Several variations of Giacometti’s busts of Diego in his studio
Impressionist & Modern Art

The Sculptural Achievements of Alberto Giacometti

By Ori Hashmonay
Alberto Giacometti sculpted countless iterations of the human form throughout his career, striving to illustrate the body’s spatial presence in a realistic manner. As evidenced by two examples from the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale (New York, May 14), Le Couple, from the Collection of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, and Diego (Buste au grand nez), from Standards of Excellence: The Blema and H. Arnold Steinberg Collection, Alberto’s sculptural style would evolve from totemic, Cubist idioms to an existential isolation perceivable in the elongated figures of his post-war period.

B orn in Switzerland, the prolific sculptor Giacometti relocated to Paris in 1922 – a period in which the Cubist style had overtaken the Parisian art scene. Already in 1909, the pioneering artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque had forged an early Cubist technique, widely known as analytic cubism – an artistic style that features subdued and monochromatic coloration on paper and canvas.

By the early 1920s, Giacometti would arrive to witness a transformed art world – an increasing number of artists (including Braque and Picasso) now experimented with abundant color and collage elements within the Cubist framework.

Alberto Giacometti in his studio at 46 Rue Hippolyte-Maindron, Paris, 1927.

Once settled in Paris, Giacometti began attending classes at the studio of Émile-Antoine Bourdelle, who was once a protegé of Auguste Rodin. In the studio, Giacometti studied the human figure, with a primary focus on sculpture. Giacometti found observing a live model limiting, so shortly thereafter the artist adopted a new technique – working from memory.

In a 1947 letter to New York dealer Pierre Matisse, Giacometti writes:

Since I wanted to realise a little of what I saw, I decided, in desperation, to work at home from memory…This resulted, after many efforts which touched on Cubism…in objects which were for me as close as I could get to my vision of reality.
as quoted in Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966 (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh & Kunsthalle, Vienna, 1996, p. 12.

Alberto Giacometti, Le Couple (Homme et femme). Estimate 900,000–1,500,000.

His vision of reality would include non-classical sources as well, such as African and Oceanic art, art forms that had influenced generations of Cubists in years past. The powerful sculpture Le Couple was created in 1926 – a striking construction of a standing male and female figure – influenced by a desire to visually reduce the human figure to its rawest form.

Alberto Giacometti, Diego (Buste au grand nez), Estimate 3,500,000–4,500,000.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the artist would focus on creating busts, using his younger brother Diego, who was also an artist, as his model. Diego (Buste au grand nez) is one such example, part of Giacometti’s celebrated series.

Eli Lotar, Diego and Alberto Giacometti in the studio, ca. 1964.

Throughout their professional lives, the Giacometti brothers had an intensely close relationship. A large portion of Diego’s career was devoted to assisting his older brother with sculpting and casting bronzes. Giacometti relied heavily on his brother's expertise and recognized him as indispensable in the production of his innovatory sculptures.

Discussing the pieces executed during this period, the French poet and art historian Yves Bonnefoy writes:

...he gave Diego's face a blade-like narrowness—drawing seems to have eliminated the plaster, the head has escaped from space—and demands therefore that the spectator stand in front of the sculpture as he did himself, disregarding the back and sides of his model and as bound to a face-to-face relationship. As Giacometti once said, 'There is no difference between painting and sculpture.' Since 1945, he added, 'I have been practicing them both indifferently, each helping me to do the other. In fact, both of them are drawing, and drawing has helped me to see.
Y. Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti, A Biography of His Work, Paris, 1991, pp. 432-36.

René Burri, Alberto Giacometti working on a sculpture of his brother Diego, 1960.

With Diego (Buste au grand nez), Giacometti moves towards a more meditative practice, revealing his continual fascination with perspective. Despite being a stark contrast to Giacometti’s earlier forms, such as Le Couple, both sculptures encapsulate an overarching theme that dominated the artist’s oeuvre – the quest to capture the essence of the human figure.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's