"To me," Giacometti once stated, "sculpture is not an object of beauty but a way for me to try to understand a bit better what I see in a given head, to understand a bit better what appeals to me about it and what I admire in it" (reprinted in Alberto Giacometti, The Origin of Space (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 73). By the 1950s, Giacometti shifted his attention from the spindly, elongated figures of his post-war years, like Homme qui chavire, and turned to figural sculptures that were more naturalistic in scale (see fig. 1). Most of these works were heads and half-length busts, completed between 1951 and 1957 and often executed from memory. For the most part, these sculptures were solid, designed without a base and executed with the matière à pétrie, or kneaded method, that heightened the expressiveness of the figure. The artist relied on an intensely hands-on process for this sculpture to create the indentations and the folds of Diego's jacket and in the sharp bridge of his nose. "Each of these nebulous undergoing perceptual metamorphosis seems like Giacometti's very life transcribed in another language," Jean-Paul Sartre wrote when observing the artist at work on his sculptures in his studio (reprinted in ibid., p. 233).
“These sculpted faces compel one to face them as if one were speaking to the person," Yves Bonnefoy has written, "meeting his eyes and thereby understanding better the compression, the narrowing that Giacometti imposed on the chin or the nose or the general shape of the skull. This was the period when Giacometti was most strongly conscious of the fact that the inside of the plaster or clay mass which he modeled was something inert, undifferentiated, nocturnal, that it betrays the life he sought to represent, and that he must therefore strive to eliminate this purely spatial dimension by constricting the material to fit the most prominent characteristics of the face. This is exactly what he achieves with amazing vigor when, occasionally, 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 in the case of work at an easel. 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, op. cit., pp. 432-36).
Giacometti's choice of his brother Diego as the subject of this significant sculpture was based on his comfort and familiarity with his model. "He's sat for me thousands of times," Giacometti said. "When's he's sitting there, I don't recognize him. I like to get him to sit, so as to see what I see" (reprinted in Alberto Giacometti, The Origin of Space (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 140). Like the hauntingly beautiful paintings of his brother which Giacometti executed at the same time, Buste d'homme (Diego au blouson) demonstrates the artist's fascination with the emotive power of the sitter's face (see fig. 2).
After the Second World War, Diego assumed the role of collaborator, creating the armatures for Alberto’s sculpture and supervising the casting of the bronzes; he was a crucial presence in his brother’s daily life, the man he knew best, muse and avatar. Laurie Wilson notes in her writing on sculptures such as Buste d'homme (Diego au blouson), which she called Giacometti’s knife-blade portraits: “Though listed as portraits of Diego, they are not modeled after him…. The unusual profile of these works is characterized by a protruding chin and a shock of bush hair which is recognizably Alberto’s” (quoted in Alberto Giacometti: Myth, Magic, and the Man (exhibition catalogue), Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 2005, p. 290).
The present sculpture is the artist's most ambitious experiment in representation of this most expressive part of the body and results in a work of art that captures the multiple incarnations of the model in one single form. Viewed from different vantage points, the present sculpture can be seen as two distinct heads: the side profile is much more articulated and full-bodied than the elongated, nearly intangible frontal view. This duality calls to mind the bust portrait of Nefertiti that had fascinated Giacometti throughout his career, and here he has achieved that similarly disconcerting perceptual effect (see fig. 3).
When viewed frontally, the figure’s head in Buste d'homme (Diego au blouson) is reduced to a narrow oval in which one just manages to recognize the critical facial features. "Tapering to a point, the head cuts through space like a wedge and forms a scarcely distinct linear entity with the neck, ending in the funnel-like aperture of the polo-neck pullover... Seen from the side, it is the other way around. The head becomes flat, gaining profile, so that the mass and shape of the upper body are now subjected to its dominant effect" (Alberto Giacometti, The Origin of Space (exhibition catalogue), Kunstmuseum, Wolfsburg & Museum der Moderne Mönchsberg, Salzburg, 2010-11, p. 140).
Patrick Elliot has written about the stunning visual effect of Grande tête mince, a directly related bronze conceived a year after the present work (see fig. 4): “In conversations, Giacometti observed enormous differences between a side view and a frontal view of an object, as if the two were completely separate things that could not possibly be rendered in a single sculpture. Giacometti normally represented figures as very frontal forms, and is reported to have said that : ‘when a person appeals to us or fascinates us we don't walk all around him. What impresses us about his appearance requires a certain distance.’ The present sculpture is a remarkable instance of Giacometti's attempt to unite two very different views in a single work” (Alberto Giacometti, 1901-1966 (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 172).
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