Tête noire (Diego) belongs to a celebrated series of Alberto Giacometti's painted portraits of his younger brother, who was the primary model for the artist's numerous variations on the theme of head and bust oils and sculptures executed in the 1950s and 1960s. Throughout their professional lives, the Giacometti brothers (fig. 1) had an intensely close relationship. Diego devoted the major part of his own artistic career to assisting Alberto with his sculpture and supervising the casting of his bronzes. By the early 1950s, Alberto had gained considerable critical recognition in Paris and had amassed a broad clientele, while Diego had just begun to design the bronze furniture which would finally make him famous in his own right. Well aware of his younger brother's talent, Alberto encouraged Diego to pursue his own career. Nevertheless, Alberto relied heavily upon his brother's expertise and recognised him as indispensable in the production of the numerous innovative sculptures that had secured Alberto a contract with the Galerie Maeght in 1950.
Tête noire (Diego) is a dramatic and haunting portrait, influenced by the post-war Existentialist movement and Giacometti's own reworking of themes from his Surrealist past. Like an apparition in the darkness, the bust of a man emerges through a haze of grey and white paint. The title of the work refers to the overall tonality of the panting, and in particular to the dark shadow enveloping the figure, that creates a provocative, ghostly atmosphere. The juxtaposition of the slender head and the broad, voluminous bust, is reminiscent of Giacometti's bronzes executed around this time (fig. 2). The picture captures a particular sentiment that the artist once expressed in a Surrealist prose poem: 'The human face is as strange to me as a countenance, which, the more one looks at it, the more it closes itself off and escapes by the steps of unknown stairways' (quoted in Alberto Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden & San Francisco, Museum of Art, 1988-89, p. 37).
Valerie Fletcher has commented on the use of the framing device seen in Tête noire and in many of Giacometti's paintings of this period: 'Giacometti's fascination with distorted space partially accounts for the frames he painted or drew around nearly all his images. He had begun this practice as early as 1917-18, but after 1946 it became almost standard. Recalling the Renaissance definition of a painting as a window on the world, this framing device opens up and encloses an imaginary three-dimensional reality. By isolating the figure in a remote and uncertain environment, Giacometti marks off the figure's space as distinct from our reality. When asked why he used these framing outlines, he replied: "Because I do not determine the true space of the figure until after it is finished. And with the vague intention of reducing the canvas, I try to fictionalize my painting... And also because my figures need a sort of no man's land"' (V. Fletcher in ibid., pp. 47-48).
This painting was executed during the artist's mature period, when his work was impacted by his interactions with the prominent intellectuals of post-war Paris. Most notable among them was the Existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre, whom Giacometti had met in 1939. After the war, the two men engaged in long discussions about the philosophical dilemmas of existence in the modern world. Along with Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus, Giacometti incorporated these existentialist concerns into his art. Valerie Fletcher described the extent to which these philosophical underpinnings transformed Giacometti's creative vision during these years:
'Giacometti did not evolve his postwar figurative art with the deliberate intention of creating an Existentialist art; his motivations were personal, instinctive, and aesthetic. Nonetheless Existentialist interpretations of Giacometti's art, although somewhat facile, are substantiated by the artworks themselves, especially those from 1946-52. A number of sculptures and paintings depict figures whose frail proportions and solitary stance within a large, often desolate space connote the essential isolation of the individual. In addition to such iconographic connections with Existentialism, Giacometti's art involved a profound philosophical investigation of the nature of the self. For Sartre and Giacometti, being is neither defined nor fully revealed by its apparent manifestations, it transcends description' (ibid., p. 35). Therefore, in portraying his brother, Giacometti was not interested in creating a physical likeness, but used the composition as a whole to evoke a certain sentiment, resulting here in a powerful and poignant image.
Fig. 1, Diego and Alberto Giacometti, circa 1960. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger
Fig. 2, Alberto Giacometti, Buste de Diego, 1954, bronze, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris
Fig. 3, Giacometti in his studio. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger
Oil on canvas
Paris, Galerie Maeght, Giacometti, 1951, no. 8 (titled Diego II)
Basel, Kunsthalle, Giacometti, 1966, no. 108 (titled Portrait de Diego)
Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Fondation Maeght, Alberto Giacometti, 1978, no. 140 (titled Portrait de Diego)
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Alberto Giacometti: sculptures, huiles, dessins, 1990, no. 43, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Alberto Giacometti, 1990-91, no. 278, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Alberto Giacometti: sculptures, peintures, dessins, 1991-92, no. 211, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Homage to Francis Bacon, 1992, no. 26, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Ingelheim am Rhein, Altes Rathaus, Paris – die 50er Jahre – Kunst und Kultur, 1994, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Munich, Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Alberto Giacometti, 1997, no. 67, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Mannheim Städtische Kunsthalle, Menschenbilder: Figur in Zeiten der Abstraktion (1945-1955), 1998-99, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Zurich, Art Focus Galerie, Alberto Giacometti, 1999, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
81 by 65cm. 31 7/8 by 25 5/8 in.
Jacques Dupin, Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 1962, illustrated p. 107 (titled Tête)
Galerie Maeght, Paris
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Brook Street Gallery, London
D. Coleman, USA (acquired from the above)
Galerie Beyeler, Basel
Ivor Braka, London
Acquired from the above by the previous owner