Giacometti left secondary school in Schiers in 1919 and then went to Geneva, where he attended art classes during the winter of 1919–20. After a time in Venice and Padua (May 1920), he went to Florence and Rome (fall 1920–summer 1921), where he encountered rich collections of Egyptian art. The stylized and fixed, yet striding, figures with their steady gazes proved to have a lasting impact on his art.
In June 1940, to escape the Nazi invasion, Giacometti and his brother Diego left Paris by bicycle and traveled to the south of France. They stayed there briefly and returned to Paris only to flee again in 1941 to Geneva, where they remained until 1946. During that tumultuous time, Giacometti arrived at matchstick-sized, coarsely textured sculptures of figures and heads that are so small that they appear far away in space. About 1947 he began to express his massless, weightless image of reality in a skeletal style, with figures thin as beanstalks. His new style projected an air of despair and loneliness. The frail scarred bodies he created reflected those of the survivors living in postwar Paris. Suddenly, Giacometti enjoyed a rapid rise to fame, especially in the United States, through two exhibitions (1948 and 1950) at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York City and an essay on his art by the French existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre, who described the artist and his work within the context of the existentialist worldview.
In his later years Giacometti’s works were shown in a number of large exhibitions throughout Europe. Riding a wave of international popularity, and despite his declining health, he traveled to the United States in 1965 for an exhibition of his works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As his last work he prepared the text for the book Paris sans fin, a sequence of 150 lithographs containing memories of all the places where he had lived.
Artworks by Giacometti at the 31° Venice Biennale in 1962, photographed by Paolo Monti
In the early 1930s Giacometti joined the Surrealist movement, progressively replacing “the real with the imaginary” in his work. It was not until 1934 that he once again made use of a model when creating his compositions, thus returning to the figure and the human head with a consequent break from Surrealism. To some extent this interest in “reflecting” the real isolated Giacometti from the art of his time and inexorably associated him with that of the past.
The exhibition opens in the gallery that displays Velázquez’s Las Meninas. The group of figures that comprises La Piazza – Tall Woman III, Tall Woman IV, Large Head and Walking Man – was initially conceived in 1958 as a project for a monumental sculpture in New York which Giacometti never executed. Now installed in the Prado, they continue still further the Baroque game of mirrors proposed by Velázquez.
Maclean notes that beyond the headline-making figures, Giacometti’s market has been on a steady rise over the past few decades. “If you take those three highest prices out of the mix, the sculptures generally sell around the $50 million mark. There has not been a huge move in those prices,” he says.
Given how closely the brothers collaborated with one another, it makes for “a different kind of posthumous,” says the dealer Nick Maclean. Years ago, Norman adds, “posthumous casts simply did not sell. But over the years, again with the sense that the market is seeking supply, posthumous casts were much more easily embraced.” He estimates that the price of a posthumous cast might run at perhaps 60 percent of the price of a lifetime cast though he notes that for a major subject the pricing gap tends to be wider.
This unique exhibition is focused on the art of Alberto Giacometti, renowned in the twentieth century for his sculpture, painting, drawing and design. The exhibition offers a rare opportunity to examine the breadth of his practice and to see Giacometti’s place among his contemporaries in Paris and London in the post-war period. Key themes for the exhibition include the artist’s historical sources of inspiration, his innovative approach to materials and processes, and his notable influence on British artists.
Organized by the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia in collaboration with the Vancouver Art Gallery