Alberto Giacometti

Alberto Giacometti

A world-renowned sculptor, printmaker, painter, and draftsman. Alberto Giacometti was no stranger to fine arts as his family, from his father to his brothers, were painters. He was born in Switzerland to Giovanni Giacometti, a successful post-Impressionist painter and thus trained in the arts at an early age. Although, he received his primary training in Italy and then found success in Paris during the early 1920’s. Like many younger artists of his time, he was easily captivated by the elements of Surrealism, which he eventually became a member of a Surrealist group in Paris under the influence of Constantin Brancusi.

The 1920’s through ‘30’s had been spent on painting still-life objects. It was during this period when he completed his first major sculpture, The Palace at 4AM, which is now installed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He achieved global fame when he received the Venice Biennale grand prize for sculpture in 1962. Long before he reached this stage of his career, it took him a series of shifts of art movements from Surrealism to Existentialism until he was able to settle with the latter, in which he was inspired to create his most valuable piece of art, The Walking Man I (1961).

As a Surrealist sculptor during the 1930’s, Giacometti’s art shared resemblance with how toys were formed and finished at the time. He then followed the Existentialism movement, even befriended its leading philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. His art’s focus changed from the perception of imagination to the perception of anxiety and abandonment, which was first portrayed by Edvard Munch in his expressionist painting, The Scream (1893-1910). It was timely for Giacometti to have laid his focus on this subject matter because the modern-day human cannot keep up with the fast-paced advancement of the world, and thus, feeling alienated in their own society.

Alberto Giacometti was best known for his figurative sculptures and through it he showed human suffering, particularly the aftermath of the Second World War. At some point he also attempted to use Freudian themes in his works such as trauma, obsession and human sexuality. This inspired him to create several figures while some works were derived from primitive art. Listed below are some of the most important art pieces produced by Alberto Giacometti:

  • Standing Woman (1947)
  • Spoon Woman (1926)
  • Diego (1953)
  • Man Pointing (1947)
  • Walking Man I (1961)
  • City Square (1948)
  • Monumental Head (1960)
  • Cat (1954)

Early Life

Alberto Giacometti was born in October 10, 1901 in Borgonovo, Switzerland, where majority of the locals spoke Italian as a primary language. Being the son of a painter, he was immediately sent to an art school in Genoa together with his two siblings, Bruno and Diego Giacometti. The trio would become artists in their own right soon after. Another person who might have direct influence on Alberto was Zaccaria Giacometti who later became a law professor and chancellor at the University of Zurich. It is said that Zaccaria had to stay with Alberto’s family ever since he was orphaned beginning in 1905.

Early Training

After completing his courses at the art school, he went to Paris to enroll at the classes of Antoine Bourdelle, a well-known expressionist sculptor. Under the tutelage of Bourdelle, Giacometti was introduced to the works of the great Rodin and other sculptures whose themes and motifs were derived from surrealism and cubism. There, he began experimenting with the said artistic styles until he decided to focus on Surrealism. He became one and met up with other artists such as Balthus, Max Ernst, Joan Miro, and Pablo Picasso.

In stating precisely, it was during the mid-1920s when Alberto Giacometti distanced himself from conventional, academic-inspired techniques and followed Surrealism instead. His own individual style began to take shape by creating a series of head sculptures and figures that conveyed sexuality, trauma and dreams. He used bronze cast as a medium, and as a result, he executed the unsettling yet with shocking quality Woman with Her Throat Cut of 1932 and the Spoon Woman of 1936. These figures are now under the care of Guggenheim Museum and Museum of Modern Art, NY, respectively.

Of the two sculptures, Woman with Her Throat Cut received more critical praises for its profound representation of trauma, violence and torture. The figure is part insect, part woman executed in an abstract manner. However, the generally accepted interpretation of the piece is it’s about a raped woman who was left dead cold. This work cemented his reputation in the group as a leading Surrealist sculptor. In 1927, he participated in a two-man art exhibition in Zurich which featured the works of his father and of his own. It was only until 1932 when he finally got to hold his own show in Paris.

Maturity of Giacometti’s Art

By 1936, Giacometti began making sculptures of the human head almost exclusively. The focus is on the model’s gaze and most of his sitters were people close to him like family members, friends and Isabel Rawsthorne. Isabel would become his main muse for a lot of his sculptures during this period, where she was represented with seemingly flexible, elongated limbs.

At this point, Giacometti became obsessed with creating thin figures and some of them were reduced to the size of a pocket book. Although miniature in size, he was undoubtedly ahead of the competition for his technical skill and wild imagination. But this soon will change after he married Annette Arm in 1946, during which his figures’ size had been upgraded yet remained thin in width. He also attempted at painting portraits, one of which was a portrait of Diego and then Bruno Giacometti.
Giacometti’s constant changing of mind when it comes to his artistic style may have been the result of his identity crisis as an artist. It is because although he was already popular and influential throughout the first few decades of the 20th century, he still found himself struggling with having to choose between Surrealism and Existentialism. Thus, his early works were almost miniature in size and then gradually grew them larger with narrow heads and elongated limbs. The aesthetic was naturalistic, which he would become known for luckily.

At the time he was experimenting with primitive art he was in his studio at Montparnasse. The studio had been the witness to the artist’s development from producing tiny figures to larger ones. And one of the finest sculptural work he had produced there was the first Walking Man, or most commonly referred to as the Man Striding (1961).
In 1934, Giacometti’s career began to venture out to New York City, where he was invited to organize his first solo show there. In 1941 he met Jean Paul Sartre, a highly influential French philosopher of the Existentialism movement. He was particularly interested in capturing the beauty of alienation and melancholy, which are explained in the said philosophy. After all, Existentialism is about human connection and finding one’s place and purpose through forging human relationships despite living in an absurd world.

Giacometti’s existentialist thoughts and truths would become more intense and apparent after the World War II, as people suffer from its aftermath. During the war though he sought refuge in Zurich and then traveled back to Paris by 1945.

Advanced Years

Three years after WWII ended, Alberto Giacometti went to New York to hold an exhibition. He displayed his collection of figures with elongated limbs, which were supposed to show and tell that humans have reached a point where becoming fragile is the new norm and essentially pointing out the melancholic side of Man’s existence. Sartre took it as pessimistic but Barnett Newman described it “as if they were made out of spit – new things with no form, no texture, but somehow filled.”

For example, in the Man Striding sculpture, the theme is the Man’s search for purpose in life. The slightly tilted head with a tall height enough to meet one’s eye seems to inquire about the identity of the person he is facing or vice versa. The striding stance is to show how humans have always been on the move to search for something valuable to their existence. As for how the sculpture did come about, Giacometti used a knife and his fingers to shape its limbs and all of its parts.

This kind of technique was frequently used by Giacometti, as though he had already found his own unique style. His succeeding works such as The Glade and The Square were relevant to his development; from a single-figure sculptor to executing works with a group of figures. In 1955 a museum in New York and in London conducted a retrospective of Giacometti’s works and then his exhibition at the Venice Biennale would soon follow. Additionally, not only did he excel in sculpture, but he also proved himself talented in painting by winning the Guggenheim International Award under the painting category in 1964.


Alberto Giacometti remained dedicated to the arts even until his last breath. He became one of the most sought-after sculptors of the 20th century. He received several public commissions, too, like a tree he made for Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Around 1961 or 1962 he received the prestigious Venice Biennale grand prize for sculpture, but this recognition did not satisfy the artist enough to retire. He continued re-working his art and those that failed to reach his standard would be destroyed.
During the 1960’s, Giacometti was already an old man with a deteriorating health yet still he chose to travel to New York to be with the inauguration of his sculptures at the MOMA. In 1966 he contracted severe bronchitis while staying in Switzerland and later died of pericarditis. His remains were interred at his homeland in Borgonovo.