Think about the last project you completed or skill you acquired. Are you always immediately confident in the results or your abilities? For most of us, learning or creating is a process of trial and error—and for artist Alberto Giacometti, it was no different. Throughout his career, he worked iteratively, creating and re-creating, working and reworking the same forms. For example, he sculpted several versions of a bust of his brother Diego and made his figures thinner and thinner until they almost disappeared. He was always starting again, always modifying his forms; he was never satisfied. He had a great sense of anxiety about his work, which fueled his creative process.
Today, Giacometti is recognized as one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century. At a time when abstract art was dominant in the international art world, he instead centered his attention on the human figure. He used his art to explore human bodies, abstracting, compressing, elongating, and isolating them.
The human head interested Giacometti throughout his career. At some points he sculpted from live models, preferring family members and friends, while at others he was inspired by dreams, memories, and visions. He even drew heads on varying surfaces, from newspapers to exhibition invitations. What links all these heads together is his constant experimentation. The examples of heads shown here illustrate the ways Giacometti reworked the same subject.
Giacometti sculpted a bust of Diego from plaster in 1936, at a time when he was working from live models. Diego’s features are realistic, with high cheekbones, an intense stare from heavily lidded eyes set in deep sockets, and a prominent, thin nose. Early in his career, Giacometti modeled in clay, and then created plaster casts from those models. In clay, he could build up the material and then work away at it with a knife or his hands, revealing facial features and the texture of hair and skin.
Close looking reveals differences between this bust and the one from the following year. Here, Diego’s eyes are closed and his head tilted back. Giacometti was still interested in representing the contours of his brother’s face, but they are less realistic. The bronze, textured and uneven, appears to flow fluidly as it makes up Diego’s features, hair, and skin. This head is less grounded in reality, but it is still a representation of Diego as Giacometti saw him in that moment.
Decades later, Giacometti was still obsessively modeling heads. In a bust from 1953, Diego’s features are present and somewhat recognizable, but he has been rendered more abstractly. The eye sockets are still deep, but the eyes have not been delineated; the mouth is only a suggestion. Compared to the two earlier sculptures, Giacometti has made his brother’s head thinner and more condensed in space when viewed from the front. As Giacometti moved through his career, he continuously tried to capture the essence of his models, his memories, and his own vision of reality.
When viewed from the side, Tall Thin Head from 1954 has a dramatic silhouette—head tilted back and mouth slightly open, with a prominent nose and a full head of hair. But when seen from the front, it becomes razor thin, compressed, and abstract. Who is this figure meant to represent? Could it be Diego? By elongating and compressing the bust, Giacometti made this figure appear anonymous and abstract; yet when viewed from the side, there is a more realistic sense of his model’s features.