The Cleveland Museum of Art is the opening venue for the large touring exhibition Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure. Widely acclaimed as one of the most important artists of the 20th century, Giacometti reasserted the validity of the figure and figural representation at a time when abstract art had become dominant in the international art world. His works also became associated with existentialism, a philosophy that questions the nature of the human condition. To many, Giacometti’s emaciated figures—pervaded by feelings of alienation, fear, insignificance, and uncertainty—embodied the psychological complexities of the Cold War era that followed in the wake of World War II. Stripped to essentials, compressed and flattened as if eroded by air, these fragile beings presented themselves as expressions of a deep crisis facing art and humanity.
Co-organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Fondation Giacometti in Paris, Alberto Giacometti draws on the deep resources of the artist’s personal collection preserved under the guidance of his wife, Annette. The exhibition combines sculptures, paintings, and drawings to examine a central, animating aspect of Giacometti’s oeuvre: his extraordinary, singular concern with the human figure. The elongation of an elemental body, its placement in space, and its relationship with the base are among the issues he confronted in trying to solve essential questions for modern sculpture in his continuous struggle with matter. The exhibition also explores the enduring tension between abstraction and representation in Giacometti’s art. Attention is given to his engagement with the literary world and the origins of his reputation as one of the seminal artists of his time.
Giacometti grew up in Stampa, a small village in the Italian-speaking section of Switzerland. His father, Giovanni Giacometti (1868–1933), was a distinguished Post-Impressionist painter who had studied in Munich and Paris. Giovanni’s eldest son, Alberto began drawing and painting as a child. He made his first sculptures in his father’s studio at age 13. After briefly attending art schools in Geneva, he moved to Paris in 1922 to study with sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, a former pupil of Auguste Rodin. He discovered African art and Cubism in the mid-1920s and for a while explored abstract figures.
Giacometti joined the Surrealist movement in 1929, but broke with them in 1935 after being harshly criticized by their leader, André Breton, over his decision to return to working from live models. Undeterred by Breton’s rebuke, Giacometti continued to focus on figural representation, often starting with models posed in his studio, but obsessively repeating the same figure as he moved toward the thin, attenuated sculptures of the late 1940s. “I made and remade the same heads for months, every day, in every size,” he wrote in a letter of 1947, “eliminating little by little everything that would not work until I arrived at a single head, the key to all the others, and I worked on the figures in the same way.”1
The Nose is a fundamental work in Giacometti’s pivot toward the expressively distorted and elongated figures of the late 1940s, many depicted trapped in a metal cage. This frightening sculpture was inspired by a combination of real events, dreams, and hallucinations. A key moment was the death of a man who lived in an adjoining room in the little house he rented in Montparnasse. Giacometti recalled the shock of seeing the corpse stretched out on the bed at 3:00 a.m., the belly swollen, the head flung back, the mouth open, the nose appearing to grow as the skin receded. Giacometti translated his memories into a terrifying image of a head suspended from a rope hanging from a cage. “Never had any corpse seemed to me so non-existent, pathetic remains to be tossed into the gutter like a dead cat,” the artist observed. “I screamed in terror, as if I had just crossed a threshold, as if I were entering a totally unknown world.”2 It is not clear if the gaping mouth in the sculpture is screaming in agony or laughing with a comic shriek. Perhaps the sculpture’s most striking feature is how the grotesquely elongated nose is the only part of the head to extend beyond the cage. Hanging precariously from a rope, the head can sway with air currents, but not far enough to escape its prison. Trapped between potential movement and stasis, the head exists in a perpetual state of ambiguity, its delicate nose subject to potential damage or destruction by outside forces. The pitiful man can only laugh or scream at his fate.
In the late 1940s, Giacometti began combining his elongated figures into multiple, group compositions. Three Men Walking of 1948 depicts several figures moving through an empty space or city square, each in a separate direction, isolated and disconnected from one another. “In the street people astound and interest me more than any sculpture or painting,” Giacometti observed. “Every second the people stream together and go apart, then they approach each other to get closer to one another. They unceasingly form and re-form living compositions in unbelievable complexity. . . . It’s the totality of this life that I want to reproduce in everything I do.”3
Giacometti’s search for the ultimate figure culminated in his large standing woman and walking man sculptures of the 1960s. He first began exploring these themes in a walking woman sculpture of 1932. He returned to the idea in the 1940s and created two distinct types: a standing woman and a walking man. By developing the figures in opposite directions, he accentuated the contrasting qualities of stillness and dynamism, timelessness and temporality. Subjected to a process of elongation, these thin, emaciated figures signaled a radical rejection of the weight and permanence of traditional marble sculpture. As philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “Never was matter less eternal, more fragile, nearer to being human.”4 It seemed to Sartre that Giacometti had addressed the crisis of representation in the modern age by placing himself at the beginning of the world and creating figures that remind us of the primordial moment of creation. While the artist’s elongated figures appear to exist in a precarious state between being and nonbeing, their very presence seems to affirm our existence, and through the possibility of movement they confirm our capacity to exercise free will.5
In 1958 Giacometti received a commission to produce an outdoor sculpture for the plaza of Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City. His proposal for the project combined a standing woman, a walking man, and a large bust of a man. Giacometti worked relentlessly on the sculptures for more than a year but was disappointed with the bronze casts. After making new models in clay, he cast them again in bronze but never delivered the sculptures, perhaps concerned over the issue of scale and how they would look in the overwhelmingly vertical city of New York. When Giacometti displayed them in several exhibitions, critics proclaimed them his greatest sculptures. Today, his Tall Woman IV and Walking Man I are widely regarded as his defining, signature works.
1. Catherine Grenier, Alberto Giacometti: A Biography (Paris: Flammarion, 2017), 176.
2. Alberto Giacometti, translated by Barbara Wright, “The Dream, the Sphinx, and the Death of T.," Grand Street, no. 54 (1995): 150.
3. Reinhold Hohl, Alberto Giacomettt A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat. (New York: Praeger, 1974), 31.
4, Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Search for the Absolute,” In Alberto Giacometti: Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings, exh. cat. (New York: Pierre Matisse Gallery, 1948), 6.