Towards the Avant Garde
In 1925, sensing that he was unable to advance in the representational and figurative, Giacometti turned to the study of avant-garde sculpture. Artists such as Brancusi, Archipenko, Laurens and Lipchitz had created their central works even before the First World War, drawing on Cubism and the boldly abstract forms of non-European tribal art. This repertoire now served as a source of inspiration for Giacometti, and with his characteristic concentration and intellectual method he created two series of works in which he developed the classical topoi of sculpture in accordance with the new formal principles: the standing male or female figure, the couple, the head with the motif of seeing, the group of three. The first work was the ‘Torso’ of 1925, in which the figure is reduced to three geometrically stylized bodies but, with its tense volume and upwardly thrusting, contrapposto form, nevertheless exudes an organic vitality.
While his Cubist-style works deal more with formal issues such as the explosion and penetration of the sculptured block or the dynamic relationship between the individual elements, his idol-like figurations in the manner of African or Oceanic art constitute semiotic symbols of experienced reality. ‘Spoon Woman’, the first of his arrestingly front-on, large female figures suggestive of cult images, was inspired by spoons in the shape of human beings, and achieves an almost magical presence. The immense oval, which recalls ancient fertility idols, is half-curved towards the viewer; yet even as it opens up it also draws away, thus creating an enigmatic tension.
In the summer of 1927 Giacometti followed this up with another systematic investigative series created in Stampa and Maloja and featuring a sequence of heads based on his mother and father. The experience gained here led in 1928 to the ‘Gazing Head’, his first entirely original invention. Its expressive power lies in the tense outline of the rectangular plaque standing upon the ‘neck’ and the two indentations, which evoke the activity of looking: a disembodied, seemingly phantasmal construction, a membrane reflecting light. Giacometti subsequently produced a series of female plaque figures, variations on this form, so expressive of his non-sculptural sense of the sculptural. The works that followed, including the strikingly poetic ‘Reclining Woman Who Dreams’, once again incorporate real incursions into the third dimension, this time reversing the relationship between indentations and plaque: the latter is resolved into nothing and the signs stand freely in space.