In late 1949 and early 1950, while still working on the disembodied sculptures drawn from memory, Giacometti returned in his painting to the study of the model. Once again, drawing helped him find a solution to the artistic problems he faced. In his efforts to transpose perceived nature into the persistent reality of the image in such a way that the vital polysemy of the seen and experienced is retained, he reverts back to the graphic artist’s technique of tracing the movements of the eye, the gaze, with the pencil or paintbrush, restlessly sketching around the forms, dissolving their outlines into a breathing space, compacting their centres to energy cores.
As in the craggy surfaces of his sculptures, Giacometti thus achieves a complete transformation and dematerialization of the representational, which nevertheless appears as a realistic image in the painting. His experience of “visions” and his phenomenological reflections enable him to configure what is actually in front of him as an internal image; the inner frame marks this difference. The evocative yet impalpable details, the void between (and indeed within) things, point to the openness and diffuseness of the mental conceptual space, which acts as intermediary between external reality and that which is visible on the canvas.
In 1951, Giacometti’s work with models led him to establish a greater sense of proximity and corporeality in his sculptures. In his busts of Diego he sought to evoke the living presence of the other through the activation of perception. A first series of works brings this internal perspective to bear on the relationship between head and body. In ‘Diego in a Sweater’, for example, the remoteness and reduction of the head concentrates the entire energy in this core, its charisma dominating everything around it.
The other series culminates in the ‘Large Head of Diego’, in which Giacometti emphasizes that particular characteristic of the human head which allows it to exhibit two entirely different views, whose psychological expression cannot ultimately be conveyed. He draws the instinctively dominant frontal view closer to the attenuated figures and compensates for it with the broad development of the profile, with which he clearly associates death. He uses the subtly nuanced flattening to activate the view from the fore: the sense of depth in the elongated form that runs from the chin close to us, via the nose and the eyes to the distant ears, combined with the tension between the two halves of the face, forces us to constantly refocus our gaze.
By depicting the act of seeing in this way, Giacometti allows us to perceive an arresting vitality in the head. And every viewer of the work, by completing the task of the seeing and shaping artist, re-invokes the enigmatic presence of his fellow human being. Creating that presence with ever-renewed intensity was Giacometti’s chief goal until the very end of his life. In the portraits of Caroline and other late heads, such as our ‘Head of a Man I (Diego)’, he achieved an almost magical actuality through the medium of painting. Among his sculptures, however, it is the three busts of Elie Lotar, with their dramatic tension between the chaotically formless body and the perfectly sculpted head emerging from the base material, that his work achieves its final culmination.