronzes from Alberto Gaicometti”s estate to the Foundation.
Today the Foundation owns 170 sculptures, 20 paintings, 80 drawings, 23 sketchbooks, 39 books of marginal drawings and prints. This collection covers the life work of Alberto Giacometti from his earliest to his last works in all its essential aspects and numerous, surprising facets.
The collection of the Alberto Giacometti Foundation is largely kept at the Kunsthaus Zürich and presented in the permanent exhibition collection. The administration and documentation are also domiciled here. A quarter of the original holdings are on display at the Kunstmuseum Basel and ten percent at the Kunstmuseum Winterthur.
Another foundation, Fondation Giacometti (Institut Giacometti) in Paris, came into being only with difficulty. Annette Giacometti died of cancer in a psychiatric hospital in 1993. She left behind 700 works by her husband and archival material worth 150 million euros. Annette”s brother and guardian Michael Arm disputed the validity of her 1990 will, in which she had stipulated that most of the Giacometti assets should be used to establish the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti. Further problems arose from the refusal of the Giacometti Association, which the widow had founded in 1989 as a precursor to the Foundation, to dissolve itself and release Foundation capital. The planned Fondation had to take legal action against the Giacometti Association. The ensuing disputes required large sums of capital, which had to be raised through auctions of Giacometti”s works.
By decree of December 10, 2003, the then French Prime Minister put an end to the quarrels, so that the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti could subsequently be established.
The Fondation, together with the other rights holders – Alberto Giacometti Foundation, Zurich and the heirs of Silvio Berthoud (the Berthoud disputants) – founded the Comité Giacometti in April 2004, which takes action against forgeries, issues expert opinions and grants reproduction permits.In 2011, it endowed the Prix Annette Giacometti to safeguard copyright for works of art and artists. Today, the Giacometti Foundation runs a research center with its Giacometti Institute, including exhibitions, colloquia, a school, scholarships and publications.
The most extensive collections of Giacometti”s works can be seen today at the Kunsthaus Zürich and the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen on loan from the Alberto Giacometti Foundation, as well as at the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti in Paris. The latter owns primarily objects from Giacometti”s studio, including wall pieces, furniture, and books. Other important collections are at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. A good overview of Giacometti”s print oeuvre is offered by the Carlos Gross Collection in Sent.
Throughout his life, Giacometti set high standards for his work. He was often plagued by doubts, which led to the destruction of his work at night and a new start the next day. As late as December 1965, he said that he would never reach the goal he had set for himself, that for thirty years he had always believed that tomorrow would be the day.
Drawings, paintings and lithographs
Giacometti”s childish painting Still Life with Apples from 1913 shows the divisionist style that was characteristic of his father Giovanni. While the father was concerned with unifying and enlivening the surface, the son, meanwhile, looked at the object and its physicality. After the painterly beginnings at home and at school in Schiers, he continued painting during his studies in Geneva from 1919. Around 1925, the turn to sculpture in Paris almost completely displaced painting. The portraits of his father from 1930 and 1932, three paintings in 1937, including Pomme sur le buffet (Apple on the Buffet) and a portrait of his mother, and a portrait of a woman in 1944 remained exceptions. The paintings from 1937, created after the break with the Surrealists, differ stylistically from his earlier work and are now considered the beginning of his mature painting.
During the war years in Switzerland, drawing took up a large part of Giacometti”s artistic activity. For example, he copied Cézanne from reproductions in books. These drawings served him to study the works of earlier artists and cultures and to clarify his relationship to them, since he understood his work as their continuation. For in his copies he did not analyze the originals in terms of their original function or art-historical significance; rather, he was interested in their structure and composition. Pencil drawings from the years 194647 of people moving in the outdoor space document Giacometti”s new conception of figures. As elongated, widely striding line figures, they subsequently find their implementation in his sculpture and establish the so-called “Giacometti style”, in which the sculptor took on the phenomenological perception of the figures in space. Since every object has space around it and must always be viewed from a certain distance, the visual field is inevitably occupied more vertically than horizontally, which partly explains the thinness of his figures.
Giacometti”s painterly and graphic work after 1946 deals primarily with portrait heads and the human figure, which inspired him to ever new metamorphoses. The tiny busts on the large pedestals (1938 to 1945), removed in perspective, refer to the artistic gaze of the draftsman and painter. The “stick figures standing like signs in space” (from 1947) are often provided with “painterly spatial housings” on the picture support, in which the “portrayed persons appear as ectoplastic”, i.e. plasticized from outside, “or mirrored bodies”. Giacometti”s paintings feature a reduced color palette of gray-violet to a rose-yellow to a black-and-white that “resonate together in a muted way on the canvas.”
The painterly work can be divided into the phases 1946 to 1956 and the following years until his death in 1966. The subject matter and painting style of his pictures are constant: frontal images of his wife Annette, his brother Diego, his mother, as well as those of his friends and in the last years those of his mistress Caroline; landscapes, views of his studio or still lifes are occasional subjects. The background is varied. Thus works from the first phase show a depicted figure or object in a broad, clearly recognizable setting that can be identified, for example, as Giacometti”s studio, while in the second phase the central motif dominates the composition and a setting is only vaguely recognizable.
One occasion for lithographic work was Giacometti”s first exhibition at the Maeght Gallery in 1951, which took place in June and July. He created illustrations for the Maeghts gallery magazine, Derrière le miroir, which accompanied the exhibition. The subjects of the illustrations were studio depictions. The numerous etchings and lithographs produced from 1953 onward “take up the theme of the human figure as the axis of reference for the interpenetration of spatial dimensions that characterizes his sculptural work” and “modulates it in confrontation with the signs of spatial perspective.” Giacometti”s most important lithographic work is the portfolio Paris sans fin with 150 lithographs, they recall the places and people in Paris that were important to him. Paris sans fin was published posthumously in 1969 by his friend, the art critic and publisher Tériade.
Sculptures, sculptures, objects
In Giacometti”s early phase, he created the post-cubist sculpture Torse in 1925 (this phase lasted until about 1927, when he explored African art and in particular the pictorial expression of the ceremonial spoons of the West African Dan culture, in which the cavity of the utensil spoon symbolizes the womb. Dating from 1926, his work Femme cuillère (Spoon Woman) is considered one of Giacometti”s major works of the time. Giacometti”s interest in this art was aroused by new publications dealing with the subject, such as the French edition of Carl Einstein”s Negro Sculpture, published in 1922, and by an exhibition in the winter of 192324 at the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris.
The phase known as Surrealist extended from 1930 to the summer of 1934 and finally ended in 1935, after his exclusion from the Surrealist circle. When Giacometti exhibited for the first time in 1930 at Pierre Loeb”s gallery, Paris, together with Hans Arp and Joan Miró, he showed a sculpture with erotic symbolism, Boule suspendue (Floating Ball), consisting of a strong metal frame with a movable construction inside. In a 1948 letter to Pierre Matisse, the sculptor described it as a cut-open floating ball in a cage, sliding on a croissant. With this work, Giacometti made the transition to mobile sculpture and object art. In addition, Giacometti created horizontally mounted sculptures such as the aggressive, sexually suggestive object Pointe à l”œil (Spike in the Eye), 1931, which shows the Surrealist connection between the eye and the vagina, as well as motifs of torture such as Main prise (Endangered Hand), 1932.
In 1932, when Giacometti had already been living in Paris for ten years, he created the “board game” On ne joue plus (The game is over), a necropolis with crater-like depressions, field boundaries and an open coffin, skeletons, two figures and the title carved in reverse. It is a game in which “life and especially death become an unfathomable, inscrutable game.” Also from this year is Femme égorgée (Woman with Throat Cut), cast in bronze in 1940 and shown in October 1942 by Peggy Guggenheim at her newly opened New York museum, Art of This Century. A drawing of the same title served as a model for an illustration of the text Musique est l”art de recréer le Monde dans le domaine des sons by Igor Markevitch in the Surrealist journal Minotaure, Vol. I, 1933, Issue 3-4, p. 78. The occasion was two crimes committed in February and August of 1933 in Le Mans and Paris – the sadistic murder of the sisters Christine and Lea Papin and the poisoning of the high school student Violette Nozière by her parents. About his last surrealist figure, 1 + 1 = 3, a cone-shaped work in plaster about one and a half meters high, on which he worked in the summer of 1934, Giacometti wrote in 1947: “he had not been able to cope with it and therefore felt the need to make some studies after nature “. He then worked on two heads, Diego served as a model and a professional model; this change was one of the reasons to accuse him of betraying the Surrealist movement.
In 1935 Giacometti resumed his studies of nature and work on the human figure, and until 1945 he dealt primarily with the model and with the “supremacy of space”. Giacometti sought to reduce his sculptures “to the bone, to the indestructible” in favor of the space surrounding them, with the result that “the figures and heads became more and more contracted, reduced and thinner.” The bust of his brother Diego, who repeatedly modeled for him during these years, “could finally be packed into a small matchbox, along with the base!” Another stylistic device to bring the spatial distance to the model into adequate form in the sculpture were ashlar pedestals, which were much larger than the figures themselves. His observation of “how Isabel moved away from him on the Boulevard Saint-Michel in 1937, becoming smaller and smaller without losing her image, her visual memory, is cited as an “external occasion” for increasingly bringing “”phenomenological” experiences to bear in his sculptures.”
From 1946 onwards, Giacometti”s figures grew increasingly elongated, the bodies appearing thread-thin with feet that were huge in proportion. The surface structure and the elongation of the figures show a “kinship” with the sculptures of Germaine Richier, who, like Giacometti, had studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in the studio of Émile-Antoine Bourdelle. It was only when the slender figures reached roughly human height, such as L”homme au doigt (Man with Hand Outstretched Pointing), 1947, that Giacometti gained recognition as a representative of postwar French sculpture; his earlier small figures were barely noticed and considered studies.
In 1947 and 1950 he created the two autobiographical sculptures Tête d”homme sur tige (Head on a stick) and the bronze Quatre figurines sur base (Four figures on a base), cast in 196566. In the latter, Giacometti positioned four figures, each 12 cm high, four dancers from the Parisian nightclub “Le Sphinx,” on a trapezoidal base and placed this in turn on a modeling table with high legs. The works were inspired by a last visit to his favorite brothel in view of the imminent closure of public nightclubs in 1946, following which he wrote his text Le rêve, le sphinx et la mort de T. (The Dream, the Sphinx and the Death of T.).
From 1952, in addition to the slender figures and groups of figures such as Les Femmes de Venise (The Women of Venice) of 1956 and L”Homme qui marche I (The Striding Man I) of 1960, Giacometti created compact busts, heads, and half-figures, based on his brother Diego, his wife Annette, and Isaku Yanaihara, among others, as well as three busts of the photographer Eli Lotar, which are “given as torsos.” Characteristic of the late sculptures are the head shown stretched out in front, the protruding eyes, a nose only hinted at and a mouth cut as if with a knife, as for example in Buste d”homme (Diego) New York I (Bust of a Man New York I) from 1965. The upper body, reduced to the shape of a cross, supports the head sitting on a narrow neck. Eli Lotar III of 1965 became Giacometti”s last work, which remained unfinished as a clay figure in his studio. The kneeling figure, whose surface looks like the shape of a solidified cascade, is dominated by a narrow neck and head.
In 1958 Giacometti realized the sculpture La jambe (The leg), an isolated leg separated from the rest of the body, with an open wound gaping at the top of the elongated thigh. This was already in his mind in 1947, the year in which he realized sculptures such as Tête d”homme sur tige (Head on a Stick) or Le nez (The Nose) in their respective versions. The reason for the creation of these “isolated body parts” is, on the one hand, the collective war trauma after the Second World War, and on the other hand, his own traffic accident on the night of October 10, 1938, on the Place des Pyramides in Paris. Already before, the sculptor had sketched the “isolated leg” in survival size on the wall of his studio, and now, after years of displacement, he could work off the leg as the “keystone of a group of works of body fragments.” In 1934 André Breton asked the artist what his studio was, to which Giacometti replied, “Two walking feet.”
At the time of Giacometti”s surrealist phase, poems by Giacometti, such as Poème en 7 espaces (Poem in Seven Gaps), Der braune Vorhang (The Brown Curtain) (Le rideaux brun), the text Versengtes Gras (Scorched Grass) (Charbon d”herbe), as well as a surrealist text about his childhood, Hier, sables mouvants (Yesterday, Flying Sand), appeared in issue 5 of the magazine Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution in 1933. These and other texts were collected in the book Alberto Giacometti. Ecrits from 1990, edited by Michel Leiris and Jacques Dupin (Engl. Yesterday, shifting sands. Writings). The letters, poems, essays, statements, and interviews were written between 1931 and 1965. In the essay titled My Reality, Giacometti writes that he wanted to survive with his art and be “as free and as forceful as possible” in order to fight his “own battle, for fun?, for the joy? of fighting, for the fun of winning and losing.” This self-representation shows the existential-philosophical reference to Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet.
In 1946, the publisher Albert Skira published in the last issue of his magazine Labyrinthe the autobiographical text Le rêve, le sphinx et la mort de T. (The Dream, the Sphinx and the Death of T.), written by Giacometti in the same year. The text, artfully narrated by association, deals with Giacometti”s festering illness contracted during his last visit to the brothel Le Sphinx before it was finally closed, Annette”s subsequent reaction, and Giacometti”s nightmare of the corpse of Tonio Potoching, the caretaker of the studio complex on rue Hippolyte-Maindron, who died in July 1946. At the center of the dream is a giant spider with an ivory yellow carapace. It was not until 2002 that the manuscript, a notebook containing the text supplemented by drawings, found its way to the Alberto Giacometti Foundation in Zurich. The text contains two parts: After describing the context of its creation and the narrative itself, Giacometti reflects on the problem of writing. The book was republished as a facsimile with a new translation in 2005.
Art market and forgeries
Giacometti”s œuvre fetches high prices on the art market. In an auction in February 2010, L”Homme qui marche I reached a record price. It was surpassed in an auction at Christie”s in New York in May 2015. The most expensive sculpture to date is now his work L”Homme au doigt, which changed hands for around $141 million in May 2015, about $35 million more than L”Homme qui marche I. As a result, art forgeries of Giacometti sculptures are lucrative. In August 2009, 1000 forgeries discovered near Mainz were seized by police. Giacometti made work easier for forgers in that he often had the same work executed simultaneously by different foundries. He did not work on the castings himself, but left the chasing and patinating to the craftsmen according to the wishes of the buyers, so that the works always turned out differently. The lack of a binding catalog raisonné, which is still being compiled by the two Giacometti foundations in Paris and Zurich with the aim of distinguishing between castings made during Giacometti”s lifetime, replicas and forgeries that appeared soon after his death in 1966, offers further scope for forgers.
The French writer Michel Leiris, a friend of Giacometti”s from his surrealist period, published in the surrealist magazine Documents, founded by Georges Bataille together with Leiris and Carl Einstein, in the 4th issue of September 29, 1929, the first text with work photos about the artist”s sculptural work. He wrote: “There are moments called crises, and these are the only ones that count in life. Such moments happen to us when something external suddenly answers our inner call for it, when the external world opens up in such a way that a sudden change occurs between it and our heart. Giacometti”s sculptures mean something to me because everything that emerges under his hand is like the petrification of such a crisis.” Leiris recognized early on what a creative stimulus Giacometti would derive from the recurring sense of crisis.
The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, himself influenced by Surrealism, became friends with Giacometti in the 1930s and accompanied him with his camera for three decades. The best-known photographs date from 1938 and 1961. Cartier-Bresson said of Giacometti: “It was a joy for me when I realized that Alberto had the same three passions as I did: Cézanne, Van Eyck and Uccello.” In 2005, the Kunsthaus Zürich showed the exhibition The Decision of the Eye, which Cartier-Bresson himself had still helped to conceive. The photographs, some of which had never been shown before, were intended in particular to highlight the parallels in the work of the artist friends, which in the case of both Giacometti and Cartier-Bresson was characterized by the constant search for the instant décisif, the decisive moment.
In his 1947 essays on the visual arts, The Quest for the Absolute, Jean-Paul Sartre portrayed Giacometti as a fascinating interlocutor and as a sculptor with a fixed “ultimate goal to achieve, a single problem to solve: how to make a man out of stone without petrifying him?” As long as this is not solved, by the sculptor or the art of sculpture, “there are only designs that interest Giacometti only insofar as they bring him closer to his goal. He destroys them all again and starts all over. Sometimes, however, his friends manage to save a bust or a sculpture of a young woman or boy from destruction. He lets it happen and sets to work again. The wonderful unity of this life lies in the unwaveringness in the search for the absolute.”
Jean Genet described Giacometti and his work in the 1957 essay, L”Atelier d”Alberto Giacometti, in contrast to Sartre”s intellectual theses about their mutual friend, from emotion. “His statues give me the impression that they ultimately take refuge in I don”t know what secret frailty that grants them solitude. Since at the moment the statues are very tall – in brown clay – his fingers, when he stands before them, wander up and down like those of a gardener pruning or tilling a rose trellis. The fingers play along the statue, and the whole studio vibrates, comes alive.”
Art historian Werner Schmalenbach compared the depiction of human loneliness in Giacometti”s paintings with Francis Bacon”s work. Like Giacometti, the latter formulated “in a spatial scenery the ”being exposed”, the being thrown into the world of man”. Giacometti suggests this through the rigid frontality and the forlornness of the gaze, while Bacon depicts the total dislocation of the limbs and the death grimace of the face.
On the occasion of Giacometti”s 100th birthday in 2001, collector, art dealer and friend Eberhard W. Kornfeld expressed that he saw in the revival of Giacometti”s figurative drawing an essential contribution to modernist art. “But his art is also an expression of his time – what Sartre was for literature, Giacometti was in art: he is the painter of existentialism.”
The influence of ancient Egyptian art on Giacometti”s work was asserted in an exhibition at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, Giacometti, the Egyptian. It was shown with examples of works in Berlin from the end of 2008 and at the Kunsthaus Zürich from February 2009. Giacometti had already encountered Egyptian sculpture in Florence during his first stay in Italy in 192021. He wrote to the family: “the most beautiful statue for him was neither a Greek nor a Roman and even less a Renaissance one, but an Egyptian one”. The famous portrait head of Akhenaten (1340 BC) resembles Giacometti”s self-portrait of 1921, with which he finished his training with his father. The Paris years, with their approach to the avant-garde and the search for a stylization of the human form, are summed up in the confrontation between Giacometti”s bronze works such as Cube (193334), which can be seen as a reference to Egyptian cube figures, and the cube statue of Senemut (1470 BC) in granite, of which he made a pencil drawing around 1937. The postwar works also take their cue from Egyptian works. The recourse to Egyptian kneeling figures occurred in the sculptures Diego assis (Diego sitting) and Lotar III, his last sculpture.
The art critic Dirk Schwarze, a connoisseur of documenta exhibitions since 1972, formulated in his book Milestones: Documenta 1 to 12 from 2007, Giacometti had “inscribed himself in art history with his elongated, thin figures.” The sculptor was not interested in the volume or the shaping of the individual parts. He reduced the figure to its distant appearance, to its posture and movement. The figures have become signs of man, which are understood everywhere – just as later A. R. Penck painted people as sign-like elements in his pictures.
On the occasion of a Giacometti exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen near Basel in 2009, its curator Ulf Küster showed the artist with his works as a central figure in the environment of the works of his artist family. The exchange with his family was of great importance to Alberto. A special point of reference for him was his father, the painter Giovanni Giacometti. Küster said in an interview, among other things, that Giacometti had the idea of being the center of a system, as he described it in his late surrealist text Le rêve, le Sphinx et la mort de T., a center to which all events around him related. Küster considers this an important key to understanding his work. He points out that Giacometti never took the step into abstraction, but that his series formations, the “never-ending-wanting and never-being able” certainly corresponded to the basic conceptual idea of modernism. Alberto had come from painting to sculpture. The roughened surfaces of the late sculptures, for example, are a painterly technique. In his contribution to the exhibition catalog, Ulf Küster points out the difficulties of conceiving a Giacometti exhibition. With the many facets of his work, only an approximation is possible, one reason for which is Giacometti”s artistic principle of never achieving perfection. Although numerous exhibitions have dealt with Giacometti to date, Küster nevertheless considered Alberto”s estate to have not been conclusively evaluated.
Giacometti”s artistic influence
In Giacometti”s Surrealist period from 1930 to 1934, the artist was in the spotlight of the Surrealist movement for the first time with his objects and sculptures. With his work from this period he influenced, for example, Max Ernst and the young Henry Moore. From 1948 on, it was the sculptures and paintings of his mature style that impressed contemporaries and fellow artists. The numerous Giacometti exhibitions that are still held around the world today bear witness to the high artistic standards he set with his work.
The Musée des Beaux Arts de Caen hosted the exhibition En perspective, Giacometti from May to August 2008. As initiator, the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris, contributed about 30 loans of Giacometti”s sculptures, objects, drawings and paintings. They were placed in relation to works by contemporary artists: Georg Baselitz, Jean-Pierre Bertrand, Louise Bourgeois, Fischli & Weiss, Antony Gormley, Donald Judd, Alain Kirili, Jannis Kounellis, Annette Messager, Dennis Oppenheim, Gabriel Orozco, Javier Pérez, Sarkis, Emmanuel Saulnier, and Joel Shapiro.
The German sculptor Lothar Fischer had met Giacometti personally in 1962 on the occasion of the Venice Biennale. He appreciated his conception of figure and space as well as of figure and pedestal and dedicated two sculptural works entitled “Hommage à Giacometti” to his role model in 198788.
In 1996, the world premiere of the chamber opera Giacometti by the Romanian composer Carmen Maria Cârneci took place at the New Theater for Music in Bonn under her direction.
From October 1998 until September 2019, Switzerland”s banknote series featured a design honoring Alberto Giacometti on the 100-franc banknote; a portrait of the artist by Ernst Scheidegger appears on the front, and his sculpture L”Homme qui marche I is depicted on the back in four different perspectives, along with two other works.
For the 50th anniversary of the artist”s death in 2016, the Centro Giacometti is participating in the organization of the commemorative program in Bergell, coordinated by the municipality of Bregaglia. It also presents the vision Centro Giacometti 2020.
Films about Giacometti and his work
The 52-minute black-and-white film by Jean-Marie Drot A Man Among Men from 1963 shows Giacometti in a film interview. Jean-Marie Drot was the first to be allowed to film the artist at the time. The film describes him as a bohemian and perfectionist and shows more than 180 of his works.Under the title What is a Head?, Michel Van Zèle produced a documentary film essay in 2000 about the question that preoccupied Giacometti throughout his life. Van Zele reconstructs Giacometti”s lifelong search for the essence of the human head and allows witnesses from the past and present to speak, including Balthus and Giacometti”s biographer Jacques Dupin. The running time is 64 minutes.Both films have been combined on one DVD since 2006.
In 1965, photographer Ernst Scheidegger, who had been shooting works by the artist since 1943, shot the film Alberto Giacometti in Stampa and Paris. It shows the artist working on a painting by Jacques Dupin and talking to the poet while modeling a bust. The film was later supplemented with interviews.
In the television series 1000 Masterpieces, produced by WDR, which from 1981 to 1994 reported on masterful paintings in 10-minute programs on German television, ORF and Bavarian television, Giacometti was involved with the portrait Jean Genet from 1955.
Heinz Bütler made a documentary film in 2001 entitled Alberto Giacometti – The Eyes on the Horizon. It is based on the book Écrits by Giacometti. In interviews with companions and contemporary witnesses such as Balthus, Ernst Beyeler and Werner Spies, the artist is sketchily described in just under an hour. In a further 25 minutes, Giacometti biographer James Lord recounts the life of the artist. The strip was shown as a cinema film in 2007 and is available on DVD.
Final Portrait is the title of Stanley Tucci”s film biography about the artist, which had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival on February 11, 2017 and was released in German cinemas in August 2017.
Sculptures and objects
The sculptures were mainly made of plaster, many were cast in bronze in the 1950s. The year of bronze casting could not be found out in all cases.
Illustrated writings, correspondence
Examples of book illustrations
Testimonies of the family and companions
Studies, exhibition catalogs and catalogs of works
Libraries, online catalogs