Alberto Giacometti

“The revelations and complexities of mid-twentieth century life have called forth a profound feeling of solitude and anxiety.  The imagery of man which has evolved from this reveals sometimes a new dignity, sometimes despair, but always the uniqueness of man as he confronts his fate.  Like Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Camus, these artists are aware of anguish and dread, of life in which man – precarious and vulnerable – confronts the precipice, is aware of dying as well as living.”
Peter Selz, “Introduction,” New Images of Man, Museum of Modern Art, 1958

Gordon Parks, Alberto Giacometti, 1951 LIFE Magazine
Gordon Parks, Alberto Giacometti, 1951 LIFE Magazine

The leading sculptor in France during the postwar period was the Swiss born Alberto Giacometti who first came to notice as a member of the Surrealist group in the 1920s.  After World War II he abandoned Surrealism and came to be seen by many, including Jean-Paul Sartre, as the preeminent Existentialist artist.  His work typically consists of strangely elongated figures alone or in groups occupying vast tracts of empty space, and evoking a powerful sense of isolation.  The writer Francis Ponge captured the existentialist resonance of Giacometti’s work in an essay published in 1951:

“Man . . . the human person . . . the free individual . . . the I . . . at once torturer and victim . . . at once hunter and prey . . Man – and man alone – reduced to a thread – in the dilapidating and misery of the world – who searches for himself – starting from nothing.  Exhausted, thin, emaciated, naked.  Aimlessly wandering the crowd.  Man anxious about man, in terror of man.  Asserting himself one last time in a hieratic attitude of supreme elegance.  The pathos of extreme emaciation, the individual reduced to a thread.”
Francis Ponge, “Reflections on the Statuettes, Figures and Pantings of Alberto Giacometti,” 1951, cited in in Harrison & Wood, Art in Theory, p. 615

Alberto Giacometti, City Square, 1948Museum of Modern Art
Alberto Giacometti, City Square, 1948
Museum of Modern Art

During the war, Giacometti took refuge in neutral Switzerland, where he worked on tiny figure sculptures done from memory.  Upon his return, he began casting them in bronze and placing them on enormous bases.  Although bronze is usually associated with monumentally scaled heroic statues, Giacometti’s figures are diminutive, and appear fragile and frail.  Their insignificance and alienation is further amplified by the size of the bases he made for them, creating a vast expanse of space that seems to envelop them.  Featureless and anonymous, Giacometti’s lonely figures seem to wander aimlessly through what Simone de Beauvoir called an “infinite and terrifying emptiness of space,” as each seeks to “make their way” in the world.

Jean Paul Sartre embraced Giacometti’s work as a powerful expression of the existentialist idea of the human subject thrown into the full uncertainty of “existence” – what he called “man in a situation” – with no “blueprint” or “plan” to guide him.   In his essay prefacing the catalogue to Giacometti’s first postwar show in New York in 1948, Sartre observed how the attenuated proportions of Giacometti’s figures render them perpetually distant from us, always in the process of becoming — they are, as he wrote:  “moving outlines, always half-way between nothingness and being.”

Alberto Giacometti, Man Pointing, 1947Tate Gallery
Alberto Giacometti, Man Pointing, 1947
Tate Gallery

ZeusBased on a famous Greek statue depicting the Olympian god Zeus, Giacometti’s Man Pointing reflects the Existentialist rejection of Humanism in its expression of the unbearable loneliness and fragility of human existence.  Tall and slender to the point of emaciation, the man points into the infinite space that surrounds him.  As John Alford describes the work:

“For Sartre and others, Giacometti’s works conveyed the despair, futility, and loneliness of the human condition.  One can see such solitude and futility in Man Pointing, particularly in the way he points in isolation and in the way the figure – with heavy feet that seem imprisoned within the bronze base – seems unable to move, implying permanent separation from others.  One also senses sadness in the sagging face, vulnerability in the frail body, and perhaps inner emptiness in the lack of individualized features.  One could also argue, however, that the pointing figure (by gesturing) conveys a sense of hope and expectation, rather than despair.  Yet even this can be interpreted in existentialist terms because the striving hints at the existentialist idea that one can – through taking individual responsibility – find worth in an ultimately meaningless life.”
John Alford, “Alberto Giacometti” 

Web Resources
Alberto Giacometti Online (Artcyclopedia)
MOMA Interactive feature on Giacometti
Clare Adams on Giacometti’s work in relation to Existentialism
John Alford, “Alberto Giacometti”
Peter Selz, New Images of Man, Museum of Modern Art, 1959