Giacometti and drawings

Fondation Giacometti -  Giacometti and drawings

Ernst scheidegger, Alberto Giacometti dessinant dans son atelier, 1951, coll.Fondation Giacometti, Paris.
© Succession Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris + ADAGP, Paris)
© Ernst scheidegger

After his formative years at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière (1922–6), Giacometti rejected working from the model and used drawing as an exercise accompanying the development of his thinking. Alongside the preparatory sketches in his many notebooks, drawn mainly in pencil, he also made separate drawings on individual sheets that he reprised carefully in his works in pen and ink. In his notebooks he also made numerous sketches of his existing works, from memory. These inaugurated his singular practice of ‘retrospective’ drawing, made famous by his 1947 Lettre à Pierre Matisse. This would remain a part of the artist’s ongoing reflection and discourse on his work right up to the end of his career.

During his surrealist period (c.1929–35) Giacometti neglected, but did not totally abandon, ‘conventional’ perspective and the chiaroscuro drawing technique in favour of a combination of abstract signs and stylised figurative motifs. This technique, which was close to writing, enabled him to translate language processes into his visual works. The presence of the white paper as a ground on which he traced his floating forms became one of his stylistic traits, while a framing line bestowed an overall solidity. These rigorously flat compositions, displaying a typically surrealist expression of anxiety and erotic drive, directly echo his sculptures.

In 1927 he sculpted a square Head (Self-Portrait) in which the face is reduced to a purely graphic, abstract linear sign etched into the material. In the ‘plaques’ from 1927–9, which represent human figures (pp.148–51), the organs are also reduced to engraved or lightly sculpted abstract signs, imposing a frontal reading of this sculpture which comes close to drawing. The recurrence of these signs from one plaque to the next transforms them into symbols, whose interpretation is sometimes facilitated by explicit titles (Man, Woman, Gazing Head). ‘It was no more than a plaque placed in space in a certain way, in which there were just two hollows, which were what you might call the vertical and horizontal side that you find in any figure.’ Functioning like the frame in his drawings, the quadrangular structure forces us to identify a human body and keeps the work within the realm of figuration.

This work on symbols allowed Giacometti to combine sculpture and graphic work. In the sculptures that came next, which have been described as ‘sign figures’, he used empty space as a structural element: while being genuine sculptures in the round, the 1929 bronzes Apollo, Reclining Woman Who Dreams and Three Figures Outdoors have the flatness of a line traced in ink on a sheet of paper, a quality that is heightened in the numerous drawings that Giacometti made mostly in his notebooks.

Some of the sculptures establish the sense of these symbols very early on, as in The Couple from 1927 (p.139), with its stylised and sometimes hypertrophied hands, eyes and genitals. Giacometti applies the same symbolic vocabulary to his drawing: executed in pen, Woman c.1929 combines stylised eyes and hands with abstract tapering forms which can be identified as legs by comparing them to the earlier sculpture Crouching Figure c.1926 (p.135). The symbolisation is more radical in some of his drawings such as Composition c.1928, which appear to be devoid of figurative clues. Although a comparison with the sculpted plaques allows the marks to be read as the symbols used by Giacometti to represent a human body: parallel lines for the hands, broken lines for the arms and legs and supple, round lines for the belly.

Giacometti also avoids abstraction by reducing bodies to stylised fragments inspired by hieroglyphs. In Woman c.1930 the female body is reduced to linear symbols. Using a square format, the artist ditches the ultimate classical rule regarding vertical construction, which is still in evidence in the ‘plaques’. Here the body becomes a simple association of signs: ‘eye, nose, mouth, hand, breast, sex, feet’. The framing line, which functions rather like the cartouche in hieroglyphs, bestows an artificial unity on these scattered symbols (see entry on Egypt).

There was considerable interest in the occult power of exotic and ancient writings during this period, and Giacometti was an avid reader of the new artistic publications that expressed it. Their influence led him to add further complexity to his symbolic system of expression. In 1929 Robert Desnos published an article in Documents about the myth of the ‘hieroglyphs’ thought to contain the secret of the philosopher’s stone owned by alchemist Nicholas Flamel (this reference also appears in André Breton’s Second Manifesto of Surrealism). Georges Bataille presented a surprising analysis of the ‘language of flowers’ in this journal which also featured various articles on numismatic symbols and the graphological study of the writings of the Marquis de Sade. An article about Oceanic art in Cahiers d’art reproduced ideograms from ‘the script of Easter Island’.

The ‘belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations’ was central to surrealism, which sought to renew poetic expression by means of images. Giacometti’s notebooks bear witness to his own sensitivity to poetry. He tried his hand at writing poetry under Breton’s influence, but was never comfortable with it: ‘I can express myself only in objects, in sculpture, in drawings (and perhaps in painting)
and, much less well, in poems. Not in anything else.’
In 1933 he published ‘visual poems’ in which unpunctuated fragments of sentences are combined with frames defining ‘spaces’ and a pictogram of a mouth. The preparatory studies for these poems reveal a poetic method of composition that is more graphic than literary, concentrating on the overall visual effect.

In around 1931–2 Giacometti was working on horizontal sculptures whose engraved surface was meant to be observed frontally as a drawing. He also made more elaborate independent drawings that sometimes shed light on the meaning of the sculptures. The titles, modified in accordance with the artist’s variations, became more complex and heightened this ‘speaking’ quality. The compositional principle often revolved around the violent opposition of two figures, kept at a distance from each other, as shown in Point to the Eye 1931–2 (p.167) and Flower in Danger 1932 (p.164)

In 1933, he produced a graphic version of this in a burin engraving for the René Crevel novel Les Pieds dans le plat, (see ‘Crevel’). This composition also appears in two pen drawings made that same year. Composition c.1932–314 (p.178) sets up a tension between two geometrical forms. The ‘figure’ on the left, a triangle rooted to the ground, points its tip towards an immobilised cone endowed with small arms, which appears frozen in a gesture of surprise or defence. This impression of a frozen moment recalls the false, frustrated mobility of Suspended Ball 1930–1, taken to extremes in Man, Woman, Child 1931 (p.165).
Stylistically very close, Figure in Front of a Wall (Figure devant un mur) c.1932–3 (p.42), is another image of two figures in a forced immobility. On the left, a wall shown in perspective creates depth. A cone masking the bottom left corner of the wall heightens the illusion of a foreground. A wooden board (the only textured detail in the drawing) is fixed to the ground and supports a stylised skull that faces the wall. This skull recalls the ones in Point to the Eye and Flower in Danger. The composition also borrows from Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings – indeed, in 1933 Giacometti answered a surrealist questionnaire about ‘the irrational possibilities of penetration and orientation in a painting by De Chirico: The Enigma of a Day 1914.

Comparing these different drawings allows us to understand another later composition, which seems purely abstract in appearance. In this engraving, entitled Composition 1935 (p.183) Giacometti reduces the forms of Figure in Front of a Wall to a simple geometrical assemblage and attains a second, pared-down version of the drawing created two years earlier. The apparent geometrical coldness of Composition is ‘warmed up’ by the perceptible reference to more expressive works. By means of comparison, we can thus recognise the wall seen in perspective in the earlier work in the trapezoid here, and the stylised skull in the circle.
The reference to Suspended Ball sheds light on the general structure. The polyhedron in the upper left corner serves as the link between these surrealist references and Giacometti’s exploration of the new theme of melancholy: following the shock of his father’s death in 1933, he had increasingly used the motif of the cube, derived from Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I 1514 (p.45). There is also what is probably an ‘ultimate’ version of this engraving in pen, in which these forms are fragmented into a veritable graphic puzzle which can be pieced together only if we refer to the earlier productions.

Published by Anatole Jakovski in May 1935, just after Giacometti had broken with the surrealists, Composition could be seen as a momentary switch into geometrical abstraction. But the work is simply the result of increased encryption designed to make his work even more esoteric. Without falling completely into abstraction, Giacometti accentuates the play on symbols drawn from various sources to create a meaning that needs deciphering. On the back he made a trial sketch for Composition, a very surrealist work in the style of the 1933 Table. At the same time he was making engravings in an oneiric, surrealist style for Breton’s L’Air de l’eau. Appearances notwithstanding, Composition is thus well and truly a surrealist work. Engraved at a turning point in his career, it can even be understood as Giacometti’s ironic commentary on the temptation of abstraction,

as confirmed by his later remark, in 1962, that ‘this was the last attempt before hitting “the wall”!’This transitional work was also a riposte to remarks by Christian Zervos published five years earlier in Cahiers d’art, when Giacometti was just beginning to explore surrealism. Zervos spoke of the falsely abstract nature of the set of drawings of Projects for a Monument 1928 executed by Pablo Picasso, which had a decisive influence on the formal explorations carried out by Giacometti between 1929 and 1933: ‘In our day we tend to overdo abstraction and call abstract those works in which signs of the real are so deeply considered and connected with such power that these connections escape the ordinary.’

Giacometti was seduced by the workings of illusion and ambiguity that were at the heart of surrealist experiments. ‘Deceptive’ drawing became a veritable game for him, sustained by an overtly fabulating discourse about the work and its sources. From around 1927–9 his graphic work features drawings of imaginary sculptures that are not preparatory sketches. On occasions, drawing provided a way of transforming the always imperfect result of his sculptures into purely graphic signs, such as All Traces Lost (Toutes traces perdues) c.1933–4. The publication in the surrealist journal Le Surréalisme au service de la revolution, of the Mobile and Mute Objects 1931 – a set of drawings showing his first sculpture-objects – is the earliest example of the ‘false sculptures’ that he slipped in among his representations of real works. In three other drawings  that constitute a distinct group, executed in around 1933–4, Giacometti made two drawings of compositions imitating sculptures and one representation of Table made in 1933. The decision to represent this ambiguous work, which, as a cross between furniture, object and sculpture, could easily be taken for an invented composition, confirms this desire to blur the distinction between real and imaginary. The drawing of Table represents that sculpture on a parquet-like textured floor that also appears in the drawing titled Surrealist Composition c.1933 (p.174). This anecdotal detail evoking a real interior, which is rare in the drawings from this period, maintains the illusion that true and false sculpture come from the same ‘domestic’ reality. Lunar (p.175), the third drawing in this ensemble, and the most poetic, is steeped in the same dramatic atmosphere, created here by the dark ground and the contrast of the chiaroscuro. Here Giacometti represents another of his real sculptures, the Cube from 1933–4. The title and motif, as mentioned earlier, are clearly a direct allusion to Dürer’s Melencolia I. The style and the composition also evoke the work of other artists and, following what are now well tried rules, provide only partial keys to the work’s interpretation: the oneiric, nocturnal atmosphere recalls Odilon Redon’s series of ‘Noirs’ lithographs, while the dense texture of the work in pen evokes the collages made by his friend Max Ernst from vintage prints.

The meticulousness of the works in pen and ink, which is in itself illusionistic in that it imitates the technique of engraving, separates them stylistically from the other drawings. The question of true and false which they raise echoes another remark by Zervos, regarding the limits of Picasso’s graphic work in relation to his activity as a sculptor: ‘If the drawing expressed his initial idea of a sculpture, it is no less a deceptive and remote image of the specific virtues of the monument.’

In 1935 Giacometti abandoned this symbolic and metaphorical approach to the subject and came back to the traditional themes of drawing after nature. He rejected the surrealist aesthetic but continued to exploit the presence of the white paper and the use of a contour line in relation to the volume, which was a constant of his drawing throughout his life. Drawing became an everyday exercise that was part of his quest for the truth of representation. It was a compulsive practice: ‘ever since I first painted or drew, it has always been to bite into reality, to defend myself, to nourish myself, to get bigger; to get bigger the better to defend myself, the better to be able to attack, to capture, to make as much progress as possible on every front, in all directions, to protect myself from hunger, cold, death, to be as free as possible; as free as possible to try – with the means most suitable to me today – to see better, to understand better the things around me, to understand better to be more free, as big as possible, in order to spend, to expend myself as much as possible in what I do, to live my adventure, to discover new worlds, to make my war, for the pleasure (?) for the joy (?) of war, for the pleasure of winning and losing.’

Mathilde Lecuyer

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