Alberto Giacometti was a renowned sculptor and painter known for creating haunting, spindle-bodied sculptures that embodied the post-World War II psychic landscape. While most of his contemporaries were working in abstraction, Giacometti returned to the human form, exploring the immediate psychological and philosophical complexities of the era.
Giacometti was born in Borgonovo, Switzerland into a family of painters and artists. He started painting at the age of 12 and in 1919, attended the École des Arts Industriels in Geneva. In 1920 and 1921, he traveled with his father to Italy, where he encountered Egyptian art in Rome that deeply affected his artistic sensibility. He moved to Paris in 1922 to attend the Académie de la Grande-Chaumière and exhibited his first major bronze work, Spoon Woman in 1926 at the Salon des Tuileries. This work, while abstract, shows his enduring interest in the human form and draws from the iconography of primitive, African and Oceanic art. His approach to reducing the body to geometrical shapes gained him attention among the Cubists in Paris and he continued to work further into abstraction, eventually incorporating Surrealist motifs and Freudian principles into his sculpture in the early 1930s. An early, important work of his, Suspended Ball (1930), exhibited at the Galerie Pierre, is enigmatic in its erotic, dreamlike presence.
In 1940, Giacometti fled the Nazi invasion of Paris to Geneva, where his focus shifted toward the human body and realism, exploring themes of isolation and the formal qualities of space. Giacometti returned to Paris in 1946 and his work rose to prominence after two shows at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York City in 1948 and 1950, the latter of which was accompanied by an essay from Jean-Paul Sartre, aligning Giacometti’s work with Existentialism.
Throughout the 1950s, while many major artists were working in abstraction, Giacometti used his sculptures to explore the highly individualistic worldview that was emerging out of the trauma of World War II; his narrow, elongated, monumental figures turn in on themselves, wrought with anxiety and alienation. The art critic Francis Ponge wrote of his work in 1951 in Cahiers d'Art: "Man - and man alone - reduced to a thread - in the dilapidation and misery of the world - who searches for himself - starting from nothing... Man on a pavement like burning iron; who cannot lift his heavy feet."
The immense humanity present in Giacometti’s work, along with his masterly, philosophical exploration of form, space and weight, made him a leading voice in the postwar artistic landscape. His legacy is one of an artist searching deeply, humbly for meaning in humankind’s existence, exploring how we communicate and relate and asking, ultimately, whether we are able to overcome our innate humanness. Giacometti passed away in Chur, Switzerland in 1966, leaving an enduring and poignant body of work.
“I paint and sculpt to get a grip on reality... to protect myself.”