Alberto Giacometti 1901 - 1966
Alberto Giacometti was a Swiss artist best known for sculptures and painting that toyed with perspectives of reality. His most famous works are of human, skeletal forms with accentuated limbs. The idea was that his figures revealed the inherent features of that human being’s personality or aura. Inspired by the Egyptian and classical collections he saw in Paris, Giacometti’s works blend the archaic with the contemporary. Working through the Second World War and post-war years, his art reflects an era of despair. Giacometti is hailed as being the most important sculptor of the 20th Century.
The exploration of the meaning and perception of reality fuelled Giacometti’s artistic journey. Born in an Italian-speaking area of Switzerland into a family of artists, Giacometti has always been a creative. His father was a Post-Impressionist painter and his godfather a Fauvist. Giacometti’s childhood was spent happily in a village named Stampa, a place he would regularly return to throughout his life. However, Giacometti was not the only artistic child, his older brother Bruno became an architect and his other brother, Diego, a furniture designer. Diego often modelled for Giacometti and the two were close friends.
After leaving school in 1919, Giacometti studied art classes in Geneva throughout the winter. Obsessed with copying the masters, Giacometti spent time in Italy, first in Venice and Padua before exploring the artistically rich cities of Florence and Rome. Here he encountered collections of Egyptian and Archaic art which would have a lasting impact on his work. Returning from his travels, Giacometti studied at the Académie de la Grande-Chaumière in Paris from 1922-1925. It was during this time that he frequented the Louvre, confessing that he copied many of the works in order to learn from the masters before developing his own unique style.
His style was both unique yet relatable both to Cubist and Post-Cubist sculpture. Giacometti blended classical traditions and conventions with the experimental avant-garde by reducing the human body to a grouping of geometric shapes whilst adopting the contrapposto posture that resonates with classical Greek art. Giacometti was as also inspired by African and Oceanic art. However, it was his flat, slab-like sculptures that first made him popular among the Parisian avant garde.
'When you look at art made by other people, you see what you need to see in it.'
Throughout the 1930s his work turned to more Surrealist influences. However, by 1935 he broke off with the Surrealist group and began to work based on nature again. He started studying the ‘phenomenological’ approach which would become a lifelong pursuit. This is the search for the reality beneath the physical that one sees or feels when looking at a person. Giacometti's severe figures explored the psyche and the charged space occupied by a single person.
However, as the threat of the Second World War increased and to escape Nazi invasion, Giacometti along with his brother Diego, fled Paris by bicycle and travelled south. They returned after a brief stay in Southern France, but had to leave again in 1941, to Geneva, where they remained until 1946.
During that tumultuous time, Giacometti was making matchstick-sized figures, beginning to express an image of a massless and weightless reality in a skeletal style with figures, thin as beanstalks. His new style projected an air of despair and loneliness. One can imagine that the frail figures reflected those of the survivors living in post-war Paris.
'The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.'
After the war, Giacometti returned to Paris and became acquainted with many of its most exciting writers and artists including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, and Pablo Picasso. Many of these friends wrote about him. Sartre described his figures as “always mediating between nothingness and being". He experienced a rapid rise to fame, especially in the United States, as a result of two exhibitions, in 1948 and 1950, at the Pierre Matisse gallery in New York. With his new-found significance, throughout the 1950s he continued to question his artistic path and searched for more ways to challenge reality in sculpture, as well as painting.
It was at this time he realised that reality was no longer dependent on being perceived by someone; reality simply was. In 1962, Giacometti was awarded the grand prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale, winning him global recognition. Many exhibitions followed throughout Europe and the United States. Giacometti died in 1966 of a heart attack in Switzerland. Today his work is held in national collections throughout the world. His 1960 sculpture Walking Man I, broke the record for a work of art at auction at $104.3 million in 2010.