Alberto Giacometti - Biography and Legacy
Swiss Sculptor and Painter
Stampa, Graubunden, Switzerland
Chur, Graubunden, Switzerland
Biography of Alberto Giacometti
Alberto Giacometti was born in 1901 in the mountain hamlet of Borgonovo, in eastern Switzerland. He was the first of four children born to Giovanni Giacometti, a Post-Impressionist painter, and Annetta Giacometti-Stampa, whose family was among the area's prominent land owners. In addition to his father, several members of Giacometti's extended family were artists, including Augusto Giacometti (second cousin to both Giovanni and Annetta), who was a Symbolist painter, and Cuno Amiet, Alberto's godfather and a close family friend, who was a Fauvist.
When Giacometti was no older than ten, he began to send pencil and crayon drawings to his godfather Amiet, most of which he saved and survive today. And in the years that followed, he began to experiment with oils and still-lifes, often using his siblings as models. He produced his first painting at age twelve.
In 1915, Giacometti enrolled at the Evangelical School in the town of Schiers, where he continued to work in a small private studio. Later he enrolled at the École des Arts Industriels in Geneva, and studied painting, drawing and sculpture under the tutelage of Pointillist painter David Estoppey and sculptor Maurice Sarkissoff.
In May 1920, Giacometti traveled to Italy with his father, where he viewed paintings by Jacopo Tintoretto at the Venice Biennale, Giotto's frescoes in Padua, and ancient Egyptian art at the Archeological Museum in Florence. Soon after, he moved to Paris, where he enrolled in several art classes, and later he began to be attracted to Cubism and primitive art. In 1926 he exhibited his very first major bronze sculpture work, the idol-like Spoon Woman (1926-27), at the Salon des Tuileries.
By the 1930s, Giacometti had been warmly welcomed into Surrealist circles, and he became close to figures such as Man Ray, Joan Miró, André Masson and Max Ernst, as well as the movement's founders André Breton and Louis Aragon. But he also published work in Documents, the periodical produced by writer Georges Bataille, who was then putting forward a version of Surrealism in opposition to Breton's. Critics now believe that Bataille's ideas may have been important in inspiring several of Giacometti's Surrealist works, such as Suspended Ball (1930-1).
In June 1940 Giacometti and his brother Diego fled Paris by bicycle, narrowly missing an encounter with the invading German Wehrmacht (the next day they witnessed the city's bombardment from afar). Giacometti remained in France during this time, and forged friendships with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, thinkers who would later influence his figurative work.
In 1946, following the liberation of Paris, and Giacometti's own three-year hiatus in Geneva, he returned to the French capital. That same year his former lover, Annette Arm, joined him, and the two were married in 1949. Arm modeled for him on several occasions, including for the oil painting Annette with Chariot (1950). It was while living in Paris during these years that Giacometti arrived at his mature style of elongated figures, reportedly after spending time sketching passersby in the city streets.
As Giacometti's style continued to mature into the 1950s and 60s, his bronze figures grew larger and more complex, ranging from his Woman of Venice II (1956) at nearly four feet tall, to Tall Woman II (1960), towering at close to nine feet. He also devoted more time to portraiture, in both painting and sculpture. His regular models included Diego and Annette, as well as Isaku Yanaihara, a Japanese philosophy professor and writer whom he befriended in 1955.
By the 1960s, Giacometti was internationally famous, but his health declined. He was plagued by heart and circulatory problems. Nevertheless he continued to work, and in his final weeks he was working on a bust and painting of Elie Lotar, a French photographer and close friend. On the evening of January 11, 1966, he died of complications of pericarditis.
The Legacy of Alberto Giacometti
Both of the important phases of Giacometti's career yielded innovations that influenced a wide range of artists. His Surrealist sculpture of the 1930s, for instance, influenced Henry Moore, partly inspiring the Surrealism that would be such an important component of Moore's practice throughout his life. It is certainly hard to imagine Moore's own innovative experiments in the 1930s without Giacometti's example. And Giacometti's figurative work was vital in re-establishing the figure as a viable motif in the post-war period, at a time when abstract art dominated. His spindly bronze figures, which appear punctured and fragile, compressed in space, are in many respects visual manifestations of Existentialist thought, emblems of the condition of modern humanity ravaged by doubt.