The effect, at first encounter and viewed straight on, is startling: the full bust of a man has been elevated to eye-level, perched, somewhat precariously it may seem, on a tall, narrow plinth. His gaze meets your own, appears to pass through you and beyond. This imposing sculpture dominates the room. Yves Bonnefoy has observed that "with this stele the portrait is restored to physical space, since it becomes a sort of monument, occupying a place and giving that place a centre" (op. cit., 1991, p. 438). The male bust mounted on a stele is rare in Giacometti's work. This sculpture is one of only three versions of this kind, all dating from 1957-1958; there is also the Petite buste sur colonne, circa 1951-1952, which anticipates the later, more massive elevated busts. Giacometti's subject in each of these works is his brother Diego, whose presence in this, the third version, is fractionally the tallest, but certainly the most massive and fully characterized of the three stele portraits.
Giacometti created various sculptures of men, standing full-length and engaged in some sort of motion or activity, before 1950. Thereafter his male subjects usually took the form of heads or busts only, without a lower body and shorn of extremities, while he continued to model standing women full-length with all their limbs intact, as in the celebrated Femmes de Venise and Grandes femmes debout, which like the present sculpture also date from the late 1950s. Giacometti's stele sculptures, then, are his male counterpart to these large upright women, with the difference that a formal, abstract device–the stele–stands in for the remainder of the body. Giacometti's women are whole, grandly static, and deeply physical and sensual in their presence. The men are now equally immobile in their pose, but in contrast to the women, by focusing on the head and an armless upper body, the sculptor has emphasized the cerebral and philosophical aspect of the male character.
The placement of the portrait bust on a tall base recalls the elongated figures that Giacometti executed in late 1940s. The sheer verticality of the stele portraits suggests a later variation on this theme, but with further implications. By incorporating such a substantial and significant base within the overall conception of the sculpture, and by capitalizing on, in exaggerated form, this conventional means of exhibiting a sculpture in a public space, Giacometti is drawing attention not only to his depiction of the subject–the head of Diego–but also to the way in which he has presented it, as a larger, enhanced concept of the total art work.
When planning his exhibitions Giacometti often had Diego prepare bases for his sculptures that were usually only slightly wider than the sculpture he would place atop it, a preference which emphasized the attenuated verticality of his work. It was an inevitable step, then, to make the base an integral part of the sculpture, a formal device of significance in its own right, to manipulate certain aspects of presentation as they related to the figure mounted upon it. The hieratic use of the stele recalls the ancient practice of raising up the figures of estimable men and commemorating their achievements, placing them on tall plinths–the term "stele" is from the ancient Greek word for "pillar."
The stele moreover serves the function of deliberately guiding the viewer's perception of the head. Giacometti wanted to control the height at which one observed the portrait bust, while also suggesting how far one should stand from it, ideally, at a distance from which the observer could take in the entire work from top to bottom in one's vertical field of vision. It was from this remove that one was meant to study the bust and meet its gaze, at precisely the same distance the sculptor sat from his brother Diego while modeling the work in his studio. Giacometti wanted the viewer to encounter this presence of Diego directly at eye-level. "In these sculptures I tried to make an eye," the artist explained to Thomas B. Hess in 1958. "I raised the head on a base until the eye is at eye-level. You see an eye... This is very important...just where the eye hits the sculpture" (quoted in T. B. Hess, "Giacometti: The Uses of Adversity," Art News, vol. 57, no. 3, May 1958, pp. 34-35 and 67).
These considerations reflect the importance that Giacometti had given during the 1950s to evoking the actual physical presence of the model as he most directly encountered it himself. By the end of the 1940s Giacometti felt that he had exhausted the possibilities inherent in the attenuated, stick-like figures he created during the years immediately following the end of the Second World War. He now sought to reclaim a more realistic and concrete sense of space. Christian Klemm has noted, "For Giacometti it was the essential presence of the human being, as it appears to the artist, that he sought to grasp–the ceaseless dialogue between seeing and the seen, eye and hand, in which form continually grows and dissolves" (Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001, p. 222).
Just as Giacometti had done during the mid-1930s when he gave up his Surrealist and abstract manner, he again worked directly in front of his model, his wife Annette or even more frequently–as seen here–his brother Diego. The intimate nature of these relationships inspired the probing intensity of these new sculptures. "Giacometti had indeed chosen the existence of individuals," Bonnefoy observed, "the here and now as the chief object of his new and future study...he instinctively realized that this object transcended all artistic signs and representations, since it was no less than life itself" (op. cit., 1991, p. 369).
Diego was day after day an ever-present and absolute constant in Alberto's life, and so it seemed natural that he should become the sculptor's most frequent and important model. There was, furthermore, something innately heroic and masculine in Giacometti's rugged and searching approach to the model, in which he continually built up and broke down the plaster image he held in his hands, a process that was well-suited to a male subject, and found its truest expression in the depiction of another man. Indeed, it was fortunate that this man was his own brother, someone who was as close as possible to being his double, a virtual extension of Giacometti himself.
In the course of these heads of Diego that Giacometti personalized and brought into more immediate and intimate focus the abstract and existentialist anxiety which he had previously expressed in the anonymous visionary figures of the late 1940s. By obsessively concentrating on the particulars of a single individual, Giacometti created a universal modern man, embodying an intensity of presence without parallel in post-war sculpture. Patrick Elliott wrote, "One might say that that Diego was to Giacometti what the still-life was to Morandi or Mont-Saint-Victoire to Cézanne" (in Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966, exh. cat., Scottish National Gallery of Art, Edinburgh,1996, p. 23). The stele portraits represent Giacometti's apotheosis of his brother in the most magisterially classical manner he could conceive, as a fitting tribute to Diego's importance in the sculptor's life and art.
Fig. A Giacometti, at left, with his brother Diego and wife Annette, in the artist’s studio, Paris, 1952. Photo by Alexander Liebermann. BARCODE: liberman-giacometti_dhr
Fig. B Alberto Giacometti, Petite buste sur colonne, 1951-1952. Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris. BARCODE: 28864219
Fig. C Alberto Giacometti, Stèle II, plaster version, 1958. Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris. BARCODE: 28864226
PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT COLLECTION
Signed and numbered 'Alberto Giacometti 6/6' (on the back of the bust); inscribed with foundry mark 'Susse Fondeur Paris' (on the back of the base)
Alberto Giacometti , 20th Century, Sculptures, Statues & Figures, bronze, France, Modern, figures
Venice, XXI Biennale Internazionale d'Arte di Venezia, June-October 1962, no. 436.
(probably) Kunsthaus Zürich, Alberto Giacometti, December 1962-January 1963, p. 27, no. 73.
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Alberto Giacometti, June-September 1990, p. 135, no. 28 (illustrated, pp. 60 and 61).
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
Height: 65¼ in. (165.7 cm.)
H. and M. Matter, Alberto Giacometti, New York, 1987, p. 220 (another cast illustrated, p. 123).
Y. Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of His Work, Paris, 1991, p. 438, no. 420 (another cast illustrated in color).
The Alberto Giacometti Database, no. 2988.
Galerie Maeght, Paris (by 1965).
Private collection, New York; sale, Christie's, New York, 17 May 1983, lot 77.
Private collection, Miami (acquired at the above sale).
Galerie Beyeler, Basel.
Acquired from the above by the present owner, December 1990.