Youth and Apprenticeship
Alberto Giacometti was born in 1901 at Borgonovo in the Swiss canton of Grisons, the first child of a well-known painter, Giovanni Giacometti, and his wife Annetta. Family life was dominated by the character of his clever and strong-willed mother and by his father’s work as an artist. He was influenced by Segantini, Hodler and the French Post-Impressionists, whose principal subjects included not only landscapes but also Annetta and their four children. Alberto Giacometti was thus an artist’s model from the day he was born; he grew up surrounded by art in the family’s small but carefully organized apartment in Stampa and his father’s adjoining studio. His exceptional talent is discernible even in his childhood drawings, and at the age of just twelve he began modelling heads. The drawing of his mother from 1918 reveals not only his remarkably accomplished handling of form, but also the makings of a conscious stylistic direction derived from the work of the recently deceased artist Ferdinand Hodler, who had been a friend of the family. Reaching the age of twenty, Giacometti wavered for some time between painting and sculpture. His full-figure self-portrait from 1921 synthesizes what he has learnt from the painterly culture and colourist talents of his father, and also attests to a formal rigour and artistic sophistication that were to characterize his working methods throughout his life.
In early 1922 Giacometti entered the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, a leading art school in Paris run by Antoine Bourdelle. Here he met young sculptors from many lands and acquired the professionalism that lends an artistic coherence to even the seemingly chaotic forms of his mature oeuvre. Bourdelle, himself a student of Rodin, sought both a continuation of the great tradition of European sculpture and a response to the dismantling of organic and sculptural form brought about by Cézanne and his new way of seeing. Giacometti was already troubled by the contradiction between the vibrant dynamism of the model and the static, stylized form; he destroyed his own attempts at sculpture, leaving behind only his masterly nude sketches. In them we perceive his particular sense of the bodily form, as remote from sculptural gravity and bulk as it is from the organic surge or muscular tension of the three-dimensional. Instead, he constructs the figure out of transparent spatial structures, energies that flow together as lines connecting points. It is this conception or arrangement – so unusual for a sculptor – that forms the basis for both the weightless sculptures from around 1930 and the phantasmal late figures.