In the late 1940s, sculptor Alberto Giacometti, then in mid-career, began a series of strangely elongated human forms. These spidery, enigmatic people—at once eroded and enduring—became icons of mid-twentieth century art, reflecting the weary hopes of humanity as the cataclysmic horror of World War Two faded into the mute dread of the Cold War. Giacometti, too, became an icon of sorts, representing the artist as existential seer, who by relentlessly working out technical problems of form, symmetry, and balance, could somehow reveal the essential truths of human nature.
Giacometti was born on October 10, 1901 in Borgonovo, Switzerland. His father, Giovanni, was a painter of the Post-Impressionist school, known for brightly colored portraits and landscapes. Alberto—the first of four children—was shy, good-natured, quite happy, and artistically gifted. He would later remember that his first drawing was of Snow White, in a tiny coffin, surrounded by the seven dwarves. By age 11 he had learned to paint, and at 12 he sculpted a bust of his brother Diego.
In 1915, Giacometti left home to attend boarding school, where he pursued an interest in literature and impressed his teachers with his drawings and sculpture. His school experience was marred in late 1917 when a case of mumps left him sterile. Moreover, the disease left him temporarily impotent, and although he did regain his ability to achieve an erection, he was plagued by sometimes-lengthy episodes of impotence for the rest of his life. Coming so close on the heels of puberty, this damage to his sexuality scarred him deeply. At 18, he took a sabbatical from school in order to find himself, and shortly thereafter announced that he would devote his life to art. His parents were pleased, and sent him to Geneva, where he studied sculpture at the School of Arts and Crafts, and took lessons in drawing at the School for Fine Arts.
The following year, Giacometti traveled with his father to Italy, where they studied the work of Renaissance artists like Tintoretto and Giotto. The young Giacometti was profoundly moved by the art, and sometimes even terrified by the emotions it aroused in him. After his father returned to Switzerland, Giacometti stayed on in Rome for nine months, living with relatives. There he immersed himself in baroque, early Christian, and Egyptian art. He also developed an acute crush on his cousin Bianca, and began sculpting a bust of her. However, the modeling sessions did not go well, and the sculpture was never completed. Consequently, Giacometti became ambivalent about sculpting from life. In Rome, he also had his first experience with a prostitute, and would continue to visit bordellos for the rest of his life, contending it best to find sexual release without the complications or disappointments of emotional involvement.
At 21, Giacometti went to Paris, then the center of the art world, to study with sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, who had been a student of the great August Rodin. For three years, Giacometti worked alongside Bourdelle, learning the craft of sculpture. He lived in hotels, ate in cafes, wandered the artists' ghetto of Montparnasse, and found solace in the Sphinx, Paris' most famous brothel. Finally, in 1925, he was ready to show his work publicly, and displayed two pieces-a fairly conventional bust and a cubist-influenced torso.
Those pieces were among the last recognizably human forms Giacometti would sculpt for some time. His dissatisfaction with sculpting from life had persisted, and by the mid-1920s he had completely given it up, all but forsaking the human form in favor of increasingly abstract subjects taken purely from his imagination. These enigmatic works attracted the attention of the Surrealists—a group of young artists who eschewed representation in favor of startling dream-like images that they felt could open the gates to the deeper reality of the unconscious—and they invited him to join the group. For the next several years, he participated in their activities, contributed prose pieces to their journals, and showed sculptures in their exhibitions-all of which helped raise his profile in the art world. His works from this period, such as Suspended Ball (1930-31), Hand Caught by a Finger (1932), and Woman with Her Throat Cut (1932), are unsettling, evocative, threatening, and cerebral. Each one is a concise essay on Surrealist principles.
By 1933, Giacometti had established the network of connections among dealers, collectors, critics, and fellow artists that a successful art career requires. This had been made possible largely by his association with the Surrealists. Nevertheless, he still felt compelled to recommence a naturalistic exploration of the human form, though he knew that that would violate Surrealist doctrine. The resulting works, such as Invisible Object (1934-35) and Walking Nude (1933-34), did indeed draw harsh criticism from the Surrealist upper echelon, and he was formally expelled from the group in 1934.
Even worse, his new work with human forms disappointed him terribly, and he ended up destroying almost everything he sculpted. Then, in 1937, his work took a severe and disturbing turn. One day he started chiseling an 18-inch high figure of a woman in plaster. It displeased him. He kept carving. Still it displeased him; still he kept carving. When he could finally stand to look at it, it was the size of a pin. Struck by the oddity of the experience, he started another 18-inch figure. The same thing occurred. This problem of the "tiny figurines"—of carving compulsively until there was literally next to nothing left—would plague him for the next several years. His friends were more than a little concerned, but Giacometti assured them that, although he could not see the end, he was sure he was on the right path. The sculptures would guide him.
Two years later, World War Two erupted, and by the summer of 1940, Paris was occupied by the Nazis. As a citizen of neutral Switzerland, Giacometti was under no obligation to remain, but he did, until the end of 1941, when, at his mother's request, he went to live with her Geneva. There he met, fell in love with, and married 19-year old Annette Arm. Their complex, sexually-open, and mutually satisfying relationship would last until Giacometti's death.
When the war ended, the couple traveled back Paris. Giacometti would later joke that he was able to transport everything he had sculpted in Geneva inside six matchboxes. But soon after arriving in Paris, he achieved a breakthrough. One night at the movies, he turned away from the gigantic two-dimensional figures on the screen and looked at the people in the audience. He suddenly noticed how tiny they were in his field of vision—which is to say, he was startled at how much empty space he saw when he looked at a person. Back in his studio, he attempted to recreate this optical sensation, and the sculptures—now full sized—poured forth.
Night (1946), Man Pointing (1947), The City Square (1948), and Walking Quickly Under Rain (1949) are all masterpieces, each an exquisite variation on a somber, dramatic theme. The human figures in each work share the two characteristics that would mark Giacometti's work from this period on. One, their surfaces are rough, scarred, and corroded. Two, their torsos, heads, limbs, hands, and feet are elongated, stretched to the point of fragility. Defined by these two traits, the people seem barely able to withstand the pressures of the immense void surrounding them. Critics immediately noted the powerful metaphoric resonance of the pieces. Here was a visual representation of human existence bereft of joy and meaning, as an unadorned struggle to persist in a blank, uncaring universe. They also noted Giacometti's friendship with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and contended that Giacometti's sculpture echoed the themes of Sartre's Existentialist philosophy, which held that human life was inherently meaningless, and that any value could come only through deeds. Giacometti, however, maintained that the philosophical implications of his works were of no concern to him. His post-war sculptures were simply his most successful attempts at representing physical reality as he saw it. Nothing more; and, of course, nothing less.
In 1948, an exhibit of his latest sculptures was mounted in New York, and immediately, his spindly humans took their place as Twentieth-century icons. From then on any exhibit of modern art included sculptures by Giacometti. In 1955, a major retrospective of his career was put on at the Guggenheim, in New York. In 1962, he won the grand prize for sculpture at the Venice Bieniale. Three years later he won the French Government's Grand Prix National des Arts. His fame was now worldwide, and he was becoming considerably wealthy. Yet, he continued to live as he always had, dividing his time between Paris and Geneva, working during the day, and associating with friends and other artists at night. In the mid-1950s, he began a relationship with a young prostitute who went by the name of Caroline—her real name remains unknown. They met one night in a café, and talked till dawn. Giacometti was smitten with the twenty-year-old petite blonde, and soon she was his mistress as well as one of his most frequent models. Indeed, it was through painting Caroline (as well as Annette) that Giacometti explored a renewed interest in portrait painting during his later years. In the mid-1960s his health began to fail, and he died of heart and respiratory problems on January 11, 1966, in Switzerland, in the company of Diego, Annette, and Caroline.
Giacometti's most important sculptures were so distinctive that no subsequent artist can be said to sculpt "like" Giacometti. Nevertheless, his impact on later artists has been immense. His concept of depicting the emptiness around an object was an important influence on post-modernist art. More importantly, his reduction of the human form to its essential elements was one of the first harbingers of Minimalism, perhaps the most fruitful school of art in the late Twentieth century.