Alberto Giacometti
Biography of Swiss Existentialist Sculptor.

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For a list see: Greatest Sculptors.

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)

Swiss sculptor, painter, draftsman and printmaker, Alberto Giacometti is one of the most popular twentieth century sculptors. He trained initially in Italy, then in Paris where he was influenced by Constantin Brancusi and joined the Surrealism movement. His late-1920s and 1930s sculpture has been dubbed "still-life" or "magic objects", of which the most famous is The Palace at 4am (1932-3, Museum of Modern Art, New York). In later years he returned to more realistic single-figure sculptures, notably his impossibly delicate, elongated figures, dating mostly from the post-war years, which he built up by working directly in plaster on a wire foundation. Examples of his unique style of sculpture include Man Pointing (1947, Tate London), Man Striding I (1960, Foundation Maeght, Saint-Paul) and Tall Woman II (1960, Museum of Modern Art, New York). Giacometti also painted a number of meticulous portraits, notably a five-year study of Isabel Lambert and Portrait of Jean Genet (1955). In February 2010, Giacometti's Walking Man I, a life-size bronze sculpture cast in 1961, sold at Sotheby's in London for £65,001,250 ($104,327,006) - the highest-ever price paid at auction for a work of plastic art.

For different types of 3-D
carving, see:
Stone Sculpture
Granite, limestone, sandstone
and other rock-types.
Marble Sculpture
Pentelic, Carrara, Parian marbles.
Bronze Sculpture
Lost-wax casting method,
sandcasting, centrifugal casting.

For a list of the world's top 100
3-D artworks, by the best sculptors
in the history of art, see:
Greatest Sculptures Ever.

For a list of sculptors like
Alberto Giacometti, see:
Modern Artists.

For details of the origins and
development of the plastic arts
see: History of Sculpture.


Works of Art

Striding Man (1960). Expressionist Statue. Kroller-Muller Museum, The Netherlands

Cat (1954) Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Early Life

Giacometti was born in Borgonovo, now Switzerland on the border with Italy in 1901. His father, Giovanni Giacometti (1868-1933) was also a painter, his uncle Augusto Giacometti (1877-1947) was a decorative artist, while his brother Diego became a furniture maker and sculptor. Giacometti attended the Fine Arts School in Geneva, studying figurative drawing, etching and painting. In 1920 he travelled with his father to the Venice Biennale to see the work of Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964), one of the great abstract sculptors from the Ukraine.


In 1922 Giacometti moved to Paris to study with the French expressionist sculptor Antoine Bourdelle (1826-1929) at the Academie de la Grande-Chaumiere. Bourdelle was a former pupil of the master-sculptor, Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). While in Paris, Giacometti experimented with new modern art movements like Cubism, and mixed with artists like Picasso, Max Ernst, Joan Miro and Balthus (Balthazar Klossowski de Rola). He also studied African art and primitive artefacts.


Giacometti's Surrealist Sculpture

Half way through the 1920s, Giacometti broke with traditional academic techniques and began to seriously explore the sculptural possibilities of Surrealism. From the period 1927 to 1934 he created some of his most individual works. Taking typical Surrealist themes like dreams, sensuality and violence he created sculptures, which though cast in bronze, look like assemblage art. His avant-garde works Woman with Her Throat Cut (1932, National Gallery of Scotland) and Spoon Woman (1936) - casts of which can be seen in the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art New York, and elsewhere - were his first critically acclaimed works. Woman with Her Throat Cut is part woman, part insect. One of the most evocative pieces of abstract sculpture - intended to be placed on the floor without a base - it suggests the violent image of a woman, lying raped and murdered. It is highly emotive and powerful, sitting firmly within the realms of Surrealism, and made Giacometti one of the best known surrealist artists.

In 1927, Giacometti had a joint exhibition in Zurich with his father and in 1932 his first solo exhibition in Paris.

Individual Artistic Style

In 1935 Giacometti had an artistic crisis. Although his early works were already well known and in demand, the artist was still struggling to find his own unique style. The first sculptures he did during this period were so tiny that they threatened to fall apart. Gradually the figures developed with more lively surfaces, elongated limbs and narrow small heads. It was for these, more naturalistic works, that he would become famous. Working from his studio in Montparnasse, his figures grew and grew in size. At first he found his studio too small, but the longer he stayed there, the larger he said, it seem to become. Even one of his life-size standing figures, such as Man Striding (1960, Foundation Maeght, Saint-Paul) were created in this studio. In 1934 Giacometti had his first solo exhibition in New York. A few later he also met the famous philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who became a good friend and wrote two essays about the artistic impact of Giacometti's art. During the war years, Giacometti lived in Zurich, only returning to his studio in Paris again in 1945.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate semi-abstract modernist sculptors like Alberto Giacomettil, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture. For earlier works, please see: How to Appreciate Sculpture.

Mature Works

In 1948 Giacometti held another exhibition in New York, where he presented his new elongated figures. Conceptually, his sculptures were regarded as representing the fragile, essentially lonely nature of human existence. Sartre associated it with Existentialism's pessimistic view of the world, but it was perhaps Barnett Newman's comment that was more accurate: these sculptures look 'as if they were made out of spit - new things with no form, no texture, but somehow filled'. The figure of a man striding was Giacometti’s most common motif, and those figures show his fascination with the surfaces of his work. He used his fingers and the modelling knife to shape his figurative sculptures. (For an example of an Irish sculptor influenced by Giacometti's work, see Edward Delaney, 1930-2009.) Though the figures are often pared down to their basic form, they retain an extraordinary presence. Around the 1950s, Giacometti modelled groups of figures: The Square (1949) and The Glade (1950). In 1955 the artist had two retrospectives, one in London and one in New York. In 1956 he exhibited at the Venice Biennale. Although he is best known for his sculpture, Giacometti was also adept at etching, graphic design and painting. In fact, he received the Guggenheim International Award for painting in 1964.

Final Years

By now acclaimed as one of the giants of modern art, Giacometti worked prolifically until this death in 1966. Commissions for public sculpture however tended to come to nothing, but in 1961 he made a tree for the stage of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. In 1961 he was awarded the Grand Prize for Sculpture at the Venice Biennale, which bought him worldwide fame. Despite the fame, Giacometti was rarely satisfied with his work - he still reworked models, often destroying them or setting them aside to be returned to years later. Sartre was to remark of his friend 'He will never be finished with it; this is simply because a man is always beyond what he has done'. Despite declining health, the sculptor travelled to New York in 1965 to attend an opening of his work at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). He died a few months later in Switzerland.

World Record Price For a Work of Art

In February 2010 a record-setting art auction at Sotheby's London resulted in a £65,001,250 ($104,327,006) sale for Giacometti's sculpture Walking Man I (L'Homme Qui Marche). The 6-feet tall bronze depicts a man in mid-stride. The sale broke the previous $104,168,000 auction record, set in 2004 for Pablo Picasso's portrait Boy With a Pipe (1905). More than five times higher than its pre-sale estimate of £12m-18m, competitive bidding and scarcity of works by Giacometti were key factors in achieving the record price.

The Alberto Giacometti Foundation

The Kunsthaus Zurich contains the collection of the Alberto Giacometti Foundation. Collated shortly after the death of the artist, the collection contains 150 sculptures, 20 paintings and many paper drawings. The works range from his early years, showing influences of Cubism and primitive art, his Surrealistic phase, and his most significant sculptures from the years 1947 to 1951. Works include:

- Femme couchée qui rêve (1929, Cubist influence)
- Fleur en danger (1932, Surrealist period)
- Le Cage (1950, mature work)
- Tête d'homme I (Diego, 1964, painting)

Other Collections

Works by Giacometti can also be found in the following museums:

- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
- Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio
- Palm Springs Desert Museum, California
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California
- Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut
- Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
- Detroit Institute of Art, Michigan
- Walker Art Center, Minnesota
- Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey
- Guggenheim Museum, New York
- Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
- Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas
- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

- Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Vienna, Austria
- Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark
- Didrichsen Art Museum, Helsinki, Finland
- National Museum of Modern Art, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France
- State Museums of Berlin, Germany
- Stadel Museum, Frankfurt, Germany
- Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Germany
- Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal, Germany
- Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italy
- Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands
- Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, Spain
- Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland
- Fondation de l'Hermitage, Lausanne, Switzerland
- Kunstmuseum Lucerne, Switzerland
- Beyeler Foundation Collection, Switzerland
- Tate Gallery, London, UK

Among many others.

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