Merging Landscape and Figure Representation
Alberto Giacometti’s Inspiration from the Swiss Alps
By William H. Robinson, CMA Senior Curator of Modern Art
Although Alberto Giacometti is widely associated with avant-garde culture in France, his early life and ties to his native Switzerland also had an enduring impact on his art. He was born in Borgonovo, Switzerland, and grew up in nearby Stampa, an alpine village of about 400 people barely three miles from the Italian border. His father, Giovanni Giacometti (1868–1933), was an important Post-Impressionist painter who had studied at art academies in Munich and Paris. The Post-Impressionist painters Cuno Amiet and Ferdinand Hodler were among the prominent artists in Giovanni’s circle.
As the son of such an eminent artist, Alberto Giacometti was exposed to international currents in modern art at a very early age. He began drawing as a child in his father’s studio in Stampa and made his first sculptures by age 13.
He also painted views of Stampa and the surrounding mountains during his teens and returned to the subject multiple times during his later years. After only a year of formal training at two art academies in Geneva in 1919, Giacometti decided to move to Paris in 1922 to study sculpture with Antoine Bourdelle at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, a former student of Auguste Rodin. In 1926, Giacometti began working in a tiny studio in a small house in the Montparnasse district of Paris. It remained his principal studio and residence for the rest of his life, except for visits to see family and friends in Switzerland and occasional trips abroad. The only significant break occurred during World War II. After a failed attempt at fleeing France on a bicycle in June 1940, he managed to obtain an exit visa and left Paris in December 1941. He spent the next four years in Switzerland and would not return to Paris until September 1945.
One of the most fascinating developments in Giacometti’s art occurred when he merged the genres of landscape and figure representation. He said that his sculpture, The Glade of 1950, was inspired by a memory of coming upon an open area or “pasture gone wild” in the mountains. He transformed that memory into a sculpture featuring nine, filament-thin figures, all women, rising from a gently sloping base like tall grasses or wildflowers. The figures have been compared to feminine spirits and forest nymphs in old mythologies; they may have also been inspired by Giacometti’s practice of sketching ancient Egyptian and Cycladic fertility figures in the Musée du Louvre in Paris.
Allusions to landscape also appear in the faces and bodies of Giacometti’s figure sculptures. He once remarked, “Painting a face is like painting a landscape of tangled mountains and valleys, the nose is a gigantic mountain made up of countless boulders.” Hints of landscape appear in the roughly worked bodies of his figures.
The agitated forms in Bust of a Man (Lotar II) of 1964–65 rise from a broad base toward a sharp peak like the cliffs of a soaring mountain. The recessed area at the base and the patination of the surface reinforce the association with the rocks, boulders, and trees of an alpine landscape. Giacometti found the wellspring for his art in many sources, from Cycladic idols to Surrealist abstractions, but also, and perhaps just as importantly, in a vast array of personal experiences and his enduring affection for his native Switzerland.
The recently opened exhibition Alberto Giacometti: Toward the Ultimate Figure is on view through Sunday, June 12. Combining all media—sculpture, painting, and drawing—the show of 60 works draws upon the deep resources of Giacometti’s personal collection and examines a central, animating aspect of his oeuvre: his extraordinary, singular concern for the human figure. Reserve tickets today. Members see it for FREE. #TowardtheUltimateFigure
 Catherine Grenier, Alberto Giacometti: A Biography (Paris: Flammarion, 2017), 197.
 Grenier, Alberto Giacometti, 251.