Giacometti is perhaps best known for his emaciated, elongated bronze figures, usually human, though on occasion of dogs or cats. These represent the maturation of Giacometti’s lifelong stylistic evolution, fuelled by his desire to give form to the spatial cum physical human experience. Throughout his career, Giacometti experimented with the overlap of sculpture, painting and drawing in order to capture the essence of the human body.
In 1922 Giacometti was apprenticed to the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle (1861–1929), whose previous students included Henri Matisse (1869–1954). Giacometti’s interest in the human body emerges from his earliest works. His abstract yet recognisable Gazing Head (1928/29) represents an early example of his efforts to capture the spirit of the human form. This sort of work led to his brief adherence to Surrealism from 1930 to 1934. His compositional and theoretical explorations during this period pushed the boundaries of sculpture and would play an important role in his later work. Suspended Ball (1930/31), for instance, investigates the inherent tension of human figures in a set space. It represents an impossible frozen pendular moment held together by a stage or cage-like structure. A ball is held in place ‘swinging’ over a crescent form, representing genitalia synecdochally standing in for human bodies. In Palace at 4 a.m. (1932) Giacometti gave form to a dream in a precarious stage-like structure to demonstrate that sculpture, like painting and drawing, could be a conceptual art form, prioritising invention over execution. From the late 1930s until the end of the Second World War, Giacometti produced increasingly small sculptures, none taller than 2.75 inches, highlighting an interest in scale to represent distance, something which would be fundamental to his post-war work. During this time, he also produced many decorative pieces, blurring the boundary between sculpture and decoration.
After a voluntary exile in Switzerland, fleeing from the ravages of the war, Giacometti returned to Paris in 1945. Following a period of abstraction, he returned to figuration, producing some of his most iconic sculptures such as The Nose (1947), Piazza (1947/48), The Chariot (1950) and Walking Man (1960). This mature style represented a radical aesthetic shift, but Giacometti maintained his concern with the depiction of the human essence, static tension and an interest in scale. Piazza and Walking Man, for instance, show figures both life-size and in miniature, frozen in perpetual motion. The post-war years also saw Giacometti’s return to oil paintings and drawings. These are characterised by an expressive dynamic style of overlapping line-drawing and smudging. As in his sculptures, he aimed to capture his sitter’s essence and play with immobility and movement inside framed spaces. In Diego Seated in the Studio (1950) Giacometti depicted his brother as an anonymous figure sitting in a box-like setting. He is caught between his stationary position and the restlessness of Giacometti’s brushstrokes. As with his sculpture, the paintings are monochromatic, often executed with white or black brushstrokes on a grey field.
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Books on Alberto Giacometti
Catherine Grenier and Sébastien Delot, eds., Alberto Giacometti: Une Aventure Moderne, Paris, 2019.
Catherine Grenier, Mathilde Lecuyer and Petra Joos, eds., Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat. Québec, 2018.
Jacqueline Munck, ed., Derain, Balthus, Giacometti: Une Amitié Artistique, exh. cat. Paris, 2017.
Catherine Grenier, ed., Alberto Giacometti: Retrospective, exh. cat. Paris, 2017.
Véronique Wiesinger, The Studio of Alberto Giacometti: Collection of the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, exh. cat. Paris 2007.
Jacques Dupin and Michel Leiris, eds., Alberto Giacometti: Ecrits, Paris, 1990.
Herbert C. Lust, Giacometti: The Complete Graphics and Fifteen Drawings, New York, 1970.