Around 1951, Giacometti began a series of heads and busts of his brother Diego that exerted a profound impact on the remainder of his oeuvre. These bronzes marked the artist's transition from the spindly and instantly iconic figures that had brought him international fame in the late 1940s to a renewed concentration on observed reality and a more realistic, palpable sense of space. Accordingly, Giacometti returned to working directly in front of the model, most often his wife Annette, or as seen here, his brother Diego. Working with mutable materials such as clay, plaster, and paint, he produced portrait-like figural paintings and sculptures. Although working from a live model, Giacometti remained uninterested in physiognomic exactitude and sought instead to create close psychological interpretations of his sitters. He rendered specific features to capture what he conceived of as an individual's essence. By the end of the decade, Giacometti had abandoned full-length figures and focused exclusively on heads and busts for the remainder of his life. Well aware of the challenge that his newfound obsession posed, the artist lamented, "I don't know what's wrong with me. I'm only interested in heads now and there's nothing harder than doing a head." (quoted in H. and M. Matter, Alberto Giacometti Photographed by Herbert Matter, New York, 1987, p. 211). Yet he also asserted that "The great adventure is to see something unknown appear every day in the same face" (quoted in M. Peppiatt, Alberto Giacometti in Postwar Paris, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, p. 10).
Giacometti's intimate relationship with his sitters contributed to the intensity of their physical and emotional presence in his new sculptures. The poet Yves Bonnefoy observed: "It is already surprising enough to find an artist at the height of his powers, who in the space of three or four years had sculpted some of the major archetypes of modern art and was immediately recognized as such, practically abandoning this type of creation in order to devote himself to the portraits of a few individuals. Giacometti had indeed chosen the existence of individuals, the here and now as the chief object of his new and future study; and that he instinctively realized that this object transcended all artistic signs and representations, since it was no less than life itself" (in Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of his Work, Paris, 1991, p. 369).
Giacometti's very first bust, a sculpture done in plasticine in 1914, depicts Diego, and indeed Diego was a constant and important presence in his brother's life. A sculptor and designer in his own right, Diego had a small workroom close to his brother's studio in the rue Hippolyte in Paris. Diego was largely responsible for the bronze casting of the plasters and would famously enter his brother's apartment each morning while his brother was still asleep to make a mold of the work that had been the product of the previous night's efforts before the sculptor felt the compulsion to destroy it by the next day's session. Diego was a also a reminder of their shared childhood and a direct link to their mother, who continued to be an important person in Alberto's life although she lived in Switzerland. In some sense, Diego came to serve as a stand-in for the artist himself. Bonnefoy observed: "In the portraits of Diego one senses considerable disquiet, as well as great energy, in the scrutiny of the sitter's presence, as though Alberto found Diego a source of anxiety: after all, they were born of the same mother, and Diego, like the artist himself, was 'not of this world' in the ordinary sense. In the presence of someone who is, as it were, his double, Giacometti more than ever is witness to the mystery of existence, like Hamlet thinking of Yorick, in front of a skull in the dust" (ibid., pp. 426, 432).
As the artist's constant model, Diego became all men to Giacometti; his craggy face, with its pared-down features, grew to be an expression of the anxiety of the immediate postwar period. Giacometti's first bust of Diego had adhered to the traditional, classical demands of sculpture, but it quickly became a stepping-stone to more dramatic, universal heads that nonetheless retained the essential traits of Diego's identity such as his high forehead, upturned nose, and full lips (fig. 1). Patrick Elliott wrote, "One might say that Diego was to Giacometti what the still-life was to Morandi or Mont-Saint-Victoire to Cézanne. Diego's features were etched on Giacometti's mind and his portraits of other sitters look strangely like Diego." (in Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966, exh. cat., Scottish National Gallery of Art, Edinburgh, 1996, p. 23).
Thus, Diego was essential to Giacometti's quest to transcend sculpture's existence as an object in space and create a living encounter between viewer and artwork. 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 continuously grows and dissolves" (in Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001, p. 222). Giacometti subjected Diego to varying degrees of distortion to achieve this goal, compressing and narrowing his brother's chin, nose, and general shape of his skull while disregarding the back and sides of his model. These reductions of volume force the viewer to engage the bust face-to-face, as we would another person, and as Giacometti encountered Diego. Giacometti commented, "If I copy the surface of a head directly in a sculpture, what is there inside it? A great mass of dead clay! In a living head, the inside is as organic as the surface, is it not? So with a head which looks real, say a head by Houdon, you have the feeling that the inside is empty. In heads which are narrow there is just enough clay to make them stay upright. The inside is absolutely necessary. And so it is necessarily more like a living head" (quoted in Y. Bonnefoy, op. cit., p. 385).
In sculptures of around 1960, such as the present head, Giacometti increasingly rooted this interpersonal experience in the intense gaze of his sitters and focused on creating lively yet not anatomically accurate eyes, utilizing art historical precedents from Egyptian, Hellenic, and Romanesque art. The artist wrote, "One has the desire to sculpt a living person, but there is no doubt that as far as the life within them is concerned, what makes them alive is le regard--the looking of the eyes. It is very important. If the look, that is to say life, becomes the essential concern, then it is the head that is of primary importance. The rest of the body is reduced to the role of antennae making life possible for the person--the life that exists in the cranium" (quoted in H. and M. Matter, op. cit., p. 194).
Tête de Diego
PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE AMERICAN COLLECTION
Signed, numbered and inscribed with foundry mark 'Alberto Giacometti 1/6 Susse FR PARIS' (on the back)
Alberto Giacometti , 20th Century, Sculptures, Statues & Figures, bronze, Switzerland, Modern, figures
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
Height: 15 5/8 in. (39.6 cm.)
The Alberto Giacometti Database, no. 530.
The New Gallery (E.V. Thaw), New York.
Ethel Steuer Epstein; sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 5 April 1967, lot 51.
Freida Kittay Goldsmith, Palm Beach (acquired at the above sale).
Private collection (by descent from above); sale, Christie's, New York, 6 November 2007, lot 75.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.