Alberto Giacometti Life and Art Periods

"All the art of the past rises up before me, the art of all ages and all civilizations, everything becomes simultaneous, as if space had replaced time. Memories of works of art blend with affective memories, with my work, with my whole life."

ALBERTO GIACOMETTI SYNOPSIS

Alberto Giacometti's remarkable career traces the shifting enthusiasms of European art before and after the Second World War. As a Surrealist in the 1930s, he devised innovative sculptural forms, sometimes reminiscent of toys and games. And as an Existentialist after the war, he led the way in creating a style that summed up the philosophy's interests in perception, alienation and anxiety. Although his output extends into painting and drawing, the Swiss-born and Paris-based artist is most famous for his sculpture. And he is perhaps best remembered for his figurative work, which helped make the motif of the suffering human figure a popular symbol of post-war trauma.

ALBERTO GIACOMETTI KEY IDEAS

Giacometti's work of the 1930s represents probably the most important contribution to Surrealist sculpture. In an effort to explore themes derived from Freudian psychoanalysis, like sexuality, obsession and trauma, he developed a variety of different sculptural objects. Some were influenced by primitive art, but perhaps most striking were those that resemble games, toys, and architectural models. They almost encourage the viewer to physically interact with them, an idea which was very radical at the time.
In the late 1930s, Giacometti abandoned abstraction and Surrealism, becoming more interested in how to represent the human figure in a convincing illusion of real space. He wanted to depict figures in such a way as to capture a palpable sense of spatial distance, so that we, as viewers, might share in the artist's own sense of distance from his model, or from the encounter that inspired the work. The solution he arrived at involved whittling the figures down to the slenderest proportions.
Giacometti's post-war achievement - finding a language through which to represent the figure in real space - impressed the many writers of the period who were interested in Phenomenology and Existentialism. Both of these philosophies contained ideas about self-consciousness and how we relate to other human beings, and Giacometti's art was thought to powerfully capture the tone of melancholy, alienation and loneliness that these ideas suggested.
Although the 1950s art world of both Europe and the United States was dominated by abstract painting, Giacometti's figurative sculpture came to be a hugely influential model of how the human figure might return to art. His figures represented human beings alone in the world, turned in on themselves and failing to communicate with their fellows, despite their overwhelming desire to reach out.
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ALBERTO GIACOMETTI BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Alberto Giacometti was born in 1901 in the mountain hamlet of Borgonovo, in eastern Switzerland. He was the first of four children born to Giovanni Giacometti, a Post-Impressionist painter, and Annetta Giacometti-Stampa, whose family was among the area's prominent land owners. In addition to his father, several members of Giacometti's extended family were artists, including Augusto Giacometti (second cousin to both Giovanni and Annetta), who was a Symbolist painter, and Cuno Amiet, Alberto's godfather and a close family friend, who was a Fauvist.

When Giacometti was no older than ten, he began to send pencil and crayon drawings to his godfather Amiet, most of which he saved and survive today. And in the years that followed, he began to experiment with oils and still-lifes, often using his siblings as models. He produced his first painting at age twelve.

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Early Period and Training

In 1915, Giacometti enrolled at the Evangelical School in the town of Schiers, where he continued to work in a small private studio. Later he enrolled at the École des Arts Industriels in Geneva, and studied painting, drawing and sculpture under the tutelage of Pointillist painter David Estoppey and sculptor Maurice Sarkissoff.

In May 1920, Giacometti traveled to Italy with his father, where he viewed paintings by Jacopo Tintoretto at the Venice Biennale, Giotto's frescoes in Padua, and ancient Egyptian art at the Archeological Museum in Florence. Soon after, he moved to Paris, where he enrolled in several art classes, and later he began to be attracted to Cubism and primitive art. In 1926 he exhibited his very first major bronze sculpture work, the idol-like Spoon Woman (1926-27), at the Salon des Tuileries.

Alberto Giacometti Biography

Mature period

By the 1930s, Giacometti had been warmly welcomed into Surrealist circles, and he became close to figures such as Man Ray, Joan Miró, André Masson and Max Ernst, as well as the movement's founders André Breton and Louis Aragon. But he also published work in Documents, the periodical produced by writer Georges Bataille, who was then putting forward a version of Surrealism in opposition to Breton's. Critics now believe that Bataille's ideas may have been important in inspiring several of Giacometti's Surrealist works, such as Suspended Ball (1930-1).

In June 1940 Giacometti and his brother Diego fled Paris by bicycle, narrowly missing an encounter with the invading German Wehrmacht (the next day they witnessed the city's bombardment from afar). Giacometti remained in France during this time, and forged friendships with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, thinkers who would later influence his figurative work.

In 1946, following the liberation of Paris, and Giacometti's own three-year hiatus in Geneva, he returned to the French capital. That same year his former lover, Annette Arm, joined him, and the two were married in 1949. Arm modeled for him on several occasions, including for the oil painting Annette with Chariot (1950). It was while living in Paris during these years that Giacometti arrived at his mature style of elongated figures, reportedly after spending time sketching passersby in the city streets.

Alberto Giacometti Photo

Late period

As Giacometti's style continued to mature into the 1950s and 60s, his bronze figures grew larger and more complex, ranging from his Woman of Venice II (1956) at nearly four feet tall, to Tall Woman II (1960), towering at close to nine feet. He also devoted more time to portraiture, in both painting and sculpture. His regular models included Diego and Annette, as well as Isaku Yanaihara, a Japanese philosophy professor and writer whom he befriended in 1955.

By the 1960s, Giacometti was internationally famous, but his health declined. He was plagued by heart and circulatory problems. Nevertheless he continued to work, and in his final weeks he was working on a bust and painting of Elie Lotar, a French photographer and close friend. On the evening of January 11, 1966, he died of complications of pericarditis.

ALBERTO GIACOMETTI LEGACY

Both of the important phases of Giacometti's career yielded innovations that influenced a wide range of artists. His Surrealist sculpture of the 1930s, for instance, influenced Henry Moore, partly inspiring the Surrealism that would be such an important component of Moore's practice throughout his life. It is certainly hard to imagine Moore's own innovative experiments in the 1930s without Giacometti's example. And Giacometti's figurative work was vital in re-establishing the figure as a viable motif in the post-war period, at a time when abstract art dominated. His spindly bronze figures, which appear punctured and fragile, compressed in space, are in many respects visual manifestations of Existentialist thought, emblems of the condition of modern humanity ravaged by doubt.

Original content written by Justin Wolf
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ALBERTO GIACOMETTI QUOTES

"Let me know how to make only one and I will be able to make a thousand."

"Just the same, if I begin my statue, as they do, with the tip of the nose, then an infinity of time will not be too much before I get to the nostrils."

"When I make my drawings ... the path traced by my pencil on the sheet of paper is, to some extend, analogous to the gesture of a man groping his way in the darkness."

"All the art of the past rises up before me, the art of all ages and all civilizations, everything becomes simultaneous, as if space had replaced time. Memories of works of art blend with affective memories, with my work, with my whole life."

Alberto Giacometti

Alberto Giacometti Influences

Interactive chart with Alberto Giacometti's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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André Derain
André Derain
André Derain, co-founder of Fauvism with Henri Matisse, was a French artist whose paintings exhibit the writhing energetic lines and bright colors characteristic of the movement.

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Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brancusi, a Romanian artist working in Paris, was one of the founders of modern sculpture. His abstracted animals, portrait busts, and totem-like figures revolutionized the traditional relationship between the sculpture and its base.
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Hans Arp
Hans Arp
Hans Arp (also known as Jean Arp) was a German-French artist who incorporated chance, randomness, and organic forms into his sculptures, paintings, and collages. He was involved with Zurich Dada, Surrealism, and the Abstraction-Creation movement.

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Joan Miró
Joan Miró
Active in Paris from the 1920s onward, and influenced by Surrealism, Miró developed a style of biomorphic abstraction which blended abstract figurative motifs, large fields of color, and primitivist symbols. This style would be an important inspiration for many Abstract Expressionists.
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Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
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André Masson
André Masson
André Masson was a French painter and one of the pioneers of Surrealism. His practice of "automatic drawing" consisted of methodically supressing his conscious mind while creating art, thus allowing Masson to work from his subconscious. He was also known to work after long periods of forced hunger and sleep deprivation, resulting in quasi-hallucinatory images.

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Louis Aragon
Louis Aragon
Louis Aragon was a French poet and writer, as well as journalist and editor for several revolutionary and avant-garde journals. He was involved with the Dada circle in Paris before helping found Surrealism in 1924.

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Balthus
Balthus
Balthus was a Paris-based modern artist whose controversial paintings explored degrees of voyeurism, innocence, and childhood sexuality.

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Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Max Ernst was a German Dadaist and Surrealist whose paintings and collages combine dream-like realism, automatic techniques, and eerie subject matter.
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Georges Bataille
Georges Bataille
Georges Bataille was a twentieth-century French writer, philosopher and poet. A fringe figure for most of his life, Bataille's writings dealt with ideas of mysticism, eroticism, human sacrifice, and deviant behavior. Despite a lackluster reception in life, his posthumous influence on writers and philosophers has been felt, and Bataille is now considered a key figure in the development of transgressionist literature.

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Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism refers to a number of styles that emerged in reaction to Impressionism in the 1880s. The movement encompassed Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism before ceding to Fauvism around 1905. Its artists turned away from effects of light and atmosphere to explore new avenues such as color theory and personal feeling, often using colors and forms in intense and expressive ways.
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Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
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Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
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Constructivism
Constructivism
Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.
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Divisionism
Divisionism
Divisionism was the characteristic style in Neo-Impressionist painting defined by the separation of colors into individual dots or patches which interacted optically. Georges Seurat founded the style and believed it achieved the maximum luminosity scientifically possible.

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Isamu Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi was a Japanese-American modern artist. best known for his organic, biomorphic sculpture works, Noguchi was also a furniture designer and landscape artist.
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Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalí was a Spanish Surrealist painter who combined a hyperrealist style with dream-like, sexualized subject matter. His collaborations with Hollywood and commercial ventures, alongside his notoriously dramatic personality, earned him scorn from some Surrealist colleagues.
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Henry Moore
Henry Moore
Henry Moore was an English sculptor and artist. He was best known for his abstract monumental bronze sculptures. His forms are usually abstractions of the human figure, typically depicting reclining figures, or even more commonly, the mother and child theme.
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Leland Bell
Leland Bell
Leland Bell was an American painter and founding teacher of the New York Studio School. A contemporary of the Abstract Expressionists, his work nonetheless maintained aquasi-figurative, quasi-abstract style.
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Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon was an Irish-born, English painter and one of the twentieth century's most celebrated and controversial existentialist artists. Bacon favored dark subject matter, often painting slightly abstracted, biomorphic figures, with bodies contorted or in the throes of madness. Painterly themes of Bacon's include the crucifixion, isolation and the mind's fragility. Bacon was also one of the few English artists of any prominence in modern and contemporary circles during the better part of the twentieth century.
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Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre was a twentieth-century French philosopher, public intellectual, playwright, activist, literary critic and novelist. His name has become synonymous with Existentialism, the modern philosophy he popularized throughout his career. Sartre's writings, while vast, are characterized by his intense focus on matters dealing with human behavior, the Ego and "the Other." In one of his most celebrated works, the play No Exit, one of Sartre's characters boasts the famous line, "Hell is other people."

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Jean Genet
Jean Genet
Jean Genet was a twentieth-century French poet, novelist, playwright, auteur and political activist. Originally a petty thief, vagabond and prostitute, Genet later became a darling of the avant-garde and radical left, and produced some of the century's most controversial and celebrated works of literature. Among Genet's best known works are the plays The Balcony and The Blacks, and the novel The Thief's Journal.

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Francis Ponge
Francis Ponge
Francis Ponge was a twentieth-century French poet and essayist. Ponge is best remembered for his essays and reviews that assume the form of prose poetry. Over the course of his life, Ponge was associated with the French Surrealists, the Communist Party, and the philosophical movements Phenomenology and Existentialism.

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Eduardo Paolozzi
Eduardo Paolozzi
Eduardo Paolozzi was a Scottish sculptor, printmaker and multi-media artist, and a pioneer in the early development of Pop art. His 1947 print I Was a Rich Man's Plaything is considered the very first work of Pop art. He was also a founder of the Independent Group in 1952.

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Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder was an American artist who made important contributions to abstract sculpture, hanging mobiles, and Kinetic art. His work reflects both modern and Surrealist influences.
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Existentialism
Existentialism
Existentialism is a system of philosophical thought founded in the nineteenth century and championed by such figures as Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard, and later by twentieth-century literary figures like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Existentialism deals largely with the complexities of individual human emotions, thoughts and responsibilities. Existentialist philosophy was widely used by various artist in the arena of modern art.
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Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau was a movement that swept through the decorative arts and architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Generating enthusiasts throughout Europe, it was aimed at modernizing design and escaping the eclectic historical styles that had previously been popular. It drew inspiration from both organic and geometric forms, evolving elegant designs that united flowing, natural forms with more angular contours.
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Realism
Realism
Realism is an approach to art that stresses the naturalistic representation of things, the look of objects and figures in ordinary life. It emerged as a distinct movement in the mid-nineteenth century, in opposition to the idealistic, sometimes mythical subjects that were then popular, but it can be traced back to sixteenth-century Dutch art and forward into twentieth-century styles such as Social Realism.

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Neo-Expressionism
Neo-Expressionism
Neo-Expressionism began as a movement in German art in the early 1960s with the emergence of Georg Baselitz. It gained momentum in the 1970s, with the addition of painters such as Anselm Kiefer, Markus Lüpertz and Eugen Schönebeck. Drawing inspiration from German Expressionism, many of its practitioners focused on the country's troubled modern history. In the 1980s, it inspired many successful painters across the world, including Julian Schnabel.
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Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist who in the early twentieth century founded the psychoanalytic school of psychology. His theories on the human unconscious, arhcetypal forms and free association were very influential on many forms of modern art, including Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.

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Primitive Art
Primitive Art
Nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists in the West were greatly influenced by art they deemed 'primitive' or 'naïve', made by tribal or non-Western cultures. Such art, ranging from African and Native American to naive depictions of the French peasantry, was thought to be less civilized and thus closer to raw aesthetic and spiritual experience.

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Abstract Art
Abstract Art
Abstraction from nature, objects, or figures has been common throughout the history of art, but it was not until the early twentieth century that abstraction was pursued for its own sake. From about 1913 it became a central characteristic of modernist art, and it continues to an important part of contemporary artists' repertoire.

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Symbolism
Symbolism
Symbolism is an artistic and literary movement that first emerged in France in the 1880s. In the visual arts it is often considered part of Post-Impressionism. It is characterized by an emphasis on the mystical, romantic and expressive, and often by the use of symbolic figures.

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Fauvism
Fauvism
Fauvism was an early twentieth-century art movement founded by Henri Matisse and André Derain. Labeled as "wild beasts", Fauve artists favored vibrant colors and winding gestural strokes across the canvas.
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Pointillism
Pointillism
Pointillism is a mode of art-making, first developed in 1880s France, in which all of the paint is applied to the surface as tiny points or daubs of color. Based on the laws of color theory, pointillism relies on the viewer's eye to mix the disparate dots into the lines, shapes, shadings, and color ranges of the full scene.

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Man Ray
Man Ray
Man Ray was an American artist in Paris whose photograms, objects, drawings, and other works played an important role in Dada, Surrealism, modern photography, and avant-garde art at large.
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André Breton
André Breton
André Breton, author of the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, was an influential theorizer of both Dada and Surrealism. Born in France, he emigrated to New York during World War II, where he greatly influenced the Abstract Expressionists.
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Gazing Head
Gazing Head

Title: Gazing Head (1928)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In his early years, Giacometti often experienced difficulty in sculpting from life. In this despair, he began to work from memory. The early plaster bust Gazing Head, arguably the artist's first truly original work, illustrates the culmination of this effort. The flatness of the head and face - Giacometti's economical placement of smooth divots for definition - result in a bust that is at once abstract and figurative. And yet the underlying theme of the work, the act of gazing, invites viewers to ponder whether what they are looking at is in fact a mirror. When Gazing Head was first exhibited in Paris in 1929, it immediately grabbed the attention of the French Surrealists, beginning an association that would cement the early part of Giacometti's career.


Plaster - Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung, Zurich

Suspended Ball
Suspended Ball

Title: Suspended Ball (1930-31)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Although works like Gazing Head caught the attention of the Surrealists, it was Suspended Ball, first exhibited at Galerie Pierre in 1930, that prompted André Breton to invite Giacometti to join the group. The sculpture's white globular form - at once floating freely and trapped in a cage - and the enigmatic segment below it, all evinced the dream-like and erotic qualities that the Surrealists adored. In fact, following the 1930 group exhibition, Salvador Dalí contributed an article on Surrealist objects for Breton's periodical, inspired by Suspended Ball. Despite this association with Breton's group, critics have also associated the sculpture with the ideas of Breton's rival, Georges Bataille. It has been argued that the elements in the sculpture are deliberately enigmatic, since while they seem to suggest a sexual act, it is unclear which element is male and which female. This confusion of categories has been said to encapsulate Bataille's notion of informe, or formlessness.


Metal, cord, plaster - Tate Gallery, London

Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)
Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)

Title: Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object) (1934)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Hands Holding the Void illustrates how Giacometti started to stray from the Surrealists after his brief association with the group. It was created as a monument to the artist's recently deceased father, embracing what the critic Carl Einstein called a "metaphysical realism." It incorporates certain primitive and Egyptian elements. The void the figure is holding is possibly the soul, or what the Egyptians called . While the Surrealists embraced this work, the figurative elements indicate that the artist was beginning to move beyond them.


Bronze - Museum of Modern Art, New York

City Square
City Square

Title: City Square (1948)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The multi-figured City Square, while not Giacometti's first foray into the waif-like figures for which he is best known, is a stunning exercise in creating an impression of spacious landscape. Treading amidst an empty space, the figures - what Sartre called "moving outlines" - seem to rise out of nothing. In a 1960 review for The Nation, Fairfield Porter observed, "Giacometti's concern is to place the relationship of man and landscape with the ground. And he further considers man and everything else as having a dual relationship to the environment as a link between the earth and infinity." By this time Giacometti was well acquainted with Existentialism, and City Square could be interpreted along its lines, depicting as it does mankind as a mere shadow of itself, existing half-way between being and nothingness.


Painted bronze - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Annette with Chariot
Annette with Chariot

Title: Annette with Chariot (1950)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Although sculpture is the medium for which Giacometti is best known, he was also an accomplished painter and draughtsman. This 1950 oil work shows his skill at creating an impression of profound depth on a flat surface. The subject here is the artist's wife Annette, who is composed of the same lines and strokes used to depict the surrounding room, as if she herself were just another object. Nevertheless, like Giacometti's sculptural stick figures, Annette does subtly emerge from the composition, asserting her humanity amidst the otherwise bland order of the room. Much as some of the leading Existentialist thinkers of the time noted, Giacometti's mature work was an antidote to abstraction.


Oil on canvas - Private collection

Woman of Venice II
Woman of Venice II

Title: Woman of Venice II (1956)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Perhaps no other writer has better summed up Giacometti's bronze stick figures than Francis Ponge, who wrote in a 1951 article for Cahiers d'Art, "Man - and man alone - reduced to a thread - in the dilapidation and misery of the world - who searches for himself - starting from nothing... Man on a pavement like burning iron; who cannot lift his heavy feet." Like other works in this vein, Woman of Venice II shows a single figure, her body seemingly beaten almost to the point of disintegration, yet still standing tall and upright. At the heart of such works was the theme of human dignity and mankind's need to assert its existence in a vast universe that seems bent on its destruction.


Bronze - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.