Progression of Art
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
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 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 kâ. 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
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
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
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