Alberto Giacometti was born in 1901 and died in 1966. He is considered to be one of the most original Swiss sculptors and painters of the 20th century. In 1930 he joined the Surrealist group and until 1935 made witty Surrealist constructions similar to those of other members of the group.
In the mid-1930s he returned to the human figure in both painting and sculpture, but it was not until 1948 that he received public acclaim with an exhibition of his work in New York.
Giacometti's sculptures are of stick-like figures of varying scale often placed in dramatic groups. Some of the early ones become so slight and attenuated that they seem to be disappearing; this tendency changed after World War II, when the figures become larger.
Giacometti is always concerned with the apparent capacity of light to eat away at the confines of matter. His figures are alienated and emphasize an Existential sense of immobility and isolation; he was, in fact, friendly with the Existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote an influential introduction to the catalog of the New York exhibit.
Sartre saw Giacometti's work as revealing perfectly the sense of Angst typical of modern man. His paintings and drawings are almost entirely portraits of friends and relations. In an extended series of drawings, Caroline, Giacometti showed his creative inability to find a finished form.
In 1922, the young Giacometti made the pilgrimage to Paris and continued his artistic education, working from models in his own studio and at the Academie.
The sculptural work of Henri Laurens and Jacques Lipchitz was a great inspiration to him, and he began exploring flat sculptural planes, upon which slight indentations or a raised bump might minimally suggest the face of a man, woman or child.
In 1928 he met Masson, Calder, Miro and many others, some of whom still belonged to the Surrealist group in Paris, and others who had renounced Surrealism and the Dadaist ideology. This contact enabled him to make the leap to the use of his imagination and the workings of his own inner world as viable imagery, and leave behind, for a time, dependence on live models and nature as artistic source material.
The paintings of Fernand Leger and their constructivist landscapes in which figures reclined or stood in groups, helped Giacometti find a three-dimensional expression for his airy and void-filled sculptures.
Among the most famous of these famous of these sculptures created during the years 1928 to 1935 is Hanging Ball, Man and Woman and "The Palace at Four O'clock in the Morning", a delicate skeleton of kindling wood, defining spaces in which mute objects, many of which possessed a distinctly Freudian flavor, hung suspended, isolated, forever frozen in a cold agony.
Nature fled from Giacometti's grasp; the more he tried to capture a likeness, the further it receded from him. Figures grew increasingly attenuated, heads shrank in size and faces flattened into featureless bumps.
Increasingly, the feet melded into the base and adopted a heavy rootedness out of which a spindly figure extended, a tenuous stem surrounded by space, voidness and isolation.
"At one time," Giacometti said, "I thought I saw people life-size. The more I drew back to preserve them whole, the more they diminished. It was only after 1946 that I began to perceive the distance that makes men real and not life-size. My vision became larger."
Groups of figures appeared, men and women striding across a square, a part of a whole, and yet infinitely distanced from each other. The role of the sculpture base became vital in establishing spatial relationships and defining that area, which although left apparently empty and void, was an integral part of the sculpture itself.
"For years," Giacometti said, "I believed that I would be more advanced tomorrow than I am today, and that I would see further. I now realize that all the sculptures of today, like those of the past, will end one day in pieces. We shall then realize that a fragment of a Rodin means as much and even more than the whole statue. So it is important to fashion one's work carefully in its smallest recess and charge every particle of matter with life."
"Impossible to grasp the entire figure . . . if one began on a detail, a heel, the nose, there was no hope of ever achieving the whole. One could have spent a lifetime without achieving a result. The form dissolved, it was little more than granules moving over a deep black void, the distance between one wing of the nose and the other is like the Sahara, without end, nothing to fix one's gaze upon, everything escapes.
"I began as a last resort to work at home from memory. This yielded, after many attempts touching on cubism, objects which were for me the closest I could come to my vision of reality . . . but I still lacked a sense of the whole, a structure, also a sharpness that I saw, a kind of skeleton in space.
"Figures were never for me a compact mass, but like a transparent construction".
TO PIERRE MATISSE, 1947
"Nothing was as I had imagined. A head (I quickly abandoned figures, that would have been too much) became for me an object completely unknown and without dimension.
"Finally, in order to accomplish at least a little, I began to work from memory, but this mainly to know what I had gotten out of all this work. (During all these years I drew and painted a little, and always from life.)
"But wanting to create from memory what I had seen, to my terror the sculptures became smaller and smaller, they had a likeness only when they were small, yet their dimensions revolted me, and tirelessly I began again, only to end several months later at the same point.
"A large figure seemed to me false and a small one equally unbearable, and then often they became so tiny that with one touch of my knife they disappeared into dust. But head and figures seemed to me to have a bit of truth only when small."