This Week in History: Alberto Giacometti died

One does not approach a sculpture of Giacometti. … Approach her and everything vanishes; there remains the corrugations of the plaster. … He puts distance within reach of your hand, he thrusts before you a distant woman–she remains distant, even when you touch her with your fingertips. … (Jean-Paul Sartre)

Primarily a sculptor of anthropomorphic forms, Giacometti’s abilities also extend to painting and drawing as well as furniture and ceramic design. Drawing in particular helped to define his artistic goals: it was via this medium and two decades of sculptural experiment that he arrived, in the 1940’s, at his mature style–the very familiar and idiosyncratic statues of tall, slender men and women.

Exposure in the early 1920’s to ancient and primitive art as well as the paintings of Cimabue and Giotto inspired Giacometti’s early work. His interest in non-western art and its European re-evaluations grew as he rejected the classical training he had received from the sculptor Bourdelle. Consequently he began to produce works from the imagination in a Cubist style influenced by African and Cycladic art and the sculpture of Lipchitz and Laurens. Torso, 1925, is the first of a short series of works composed of flat, reduced angular forms. The solid masses of these sculptures were gradually whittled away from within until Giacometti arrived at the cage-like structures that characterize his work of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. At this time Giacometti was introduced to the Surrealists through André Masson, and found himself identifying with their interest in the effect on art of the imagination and the unconscious. The two definitive works of this period, The Palace at 4 A.M. (1932-33) and Invisible Object (Hands Holding the Void) (1934), are both explorations of space and form as well as manifestations of Giacometti’s interest in Surrealism. The sculptor described the former as “a construction of a palace with a bird skeleton and a dorsal spine in a cage and a woman at the other end,” and maintained that it was inspired by the memory of a past love affair. The incongruous grouping of forms in this cage within a cage lends a feeling of loneliness and isolation rather than the sense of restriction of the earlier cage constructions. Invisible Object appears at first to be a less disquieting image, but this belies its sinister undertones. Still composed within a cage-like frame, the tall, thin female, prototype of the later statues, cups her hands around an unseen object. With more than a passing reference to Cubism and primitive art, this form, with its smooth contours and stylized head, implies a fear of the void, a fear of woman–themes that were in keeping with Surrealist fantasy and subject matter.

Giacometti found this mode of expression ultimately unsatisfying–for While it provided him with a shorthand vocabulary of psychic expression, Giacometti felt unable satisfactorily to express his view of external reality. There followed in 1935-40 a barren period, the sculptor returning to working from the model and destroying almost everything he made. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, Giacometti resided in his native Switzerland and there began again to work from memory and imagination; but, as he explained, “wanting to create from memory what I had seen, to my terror, the sculptures became smaller and smaller … often so small that with one touch from my knife they disappeared into dust… .” According to legend, when he eventually returned to Paris his total works fitted into six matchboxes.

It was finally through painting that Giacometti discovered his “mature” style. The key to his thought and direction lay in his fascination for the work of Cézanne, who had explored in the medium of painting the eye’s relationship to distance as well as the relationship of volume to space and the contour that divides them. Giacometti’s quest for the means by which to explore the same problems in three dimensions led him from the cage constructions where space is form and form is space to the slender anthropomorphic forms. The paintings and drawings were seen partially as a means to this end, although they also exist as masterpieces in their own right. Form and space merge in Giacometti’s drawings; space is given a certain solidity through the artist’s use of “erasure” (smudging and highlighting with the use of an eraser), perspective is elongated, while near extremities are enlarged, the overall effect being like peering through the wrong end of a telescope. Such optical manipulations were transferred to sculpture: Giacometti’s long, thin, immobile figures are rooted by their massive feet to solid bases which, serving as the sculptural equivalent of the picture plane, hinge together the realities of object and viewer. The sculpture “recedes” from the base as a landscape recedes in a traditional painting. Also, just as a landscape changes the further the explorer penetrates, so Giacometti’s statues alter their state according to the distance from which they are viewed. Close to, the statues’ rough contours flicker and blur, becoming paradoxically out of reach. However, when surveyed at a distance–ideally nine feet–the sculptures become whole, their true reality revealed.

Giacometti continued working with this format, his standing femalé and male figures differentiated mainly by their subtle differences in posture and their varying sizes. He also created groups of figures, e.g., City Square, 1948, relating each component to the whole. Giacometti’s statues seem so conspicuous by their pervading sense of isolation and loneliness that the sculptor is invariably linked with postwar existentialism. However, the figures hold their own against the pressure of physical and spiritual emptiness that surrounds them; and indeed their distance, that to which Sartre refers, above, may enable them to reach the god that the rest of us are too close to, too dazzled, to see.


Born in Bogonova, near Stampa, Switzerland, 10 October 1901; son of the painter Giovanni Giacometti; brother of the designer Diego Giacometti. Died in Chur, 11 January 1966. Married Annette Arm, 1949. Studied with his father, and under David Estoppey, Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Geneva, 1919; studied sculpture under Maurice Sarkissoff, Ecole des Arts et Métiers, Geneva, 1919; studied drawing and sculpture in Bourdelle’s class at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris, 1922-24; then lived and worked in Paris: shared studio with his brother Diego from 1925; associated with the Surrealists; designed furniture, etc., executed by Diego; lived in Geneva during the German occupation of Paris; stage designs for the play Waiting for Godot, 1953.

Source Citation   (MLA 7th Edition)

“Alberto Giacometti.” International Dictionary of Art and Artists. Gale, 1990. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 11 Jan. 2016.

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