Robert Doisneau, Alberto Giacometti dans l'atelier, 18 ou 19 décembre 1957, coll.Fondation Giacometti, Paris.
© Succession Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris et ADAGP, Paris)
© Robert Doisneau

Alberto Giacometti

Biography

1. A youth spent in a studio

Alberto Giacometti grew up in Switzerland in the Val Bregaglia alpine valley, a few kilometers from the Swiss-Italian border. His father, Giovanni Giacometti (1868-1933) was an impressionist painter esteemed by Swiss collectors and artists. He shared his thoughts with his son on art and the nature of art. 

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2. The encounter with the arts of Africa and Oceania

Giacometti’s work shows the influence of African and Oceanian sculpture. When the young artist developed an interest in African art in 1926, it was no longer a novelty for the modern artists of the previous generation (Picasso, Derain); it had even become popularized to the point of becoming decorative.

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3. The surrealist experiment

Giacometti joined André Breton’s Surrealist movement in 1931, as an active member of Breton’s group, Giacometti in no time stood out as one of its rare sculptors. Despite his being expelled in February 1935, surrealist procedures continued to play an important part in his creative work: dreamlike visions, montage and assemblage, objects with metaphorical functions, and magical treatment of the figure. 

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4. Objects

The creation of decorative art objects shows Giacometti’s interest in utilitarian objects which he admired in ancient and primitive societies. In 1931, Giacometti created a new typology of sculptures, which he called “mobile and mute objects” – things moving in a latent, suggestive way, which he had made of wood by a carpenter.

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5. What is a head ?

The issue of the human head was the central subject of Giacometti’s research throughout his life, as well as the reason for his exclusion of the Surrealist group in 1935. In that year, the representation of a head, which seemed to be a common-or-garden subject, was, for him, far from being resolved. The head and, above all, the eyes are the core of the human being and of life, whose mystery fascinated him.

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6. A woman like a tree, a head like a stone

It was in Switzerland, where Giacometti spent the Second World War, that he had the idea in 1944-45 for the sculpture which would be the prototype for his postwar standing figures: the Woman with Chariot, which depicts the image of his English friend Isabel from memory.

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7. Fragments and visions

Giacometti’s work studies the part as an evocation of the whole, and the emergence of a vision in the spectator’s space. In 1921 and 1946, Giacometti witnessed two deaths which left him with an indelible memory.

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8. Encounters

Giacometti met philosopher Jean-Paul Startre in 1941, who is the author of two essential essays about the artist’s work, published in 1948 and 1954, dealing with the issue of perception.

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9. Portraits

Giacometti’s portraits, be they painted or sculpted, are the translation of the model as an implacable otherness, which can never be grasped in its entirety. These portraits, devoid of all emotion and expression, are the receptacle of what the spectator brings to them. What was involved for the artist was capturing and rendering the vibration of the life of his models and not their psychology. Under Giacometti’s brush, his mother’s cook, Rita, became a sacerdotal character relieved of any sociological context.

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10. Fifty years of prints

Giacometti produced his first prints – wood etchings – alongside his father when he was still a schoolboy. During his life, Giacometti tried his hand at every print technique: wood, engraving, etching, aquatint, and above all, lithography, from 1949 onward.

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11. Landscapes

Giacometti creates a system of equivalences between the human figure and nature: the busts are mountains, the standing figures are trees, the heads are stones. In the sunlight, the mountain vibrates with a throb which resembles breathing. Like the tree, the human being is caught in a process of growth and death which can never be halted.

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12. Monument

In December 1958, through his New York dealer Pierre Matisse, Giacometti was invited to submit a project for a monument to be installed in the square being built in front of the new Chase Manhattan Bank skyscraper in Manhattan. In February 1959, the architect of this urban complex, Gordon Bunshaft, sent him the dimensions for making a model of the square, designed to help Giacometti to imagine the space, because the artist had never set foot in the United States. 

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13. The last model

Eli Lotar, a film-maker and photographer, was Giacometti’s last male model. Lotar, a had been part of the Surrealist avant-garde in the 1930s. In the postwar years, he was dogged by failure and became destitute; he lived off the generosity of old friends like Giacometti, who gave him money in exchange for running small errands and posing.

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To search for a work, consult the Alberto Giacometti Database