Quest for a New Way of Seeing
Giacometti soon went beyond the closed block of the ‘Cube’. As with the search for a path of his own that he had conducted in his youth, in 1935 he pursued his self-interrogation through a number of self-portraits. Here he reinterpreted the “cube”: on its uppermost surface he engraves a self-portrait, while on the adjoining side are lines that suggest the studio in which the ‘Cube’ itself may be seen. It is the ‘Nocturnal Pavilion’, as Giacometti also termed the sculpture: the artist’s workshop and at the same time the head, the locus of his creative imagination. The cube has thus been disassembled, transparently revealing its self-conscious life; and it is this that Giacometti would set out to express in his subsequent works. He sought an art of what Franz Meier called “existential reality” or, as he himself put it, a form that could encompass the “totality of life”. Surrealist “objects”, with their metaphorical modus operandi, could not do this; rather, it could only be achieved by works into which the wealth of visible and experienced reality had flowed. This in turn revealed itself to him primarily in the encounter with other human beings, in his engagement with his model.
Giacometti thus knew exactly what he no longer wanted, and the direction in which his quest should lead ; yet he had no idea how a solution might be found, nor can he have realized that the journey would last twelve years. In the first phase he returned to his earlier attempts at stylization, as can be seen in the self-portrait drawings with their attempt to grasp the living in a combination of organic animation and geometric formal power. It was perhaps the major Cézanne exhibition in Paris and Basel in the summer of 1936 that motivated him to undertake a more fundamental rethink. He now began attempting to capture the “seen” directly. As with Surrealism, the goal was to present an image of that which lies within; yet here we are dealing no longer with a dreamlike fiction but rather with the perception of reality. While in his 1937 work ‘Portrait of the Mother’ he succeeded for the first time in crafting this inner vision, it proved far more difficult to achieve in sculpture. Giacometti returned to the open surface of Rodin, and at the same time embarked on the process of “unlearning”: casting aside the old, familiar forms that had always infiltrated themselves between him and his model and engaging instead with the fluctuating immediacy of the living person before him. The smaller the heads became, the more they exuded the vital energy he was looking for. This process of reduction became more acute when, one evening, he caught sight of his girlfriend far away on the Boulevard Saint-Michel and was affected by her vital presence, immediately, even before he could make out any details. In relation to our field of view, the human figure initially appears tiny: oversized pedestals are designed to convey the sense of scale and distance. Right up until 1946, Giacometti remained enthralled by these microsculptures, and by his inability to capture in sculpture the sudden appearance of a person in the distance.
This period saw a number of experiences in Giacometti’s personal life that had a profound impact on his work. In 1938 he was hit by a car, sustaining an injury to his foot; the resulting stay in hospital was to inspire the work entitled ‘The Chariot’. In 1940 he fled the advancing German armies; the shock of the bombing of a refugee convoy and the severed arm of a victim are evoked in ‘The Hand’ and other sculptures of body parts. These works were not produced until after the war, which he spent in Geneva, and they helped him find his way to life-size figurations and an expressively craggy surface. But it was not until 1946 that remarkably over-explicit, vision-like perceptions of reality, the death of a neighbour, and terrifying dreams led to a breakthrough. Albert Skira urged him to write about his experiences for the journal Labyrinthe; The Dream, the Sphinx and the Death of T. became Giacometti’s key text and one of general importance to literary history as well. Writing it also enabled him to come to terms with the traumatic experience of the sudden death of a travel companion in 1921.
Pencil, 49 x 31.2 cm
The Artist’s Mother, 1937
Oil, 60 x 50 cm
Small Figurine on a Double Pedestal, ca. 1939/45
Plaster, height 9.5 cm
Gift of Hans C. and Elisabeth Bechtler
The Hand, 1947
Painted plaster, height 65.5 cm
Head on a Rod, 1947
Painted plaster, height 50 cm