Alberto Giacometti (1901 – 1966) was a tireless visionary – a man obsessed with material and metaphorical presence, and the cohesion between the two. His works represent the existentialism of the 20th century, both devoid of meaning yet simultaneously charged with the fragility of life. Although he was famed for his stick-thin bronze figures – he was the first sculptor to use the reduction of a physical surface to give the idea of presence – Giacometti was also an accomplished draughtsman and portrait artist. His characters, through their lack of physicality, speak of a presence that exists in a space between artwork and audience, creating a haunting yet ethereal atmosphere. Giacometti is currently having a moment in the art world: a groundbreaking exhibition which closed late last year at the National Portrait Gallery in London refigured the artist through examination of his portrait works, and an exhibition of his more abstract cubism pieces opens in February at Luxembourg and Dayan Gallery in London. Here, AnOther digs deep to bring you ten facts about the artist, things that help explain his genius vision.
1. The Swiss surrealist sculptor made what he saw
Only working with sitters he personally knew, Giacometti said that he sculpted what he physically saw when looking at people – his own, unique view of reality, where everyone is as thin as the blade of a knife.
2. In 1958, he was commissioned to make a work for a bank in New York
Chase Manhattan asked him to create a public work of art for a square – something Giacometti had always wanted to do. However at this time he had never been to New York, or even a metropolitan landscape, and the more he discovered about the city, the less eager he became... until he eventually changed his mind altogether.
3. His works were never finished
Whereas other portrait artists aimed to sculpt or paint the physical representations and tangible facts of a sitter, Giacometti’s work are an intense record of the ever-changing living presence of his subjects. His hands eradicated materiality, constructing instead an objective reality of the forever appearing and disappearing nature of life. Each sitting of the subject began with a complete reworking of the portrait and the works were constant revisions, which he claimed could go on forever.
4. One of the first guests at his debut solo show was Picasso
In 1932, Giacometti opened a show of his surrealist works in Paris – Picasso was one of the first in the doors and the two became life-long friends. They are now regarded as the two most important European avant-garde artists of the 20th century. Their oeuvres span painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture, and are instantly recognisable for their abandonment of the real within portraiture.
5. During the Second World War he smuggled tiny sculptures in matchboxes
While exiled in Geneva, due to the limited availability of materials paired with a new attitude towards the absurdity of the human condition, Giacometti’s works became an anxious search for meaning. Their minuscule size addresses the tangible void they inhabit, and the tiny works were smuggled to his associates in Paris in matchboxes to avoid detection.
6. He created a never-used set for Waiting for Godot
The artist was good friends with the absurdist Irish writer Samuel Beckett, who asked him to design a sculpture of a tree to be placed on the stage of his upcoming show at the Odeon Theatre in Paris under which the characters sit. The tree took on his trademark form: tall and slender, with a single leaf clinging hopelessly to a branch.
7. His approach was inspired by one model
In the winter of 1920 he began a sculpture of a friend with whom he was staying and, after six months of her sitting for the work, he suddenly realised a complete fracture between what he saw and what he could make. This crucial turning point became the reference for every artwork he subsequently created; he claimed every portrait after descended from this one piece.
8. He was inspired by the artistic principles of Ancient Egypt
After travelling Paris and Rome, Giacometti became aware of the great art of the lost empire: Ancient Egyptian sculpture was the first to break from a rigid frontal pose to spread the legs with one foot in front of the other, suggesting motion and forward movement into the viewer’s space – a theme seen in Giacometti’s striding figures. Sadly, in 1938 Giacometti was run down by a car in Paris, leaving him with a limp that caused his own stride to be restricted.
9. His closest associate was his brother
Alberto Giacometti's younger brother Diego lived next door to him, worked as his studio assistant, and was the subject of his first and last portraits. It is said that Giacometti drew him for several hours every day for seven years, desperately trying to capture his presence through form.
10. His catalogue texts were written by the famed French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre
The two met in 1939 when a young Sartre approached the artist while he was drinking alone in Café de Flore in Paris, and asked him to pay for his bill as he had no money with him. The two instantly bonded and became good friends, with Giacometti asking Sartre to write existential essays to accompany his works.
Alberto Giacometti In His Own Words, Sculptures 1925–34, February 2 – April 9 2016 Luxembourg Dayan Gallery, London.