CMA Thinker
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CMA Thinker

An Obsession with Heads

The Impact of African Arts, Anthropology, and Photography on the Works of Alberto Giacometti

Visitors sketching in the galleries

Personal Perspectives, European Perceptions

Alberto Giacometti continually engaged with African artists’ creations from his early career through his later model-based work of the 1940s through 1960s, which is the time frame in focus for the featured exhibition Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure. He didn’t seek to understand their aesthetic perspectives or their works’ meaning. Instead, what compelled him was a personal interpretation of African arts as reality-revealing archetypes:

Sketching from Books

While he often spoke or wrote about trips to the Louvre and the Trocadéro Ethnographic Museum to see Egyptian or sub-Saharan African art, books had fueled Giacometti’s appetite for copy-sketching since childhood: “I see myself…returning later in the evening to my studio in Paris, leafing through books and copying this or that Egyptian sculpture…”[2]

(Left) Talatat: Portrait of Nefertiti, c. 1353–1347 BC. Egypt, Karnak, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Amenhotep IV, 1353–1337 BC. Painted sandstone; 22 x 22.7 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1959.188; (right) Nome Gods Bearing Offerings, c. 1391–1353 BC. Egypt, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18 (1540–1296), reign of Amenhotep III. Painted limestone; 66 x 133 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund, 1976.51
Spreads from Minotaure , no. 2 (Paris: Skira, 1933)
Face Mask with Female Figure (satimbe), early to mid-1900s. The CMA purchased this mask from the Pierre Matisse Gallery in Paris, which also represented Giacometti. Works by Giacometti first entered the CMA’s collection in 1966, over half a century after the first works by African artists.

Imposing Ways of Seeing and Knowing through Photography

I suggest that by using photographs of African artworks as sources, Giacometti engaged in visual translations across media and dimensions that affected the appearance of his own creations. In the exhibition’s catalogue, Romain Perrin writes that “Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures not only impose on the spectator a certain way of looking, because their scale is no longer connected with their environment, but they also show the result of the artist’s direct perception.”[3] Giacometti’s engagement with African arts in European museums and books — and the ways of looking and understanding they imposed upon viewers — can be similarly described.

A spread from a typical publication of the era contrasts a soft-focus side view photograph of a work identified only by itscolony of origin with a paragraph describing its physical features.
Woman and Child, mid- to late 1800s. This sculpture was originally covered with tukula (redwood tree powder) and kaolin (white clay) when used in conjunction with a cult linked to solving women’s gynecological and fertility problems. Its now shiny surface reflects its alteration by later European owners who wanted to see its sculptural form. Note the figure’s built-in, blocky base.

Translating across Dimensions

Giacometti’s unusual way of rendering the human body as flattened, colorless, and elongated reflects how he viewed African artists’ rendering of the body as depicted and transformed through the lenses of European photographers. Studying photographs of African arts prompted him to make visual translations that affected his sculptural practice and possibly encouraged his near-obsessive focus on the human form and head. Echoing anthropometric-style photographs of African individuals and sculptures, many of his later drawings and sculptures (especially those called “Man” or “Woman”) depicted unclothed, hairless bodies or heads in frontal or side views. When drawing, Giacometti preserved photography’s transformation of three-dimensional African sculptures into two dimensions and from color to black and white. He then reversed it when sculpting; like a visual version of the “telephone” game, he altered African artists’ works through this process and imposed his own way of seeing. Doubling and reflecting the underlying colonial and anthropological contexts of the photographs he used as source material, his artworks held their own meaning, yet could never be completely true to the original.

Recommended Reading

Grenier, Catherine, and Serena Bucalo-Mussely. Alberto Giacometti: Rétrospective. Rabat: Fondation Nationale des Musées and Musée Mohammed VI d’art moderne et contemporain; Paris: Fondation Giacometti, 2016.


[1] Alberto Giacometti, quoted in Pierre Schneider, “Au Louvre avec Alberto Giacometti,” Preuves, no. 139 (September 1962): 23–30; reprinted in Giacometti, Notes on the Copies (Paris: Hermann and Fondation Giacometti, 2021), 19.



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