Who is Alberto Giacometti?

March 22, 2022

Alberto Giacometti, best known for his large bronze sculptures of attenuated human figures, was one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century, especially in sculpture. Active in sculpture from the 1920s to the 1960s, Giacometti worked in various movements.

BornOctober 10, 1901,
DiedJanuary 11, 1966
Mediums Worked InSculptor working in clay or plaster then cast in bronze; designed decorative objects and jewelry; painter; printmaker
MovementsModern Art, Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism, Existentialism
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Alberto Giacometti’s Artistic Style and Career

Early Beginnings & Surrealism

His work in the 1930s is among the most important contributions to sculpture in the Surrealist movement. Attempting to explore Freudian themes of sex, obsession, and trauma, his sculptures of this period were small, by 1944 never exceeding 7 centimeters (2.75 inches) in height. His iconic figures of Don Quixote, alone or with other characters from the novel, As he said, “But wanting to create from memory what I had seen, to my terror the sculptures became smaller and smaller.”

Giacometti’s work as a painter was a small portion of his artistic production. He created his first oil painting, Still Life with Apples, and his first sculpture, a bust of Diego, in his father’s studio when he was 14. However, by the late 1950s, his figurative paintings had become as common as his sculptures. Interestingly, his virtually monochromatic images do not appear to refer to any other modern style of art.

In 1922, after years of working in the study of his Impressionist father, Giacometti went to Paris, where he enrolled in the Académie de la Grande-Chaumière, where he worked with the sculpture Antoine Bourdelle. Additional work in this period included nude drawings, reflecting his work with Bourdelle and the influence of Jacques Lipchitz and Fernand Leger.

In 1931, the artist joined André Breton’s Surrealist movement. Actively involved with Breton’s group, Giacometti shone as one of its few sculptors. Although Breton dismissed him in 1935, surrealism continued to affect his work in many ways. Dreamlike visions, montage and assemblage, magical images of the human future, and objects with symbolic functions remained highly important in his works.

Influence of Africa & Oceania

In the late 1920s, Giacometti developed an interest in African and Oceanian Sculpture. His first noteworthy pieces to be exhibited were Spoon Woman and The Couple. Both were exhibited at the Salon des Tuileries, and both reflected the cultural encounter. As he continued to sculpt under this influence, he moved away from naturalist and academic representation, favoring a totemic vision of the figure, filled with mana.

Also in the 1930s, Giacometti worked with what he called “mobile and mute objects,” things moving in latent and suggestive ways which he had made in wood by a carpenter. Two of them, A Disagreeable Object and the Disagreeable Object to Be Thrown Away, bridged the gap between decorative objects and sculpture. During this period, he created lamps, vases, and wall lights sold by the avant-garde designer Jean-Michel Frank. He also worked in bas-relief in plaster and terra cotta on commission, including producing items for the Louis-Dreyfus mansion in Paris. He continued to produce decorative objects well into the 1950s.

World War II & Sculpture

Giacometti spent World War II in his neutral home country of Switzerland. It was there in 1944-45 that he hit upon the idea for the first of what became his iconic post-War figures. This tall, slender woman facing front is a foretaste of the much more abstract and attenuated figures that will dominate his later career. Working on the figure’s presence in space, he placed his sculptures on pedestals or flat spaces, establishing a space for them parallel to ours. These figures, usually female silhouettes, foretell the future of his work.

Throughout his artistic life, Giacometti focused on the human head. The head, or a representation of the same, was also the basis for his exclusion from the Surrealists in 1935. From 1934’s Head-Skull, he created mean versions of the skull. After returning to Paris following the War, Giacometti made miniature portraits of prominent personalities, including Simone de Beauvoir. A death he witnessed in 1921 strongly influenced his work with the head. Pursued by visions of deadheads suspended in the void, he tried to convey them in sculptures, such as The Nose.

In the end, Alberto Giacometti became one of the most influential artists of the last century because, as an Existentialist, he worked his way into reflecting philosophy’s focus on alienation and anxiety in his sculpture. He is probably best remembered for his tall, lonely figures, demonstrating his belief in humanity’s suffering as a symbol of the trauma of the post-war world.

Essential Giacometti Works 

After World War II, Giacometti turned to the human form as a representative of humanity and love. From this focus, he had developed by 1947 the tall and slender human figures, usually alone and in motion. By the late 1960s, various of his Don Quixote figure, exuding isolation, sorrow, and despair, vied with Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Ravens for space on college student walls.

Giacometti believed that the object of art was to create a new and intense reality, not to reproduce the one we had. He was so successful at doing so that he sold among top-priced sculptures in history, L’Homme au doigt (Man with the Finger) (1947) at $141.3 million in 2015, L’Homme qui marche I (The Walking Man) (1961) at $104.3 million in 2010, and Chariot (1950) at $101 million in 2014.

The figures of Giacometti are seemingly unknowable, while his work is almost a physical existentialism. This enigmatic and reflective quality drew the intelligentsia to his work.

Exhibitions & Collections


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