Alberto Giacometti was an artist both rooted in the exact and transported by the visionary. He was both a maker and a seer, both a craftsman and an alchemist. He was interested in the deepest and most precise contours of the face but had no interest in making mere representations of those who sat for him. His drawings, which are exquisite, do not read like preparations for his sculpture; it was as though everything he touched he sought to perfect, knowing all the time that he would fall short. His sculpture bears all the signs of being shaped and lovingly worked on, then sent to the foundry in despair or resignation (or a mixture of the two). Even when the work came back in bronze, he often had no trouble about exhibiting the original plaster-in-progress beside it.
He found a style in sculpture and stuck to it; he made skinny and elongated, attenuated figures, working a great deal with his wife Annette as a model, as well as his mother and brother Diego who was also an artist. In them, he managed to capture a sense of the human fate in the world as deeply tragic and maybe wondrous too.
Giacometti was a great modern artist partly because of his ability to create a strange and self-conscious iconography of the body. His figures were filled with iconic dignity, a stillness, a solitariness, a sense of a dense inner life, almost a spiritual life. Yet they were made using what seemed the minimum of means.
Their maker knew how to draw a face while making the viewer utterly alert to the space around the head and the lines and marks in that space. He had enough skill to make you believe that the face he made was alive and real; he had enough irony to make you see that he was merely manipulating his material. Sometimes when you look at his work you become just as aware of the fluid space around his creations as the objects themselves.
Giacometti was born in Switzerland, close to the Italian border, in 1901. His father was an artist who gave him a great deal of help. He arrived in Paris to study in 1922 and got to know, over the next decades, a great number of the leading artists and writers in the city, including many Surrealists. (Some of his early sculpture, such as ‘Suspended Sphere’ from 1930 or ‘Woman with Her Throat Cut’ from 1932 is as good as surrealism gets.) He had his first show in Paris in 1932 and was, three years later, officially expelled by the Surrealists - a badge of honour – for betraying the cause of the deep unconscious by working from life, although a decade later he began once more to work from imagination.
Unlike, say, Miro or Bacon, Giacometti did not arrive quickly or easily at the style which became his signature style. And even when he did, each object he made had a real sense of newness and struggle about it. All his life he was fascinated and also repelled by how something large could seem small if you looked at it, or thought about it, for long enough. In the early 1940s, many of his figures were tiny, but in the 1950s, after much effort on his part, they became taller, almost monumental. He needed very little to inspire him. ‘One tree,’ he said, ‘is enough for me; the thought of seeing two is frightening.’