Chain of Events
A face, he told us, is an indivisible whole, a meaningful and expressive unity; but the inert material of the artist, whether marble, bronze, or clay is, on the contrary, capable of infinite subdivision - each little separate bit contradicts and destroys the overall pattern by the fact of its isolation. Giacometti was trying to reduce matter to the further viable limits; this was how he had come to model these minuscule, almost nonexistent heads, which, he thought, conveyed the unity of the human face as it presents itself to the intelligent eye. Perhaps one day he would find some other way of counteracting the dizzyingly centrifugal effect of space; but for the time being this was all he could think up.
As a youth in Rome, Giacometti had found that sexual relations were most satisfactory with prostitutes. He never altered that view. Real relations with an illusion remained irresistibly compelling for him to the end. “When I am walking in the street,” he said, “and see a whore from a distance, all dressed, I see a whore. When she is in the room and naked before me, I see a goddess.”
— James Lord
Alberto Giacometti was born in a small village in Switzerland near the Italian border in 1901. From the age of nine he was a focused artist, using members of his family as his models for sculptures and drawings. His vacillations between sculpture and paintings as the medium for his vision of the human form continued throughout his life. When it came to his artistic work, Giacometti was a tireless and prolific engine. After his expulsion from a group of surrealist artists in 1935, his influences ranged from the centrifuges of Western art to shapely Polynesian forms in which his found continual inspiration. In the following 1947 letter to the New York art dealer Pierre Matisse (the youngest son of Henri) he chronicles the beginnings of his life in art.
Letter from Alberto Giacometti to Pierre Matisse
Here is the list of sculptures that I promised you, but I could not make it without including, though very briefly, a certain chain of events, without which it would make no sense.
I made my first bust from life in 1914, and continued during the following years through the whole period of my schooling. I still have a certain number of these busts and always look at the first with a certain longing and nostalgia.
At the same time, and for many years before, I was drawing a great deal and painting. In addition to drawing from nature and illustrating the books I read, I often copied paintings and sculptures from reproductions. I mention this because with only short interruptions I have continued to do the same thing up to the present.
In 1919 I went to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Geneva for three days, and then to the Ecole des Arts-et-Metiers in the same city to study sculpture. I painted watercolors in the countryside and at the lake shore, and did oil paintings at home.
In 1920-21 I lived in Italy. In Venice first, where I spent my days looking mostly at the Tintorettos, not wanting to miss a single one.
To my great regret, on the day I left Venice, Tintoretto was a little dethroned by the Giottos in Padua, and he in turn some months later by Cimabue at Assisi. I stayed nine months in Rome where I never had enough time to do all I wanted. I wanted to see everything, and at the same time I painted, figures, somewhat pointillist landscapes (I had become convinced that the sky is only blue by convention and is actually red), and compositions inspired by Sophocles and Aeschylus whom I was reading at this time (The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, The Death of Cassandra, The Sack of Troy, etc.)
I had also begun two busts, one of them small, and for the first time I could not find my way, I was lost, everything escaped me, the head of the model before me became like a cloud, vague and undefined. I ended by destroying them before I left. I spent a lot of time in museums, in churches, in ruins. I was particularly impressed by the mosaics and the Baroque. I can recall each sensation in front of the thing I saw. I filled my notebooks (a marvelous sketch by Rubens comes to mind this very moment and the mosaic in Saints Cosmas and Damian, and this is followed immediately by thousands of other things, but I must hurry).
In 1922 my father sent me to Paris to attend the academy. (I would have preferred in a way to have gone to Vienna where living was cheap. During this period my desire for pleasure was stronger than my interest in the academy.)
From 1922 to 1925 and later I was at the Academie de la Grande-Chaumiere, in Bourdelle's studio. In the mornings I did sculpture and the same difficulties I had had in Rome began again. In the afternoons I drew.
I could no longer bear sculpture without color and I often tried to paint them from life. I kept some of these for years, and then, mostly to make room, I had them taken out and thrown away.
Impossible to grasp the entire figure (we were much too close to the model, and if one began on a detail, a heel, the nose, there was no hope of ever achieving the whole). But if, on the other hand, one began by analyzing a detail, the end of the nose, for example, one was lost. You could spend a lifetime without achieving a result. The form dissolved, it was little more than granules moving over a deep black void, the distance between one wing of the nose and other is like the Sahara, without end, nothing to fix one's gaze upon, everything escapes.
Since I wanted nevertheless to realize a little of what I saw, I began as a last resort to work at home from memory. I tried to do what I could to avoid this catastrophe. This yielded, after many attempts touching on cubism, one necessarily had to touch on it (it is too long to explain now) objects which were for me the closest I could come to my vision of reality.
This gave me some part of my vision of reality, but I still lacked a sense of the whole, a structure, also a sharpness that I saw, a kind of skeleton in space. Figures were never for me a compact mass but like a transparent construction. Again, after making all kinds of attempts, I made cages with open construction inside, executed in wood by a carpenter.
There was a third element in reality that concerned me: movement.
Despite all my efforts, it was impossible for me then to endure a sculpture that gave an illusion of movement, a leg advancing, a raised arm, a head looking sideways. I could only create such movement if it was real and actual, I also wanted to give the sensation of motion that could be induced: several objects which move in relation to one another.
But all this took me away little by little from external reality. I had a tendency to become absorbed only in the construction of the objects themselves. There was something in these objects that was too precious, too clsasical; and I was disturbed by reality, which seemed to me to be different. Everything at that moment seemed a little grotesque, without value, to be thrown away.
This is being said too briefly.
Objects without pedestals and without value, to be thrown away.
It was no longer the exterior forms that interested me but what I really felt. (During all the previous years - the period of the academy - there had been for me a disagreeable contrast between life and work, one got in the way of the other, I could find no solution. The fact of wanting to copy a body at set hours and a body to which otherwise I was indifferent, seemed to me an activity that was basically false, stupid, and which made me waste many hours of my life).
It was no longer a question of reproducing a lifelike figure but of living, and of executing only what had affected me, or what I really wanted. But all this alternated, contradicted itself, and continued by contrast. There was also a need to find a solution between things that were rounded and calm, and sharp and violent. It is this which led me during those years (1932-1934 approximately) to objects going in directions which were quite different from each other, a kind of landscape — a head lying down; a woman strangled, her jugular vein cut; construction of a palace with a skeleton bird and a spinal column in a cage and a woman at the other end. A model for a large garden sculpture, I wanted people to be able to walk on the sculpture, to sit on it and lean on it. A table for a hall, and very abstract objects which then led me to figures and skull heads.
I saw anew the bodies that attracted me in reality and abstract forms which seemed to me true in sculpture, but I wanted to create the former without losing the latter, very briefly put. A last figure, a woman called 1+1=3, which I could not resolve.
And then the wish to make compositions with figures. For this, I had to make (quickly I thought; in passing), one or two studies from nature, just to understand the construction of a head, of a whole figure, and in 1935 I took a model. This study should take (I thought) two weeks, and then I could realize my compositions.
I worked with the model all day from 1935 to 1940.
Nothing was as I had imagined. A head (I quickly abandoned figures, that would have been too much) became for me an object completely unknown and without dimensions. Twice a year I began two heads, always the same ones, never completing them, and I put my studies aside (I still have the casts).
Finally, in order to accomplish at least a little, I began to work from memory, but this mainly to know what I had gotten out of all this work. (During all these years I drew and painted a little, and almost always from life.)
But wanting to create from memory what I had seen, to my terror the sculptures became smaller and smaller, they had a likeness only when they were small, yet their dimensions revolted me, and tirelessly I began again, only to end several months later at the same time point.
A large figure seemed to me false and a small one equally unbearable, and then often they became so tiny that with one touch of my knife they disappeared into dust. But head and figures seemed to me to have a bit of truth only when small.
All this changed a little in 1945 through drawing.
This led me to want to make larger figures, but then to my surprise, they achieved a likeness only when tall and slender. And this is almost where I am today, no, where I still was yesterday, and I realize right now that if I can draw ancient sculptures with ease, I could draw those I made during those last years only with difficulty; perhaps if I could draw them it would no longer be necessary to create them in space, but I am not sure about this.
And now I stop, besides they are closing. I must pay.
He disliked hair. “Hair is a lie,” he used to say. It distracted one’s attention from the essential, the head, the expression, the gaze. One day he declared he could no longer endure seeing Annette with hair. She would be obliged to shave her head. Dismissing the suggestion as absurd, she exclaimed, “Oh, Alberto!” with a mixture of girlish amusement and feminine annoyance. Just that reaction was needed to pique Giacometti’s tenacity.
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