Alberto Giacometti Abandoned Surrealist Success to Focus on the Human Body
They stand tall and slender, their pinched surfaces anxious and alive.
When Giacometti joined the Surrealist movement in 1930 after living in Paris for 10 years, he quickly rose to fame for his uncanny sculptures—works like Suspended Ball (1930–31), a phallic form hanging from a metal cage; or Woman with Her Throat Cut (1932), a tangle of bronze bones or limbs lying in a violent heap. “One day, he was an unknown, young Swiss artist living in Paris,” said Catherine Grenier, director of the Fondation Giacometti in Paris; “the next, he was a fashionable Surrealist” in the orbit of Guggenheim.
But just as fast as he’d risen to prominence, Giacometti turned his back on the Surrealists (and on the forward motion of European modernism), choosing to focus almost solely on the age-old subject of the human body. In 1935, he left the movement and, as Grenier explained, sacrificed much of his collector base and social circle, facing little acknowledgment or support “because he was a figurative artist, coming back to the tradition.”
More and more, Giacometti found himself preoccupied with the human figure as a perennial subject of artists throughout time, and as a conduit to understanding something essential about nature and perception. He was drawn to the upright, stoic figures of Egyptian antiquity, an influence that can be seen in the attenuated form of his iconic “Standing Woman” and “Walking Man” sculptures (the gender dynamics of which would deserve an article of their own). He liked that these ancient Egyptian figures were made for the tombs of dead people, that they somehow represented a state between life and death. “He was attentive to this idea that life is fragile,” said Grenier—that death is always lurking just beneath the skin.
Giacometti returned to working with models as he had done at art school in Paris years before—staying late into the night in his studio, sketching onto the walls, painting or modeling three-dimensional figures, nearly ankle-deep in clay, compelled by a desire to reduce and refine his forms. Looking at his model (who, from the early 1940s, was often his wife, Annette), Giacometti would somewhat unnervingly comment that through her face, he could see her skull. He was interested in the ambiguity of an image or form, a vestige of his Surrealist days—the way heads could resemble frogs, and bodies could look like trees in nature, as he liked to say. In The Forest (1950),the bust of a male figure is seen amid a grove of rakish, tree-like women, a tableau that evokes the powerful twin states of anxiety and sexual desire.
His figures grew larger after the war—a period that saw him rapidly increase his productivity—and towards the end of his career, he would create a handful of figures that were some 3 meters tall (and entertained the idea of creating a standing woman measuring 8 meters). But Giacometti’s sculptures were generally diminutive, much smaller than life-size.
“He was interested in the fact that, with a very small sculpture, you could create the feeling of something monumental,” said Grenier. “That’s why he was putting very small heads on big bases. You have the feeling that it’s monumental, but at the same time, it’s very intimate.” Giacometti also liked the illusion of distance that this scale created—he felt he could see his subjects better from afar, and that this perspective more accurately represented the atmospheric, psychological aura that surrounds human bodies.
Whatever their size, these fraught figures were of little interest to the French art establishment. So were his austere oil paintings of human busts, subjects that are often engulfed by a somber grey space. Giacometti was recognized by existentialist writers and philosophers, like Jean-Paul Sartre, but not by Parisian museums. Fortunately, the artist was resistant to these pressures. “Giacometti didn’t mind being controversial, being out of the flow, out of the mainstream,” said Grenier. And he would ultimately be rewarded for staying true to his vision, growing a following overseas.
In New York, the Swiss sculptor had been included in exhibitions of abstract and Surrealist art at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s, and at Peggy Guggenheim’s famous Art of This Century gallery in the 1940s. He was known as Giacometti, the Surrealist artist. So in 1948, when his more plainly figurative art went on display in New York in a solo exhibition organized by Pierre Matisse, people were astonished. But before long, said Grenier, they understood the direction he was taking; they saw that he was creating something entirely new.
Giacometti would receive not one, but two solo museum exhibitions in New York before he died in 1966—at the Guggenheim in 1955, and at MoMA in 1965—even as the museums in his home city overlooked his output. His work helped to revitalize sculpture at a time when most attention was focused on painting. And his “walking” figures, which Sartre famously described as “halfway between nothingness and being,” would come to immortalize the artist’s study in human frailty and resilience in the canon of art history.
Tess Thackara is Artsy’s Writer-at-Large.