Alberto Giacometti: The Walking Man
On the 11th of January 1966, the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti died in Chur, Switzerland. Born as the eldest son of Italian Protestant refugees, later favoured by his painter father, Giacometti was very fortunate with his upbringing. “I can’t imagine any happier childhood,” he said, “or youth than those I passed with my father and all my family, my mother and my sister and my brothers.” (Laurie Wilson, Alberto Giacometti: Myth, Magic, and the Man). Yet, since early childhood he was of a rather serious demeanour, always absorbed by his thoughts, most of which were death related. His obsession with death became even bigger after experiencing firsthand the passing of an elderly man met on some travel. To some extent, his fear of death was translated into his later works, in which a man becomes a stripped naked, autonomous and alienated entity, reduced to mere transitional bodily form.
In 1922, Giacometti moved to Paris where he studied under the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, an associate of August Rodin. During his studies he made the acquaintance of such artists as Joan Miró, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso and Balthus, and experimented with Cubism and Surrealism. However, in the 1930s he abandoned Surrealism in favour of the ‘conscious’ rather than ‘unconscious’ experience. “The Surrealists were trying to express their immediate subjective experiences. They did so by exploring their imagination (or an “unconscious reality”) and then articulating its manifestations in highly conceptual or contrived symbolic ways, suggesting that the “real” was always more than what was on the surface of our experience. Giacometti, on the other hand, in his personal response to his lived world, continually worked to present it as it was experienced through his looking. By translating experience into visual form, Giacometti believed that reality could be shown completely through its “surfaces”.” (Richard H. Bell, Giacometti’s Art as a Judgment on Culture, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 47, No. 1, Winter, 1989). In Giacometti’s own words, he wanted to grasp, “the sensation of reality – rather than reality itself. In any case one cannot possess everything. What one may perhaps be able to possess is appearance – only that. Of reality only appearance remains.” (Bell)
Giacometti reduced his visual experience of ‘reality’s appearance’ to three major themes: walking men; standing, nude women; and the bust. His elongated sculptures of walking men are reminiscent of the process of decay or some sort of erosion of the bodily element in the process of life. They spark a feeling of nostalgic alienation and express the very core of humanness. In An American Childhood, Annie Dillard recalls her impressions of Man Walking: “I saw a stilled figure in a swirl of invisible motion. I saw a touchy man moving through a still void. Here was the thinker in the world – but there was no world, only the abyss through which he walked. Man Walking was pure consciousness made poignant: a soul without a culture, absolutely alone, without even a time, without people, speech, books, tools, work, or even clothes. He knew he was walking, here. He knew he was feeling himself walk; he knew he was walking fast and thinking slowly, not forming conclusions, not looking for anything. He himself was barely there. He was a spirit and in form a dissected nerve. He looked freshly made of clay by God, visibly pinched by sure fingertips. He looked like Adam depressed, as if there were no world. …His blind gaze faced the vanishing point.” (Annie Dillard, An American Childhood).
Giacometti’s attraction to the visual experience can also be noticed in his sculptures and drawings of a head, in which he focused most of all on the construction of the eyes. In an interview from 1966 with Ernst Scheidegger, Peter Munger, and Jaques Dupin, Giacometti said: “What interests me most about the head – well, actually the whole head interests me, but I think now I might succeed in constructing the eye as exactly as possible, and when I’ve got that, when I’ve got the base of the nose. …But to take the eye: I mean the curvature of the eyeball – from that everything else should develop. Why? Probably because, when I look at someone, I look at the eyes rather than at the mouth or the point of the nose. That’s the way it is: when you look at a face you always look at the eyes. Even if you look at a cat, it always looks you in the eye. And even when you look at a blind man, you look where his eyes are, as if you could feel the eyes behind the lids. The eye is something special insofar as it’s almost as though made of a different material from the rest of the face. …When I get the curve of the eyeball right, then I’ve got the socket; when I get the socket, I’ve got the nostrils, the point of the nose, the mouth… and all of this together might just produce the gaze, without one’s having to concentrate on the eye itself.” (Kristine Stiles, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings).
It seems that in Giacometti’s language, to be seen was as important as to be able to see. He depicted the eyes as an instrument required not only for making the connection with others, but also for the construction of certain reality, in which a man, no matter how alienated, can only exist through the perception of others.
How interesting! I saw an exhibition of his work ar Louisiana in Denmark in 2008. The walking man forms were definitely the most memorable, and a pleasure to see.
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I have been very interested in this artist since art school, but this post has sparked a new deeper interest I’m sure. Thank you.
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A great gift from his parents: he could not imagine a happier childhood.
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