|Giacometti’s troubled mind inspired some of the most unforgettable imagery of the 20th century and disturbing depictions of the human form, writes Giridhar Khasnis|
|Giacometti believed that in every work of art, the subject is primordial, whether the artist knew it or not. Early this month, the art world was swept off its feet when Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture, L’Homme qui marche I (The Walking Man I) was auctioned for 65,001,250 GBP (Hammer Price plus Buyer's Premium) at Bond Street, London. It took just ten minutes for an anonymous telephone bidder to walk away with the six feet high sculpture identified by Sotheby’s as Lot 8. The hammer price of £58m, far exceeded the original estimate of 18 million pounds, much to the delight of the auctioneer. |
Sotheby’s auction catalogue hailed L’Homme qui marche I is an undisputed masterpiece; one which represented the pinnacle of Giacometti’s experimentation with the human form. Describing the sculpture as one of the most iconic images of modern art, it recalled, how in capturing a transient moment in the figure’s movement, Giacometti had created both, a humble image of an ordinary man and a potent symbol of humanity.
L’Homme qui marche I exhibits a vibrancy and vitality unique to Giacometti’s sculpture. The rich treatment of the bronze, its deep recesses and moulds, create a dynamic surface, and invite a play of light and shadow in such a way that they become a part of the work itself. Giacometti’s lean and wiry figure was not a unique piece but one among the six numbered editions (and four artist proofs). Conceived in 1960 and cast in bronze the next year, it was inscribed — Alberto Giacometti, numbered 2/6 and bore the foundry mark — Susse Fondeur Paris.
Interestingly, the sculpture was commissioned as part of the public project for Chase Manhattan Plaza. Giacometti responded positively to the idea and made models and casts. Not satisfied, he abandoned the project, but produced four large female figures, a monumental head and two walking men, which were released as independent sculptures. The piece was sculpted just a year before the artist was awarded the grand prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale (an award which catapulted him to world fame) and five years before his death due to heart disease and chronic bronchitis at the Kantonsspital in Chur, Switzerland.
An affluent background
Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) was born to an affluent family in Switzerland. His father Giovanni (1868–1933) was a successful neo-impressionist painter; Giovanni’s cousin Augusto was also a renowned artist. Giacometti went to France in the 1920s and spent most of his life in Paris working at 46 rue Hippolyte-Maindron - a grubby studio, which he shared with his younger brother, Diego. The brothers were close to each other and their relationship was characterised by mutual loyalty and respect.
A self-taught artist, Diego went on to make a name in designing furniture, objects and sculptures. He supported and very frequently modeled for his brother. On his part, Alberto praised his brother’s bronze furniture works and got visitors to his workshop. Giacometti initially came to be known as a surrealist when he exhibited in the early 1930s. Seemingly inspired by dreams, many of his works portrayed surreal objects with symbolic or erotic connotations. His connection with surrealism ended by the end of 1930s, when he had returned to figuration.
Expressive and well-informed, Giacometti developed a good circle of friends, which included such accomplished artistis and literary personalities as André Breton, Jean Genet, Hans Arp, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Samuel Beckett and Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre, in fact, considered Giacometti’s art as one of existential reality, his sculptures as an expression of existentialism and his isolated figures as symbols of existential despair.
His two profound essays on Giacometti’s imagery titled ‘The Quest for the Absolute’ (1948) and ‘The Paintings of Giacometti’ (1954) did much to enhance the artist’s reputation. “I know nobody as sensitive as Giacometti to the magic of faces and gestures,” wrote Sartre. “He regards them with a passionate desire, as if he were from another realm.” Giacometti, on Beckett’s request, designed a lone tree for the play, ‘Waiting for Godot’; its bare, ruined, shapeless limbs symbolising isolation and loneliness.
Throughout his life, Giacometti was captivated by the theme of the human condition. Critics and historians acknowledge that his troubled mind inspired some of the most unforgettable imagery of the 20th century and deeply disturbing depictions of the human form. In his work, the Swiss artist reduced the human body to its barest state, reflecting the lonely and vulnerable human condition.
Genet felt that Giacometti’s work always reflected the ‘individual wound that each person carried within him’. On his part, Giacometti declared that only reality interested him; that he painted and sculpted to get a grip on reality and to protect himself. “Once the object has been constructed, I have a tendency to discover in it, transformed and displaced images, impressions, facts, which have deeply moved me... I know I could spend the rest of my life in copying a chair.”
In an interview, he also admitted that he turned familiar models into strangers. “You are no longer the person I thought I knew. You no longer have any particular characteristic. As for individuality, you become a generalised head, the head of everyone.” Giacometti believed that in every work of art, the subject is primordial, whether the artist knew it or not. His own work, he declared, was homage to the ancient Egyptian art; he was particularly fascinated with Akhenaten, the young Pharoah with a long chin, spindly legs and long arms. For him, “No other sculptures as closely resemble real people as Egyptian sculptures.”
Giacometti was philosophical about fame and was unaffected by success and recognition. He refused many exhibitions and unfeelingly destroyed his sculptures if they did not satisfy him or his vision. He would confess that the older he grew, the more he found himself alone; that it was always disappointing to see what he could really master in terms of form, boiled down to so little. “All I can do will only ever be a faint image of what I see and my success will always be less than my failure or perhaps equal to the failure."