Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)

Existentialism Through Art

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Surrealist painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti is considered the voice of Existentialism in the art community. Swiss born but Italian tongued, Giacometti was the son of famous painter Giovanni Giacometti, and fostered a love of art from a very young age.

Known for his tall and skinny sculptures, Giacometti has the distinctive style of making his subjects’ heads small and un-proportioned to their bodies. This can be seen in the majority of his sketches and oil paintings, as well as his sculptures. This is due to a problem that he fostered while attempting to draw a still life of pears. To him, no matter how far away the pears were, he would still draw them small. Therefore, Giacometti adopted his own style of small heads partially due to his inability to draw proportions and scale.

He attended the School of Arts and Crafts in Geneva, and the Ecole de la Grande Chaumiére, where he studied in Paris. In his early attempts at sculpture, to his dismay, Giacometti could only produce tiny, matchbox-sized sculptures in order to get his dimensions right. There are perhaps less than a dozen of these in existence, because after World War Two, he was able to produce larger sculptures, in his long and skinny style. His sculpture also reflects his views of the post-war world; none of his subjects make eye contact in group sculptures, and have an introverted feel. He used what is called a “plastic” technique, which is a method rooted in the ideals of Cubism. Through science, math and geometry, Giacometti created sculptures that were “plastic,” meaning real, yet ever changing in it’s own environment. Through the “plastic” technique, one could create a work of visual art that was a representation of real life, yet took on a new and different meaning every time you looked at it.

Through his friendship with French Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, Giacometti became involved with Existentialism. His surrealist paintings and sculptures are highly reflective of this. The Existentialist ideals of “The Real World” were often played out in his works. Existential pessimism is echoed throughout his work and can be seen in the emaciated bodies and haunting, dismal expressions of his subjects.

Many of his sculpture works take on serious subjects, such as “Invisible Object-(Hands Holding the Void)” (1932), which portrays a masked little girl, naked and feet bound; her hands in an inviting position. The bronzed sculpture “Woman with her Throat Cut” (1932) also bears an obvious example of the type of message that Giacometti portrayed, showing a victimized woman in a gruesome display of sex and death. This is in tune with his Surrealist styling, as other famous surrealists like Salvador Dali also embraced sex and death themes in their work. However, after the mid-thirties, Giacometti departed from Surrealism.

While Giacometti’s sculptures are featured in museums around the world, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it is his Surrealist paintings and sketches that he is lesser known for. His style of sculpting is very distinct, and even a novice art appreciator could identify his sculptures. However, his sketching and painting varied, and his lithographs and etchings were very rare. Giacometti made a return to printing and sketching in the late 1950s, and his work even appeared in magazines, such as “The Tree” which appeared in Verve. Giacometti had no rhyme or reason when it came to signing his work—some are signed, while others simply are not. Most commonly, his prints are signed and numbered, but it is said that he produced at least 150 unsigned prints from 1957-1962. He produced around 350 prints in his lifetime, many of which were commissioned for magazines and other publications. It is quite possible that many etchings and lithographs exist, unsigned and unidentified as true Giacometti’s.In his lifetime, Giacometti’s work was in high demand by the elite, who clamored over his avant-garde style. Currently, his sculptures are set for auction at Sotheby’s starting at $55,000-$100,000.