Alberto Giacometti and the Human Condition: Between Being and Nothingness
The Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti has entered the art historical canon as one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century. Primarily active in Paris, Giacometti’s early work was conceived under the sign of Surrealism. It centred on the repressed subconscious, enigmatic subject matter, sexuality and aggression. Nevertheless, the sculptures that he produced from 1947 onwards abandoned the surrealist visual vocabulary and turned to an entirely novel approach to art. Giacometti became almost exclusively concerned with the human body, and more specifically with the dialectic between a sense creation inherent to the act of art-making, and the connotations of the dead matter through which the sculpture comes alive.
It is important to bear in mind that, in the context of post-war Paris, intellectual and artistic circles were swept up by the surge of Existentialism, which became not only a predominant philosophy but also a lifestyle. Although the category ‘’existential art’’ did not exist, Giacometti’s relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, whom he chose as his spoke-man, worked to define the sculptor as the existential artist par excellence. Certainly, Giacometti’s post-war work lends itself as a subtle and productive illustration of Sartre’s teachings, yet it is important to recognize that art is often more than a simple product of the intellectual climate in which it is conceived. The human condition portrayed by Giacometti stems from a purely subjective experience of the world, which should not be reduced to one single meaning. The fact that the sculptor reached his artistic maturity through Surrealism and then experienced such profound change of attitude to sculpting speaks for a turning point on a deeply personal level, which was then nurtured and not defined by Sartre’s thought. Therefore, Giacometti’s post-war works mediate the social circumstances of their conception, rather than passively embodying them.
Some of Giacometti’s most renowned surrealist sculptures serve to illustrate this. His Woman with Her Throat Cut, 1932 is an assemblage of body parts, which make up a part human, part crustacean, part insect-resembling sculptural mass. It is a dynamic, seemingly disjointed, yet interconnected work. There is a strong horizontal character to it, as it was intended to be displayed directly on the gallery floor, instead of being showcased as a fine art object. The title confirms that this is a female body which has been subjected to extreme violence, most likely sexual. The viewer’s imagination is lead to perceive and construct the brutality of the image, with its typically surrealist misogynist undertones.
Compared to Woman with Her Throat Cut, Giacometti’s Tall Woman II, 1960 and Waking Man I, 1960 epitomize the change in Giacometti’s approach to sculpture both on a formal and philosophical level. These form part of his so-called filiform sculptures. They all share common characteristics, such as the elongated silhouettes, slight asymmetries, heavily textured surfaces and inherent sense of frailty. The human figure is here brought to an extreme, liminal condition between being and ceasing to exist. Given that the art of sculpture is in its essence an act of building up and subtracting, giving and taking away, in a wish to create a totally spatial piece of art Tall Woman II and Walking Man I display a reduction to bare essentialism which allows them to continue occupying space.
These filiform works change their appearance when seen from different angles, posing a constant challenge to the viewer’s perception and their sense of proximity to the art object. They are highly stylized, their faces hardly showing traces of individual features. This schematic representation was motivated by Giacometti’s wish to convey the gaze, which he thought disappeared as soon as the eye was represented with precision. The resulting ambiguity allowed him to imbue the expressions of his skeletal men and women with something of the ever-changing liveliness of the human face. He also transferred a greater responsibility on the beholder’s reading of his sculptures. Some misogynist nuances, retained from his surrealist period are also visible: Giacometti’s women are always static, while his men are active, moving forward.
Although Tall Woman II and Walking Man I are bronze casts, Giacometti always chose plaster to conceive his works from this period, which is in itself the most fragile, light and delicate material that a sculpture can be made of. Thus, these works’ frailty and susceptibility to destruction on a material level translate into a metaphorical formulation of human transience. These post-war works relate to Giacometti’s long-lasting relationship with violence, as observed in Woman with Her Throat Cut. He often used to work ceaselessly on a sculpture only to destroy it a couple of hours after its completion. The art that had the greatest impact on him, was always that which contained restrained aggression. Thus, the stylized violence which he has done to the human figure throughout his oeuvre is deeply embedded as much in his experience of the war as in his emotional world.
This has often been interpreted in light of the post-war trauma suffered by Giacometti’s generation, and the suffering endured by the human body and spirit. When in 1947 Giacometti returned to Paris, the news of the concentration camps had long reached France, while its capital saw the mass arrival of emaciated and starved deportees. Giacometti’s neighbourhood, in particular, was full of Holocaust survivors and people suffering from typhoid fever. Besides, this would no doubt have reminded him of his own mother’s near demise from the same sickness when he was a child. It is precisely his filiform figures’ existence on the verge of extinction, that makes these sculptures so unbearably human and real. Therefore, it is easy to comprehend how the body turned into Giacometti’s main preoccupation and how it proved susceptible to existentialist theorization. Humanism, after all, was placed by Sartre within Existentialism, paradoxically retaining a presence through its absence. If the attempt at making is truly more important than the goal itself, and if existence precedes essence, then the unmediated existence of Giacometti’s filiform sculptures and their precarious life, dependent on the artist’s whimsicality, really drives Sartre’s point home.
Walking Man I, in particular, epitomizes this reading of Giacometti’s new art. Although thin and fragile-looking, the sculpted man has his feet firmly planted and makes a definitive step forward. It betrays Giacometti’s early fascination with Egyptian art — he thought of the standing position of the sculpted male (which resembled walking) as a symbol of movement and therefore life. It is also highly reminiscent of Rodin’s sculpture The Walking Man, forming a sharp contrast to the strong and virile vision of a man in action, conceived only fifty years earlier. Giacometti’s Walking Man I, however, as a mediator of the post-war context, relates to Sartre’s idea of man being nothing but the sum of his actions. In one of his seminal essays on Giacometti, he proclaimed that there was finally an artist who had managed to ‘’mould man in stone without petrifying him’’, after three thousand years of sculpture modelling ‘’only corpses’’. Hence, it is probably the perishable core of Giacometti’s sculptures, which incited Sartre to see so much of the human condition in them.
The solitary nature of Giacometti’s men and women, even in works such as La Clariere, 1950 where there are several figures, also resonates with Sartre’s notion of the nothingness permeating human sense of reality, separating past, present, and future. Nevertheless, these post-war figures also exhibit a strong upward push and often impressive size, which dramatically counteract the bellow eye-level horizontality of surrealist works like Woman with Her throat Cut. Ultimately, there is a sense of hope in the endurance and soaring verticality of these emaciated humans, tackling the post-war question of how close to perdition can life continue to exist.
Laurie Wilson, Alberto Giacometti: myth, magic and the man, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003
Sarah Wilson, Paris Post War: art and existentialism 1945–55, London: Tate Gallery, 1993
Alberto Giacometti, ‘What interests me about the head’. In Kristine Stiles and Perer Howard Selz, Theories and documents of contemporary art: a sourcebook of artists wrisitngs, Berkely: University of California Press, 2012
Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘The Search or the Absolute’. In Kristine Stiles and Perer Howard Selz, Theories and documents of contemporary art: a sourcebook of artists wrisitngs, Berkely: University of California Press, 2012