Disintegrating to Permanence: On the Life and Art of Alberto Giacometti

Observer takes a deep dive into the Swiss sculptor's lasting appeal.

A man wearing a wool blazer works on a sculpture
Alberto Giacometti in his Parisian studio finishing a sculpture in 1950. Photo by Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images

During one three-year period of creative output, Alberto Giacometti was able to fit every piece that he had made into six matchboxes, which he then carried in his pocket. Many of his plaster figures became so small they disintegrated completely. In these and all his work, Giacometti was searching for what he called “likeness,” as if reduction would reach absolute reality. “…to my great terror, my statues started growing smaller. It was really a frightening catastrophe… They were getting so small that I could no longer manage to put in any detail.” Twenty years later, he declared, “All my statues ended up one centimeter high. One touch more and hop!—the statue vanishes.”

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The relationship to what was in and around his work was Giacometti’s magnetic north. He drew and painted with rapid lines, marking the relation of ear to nose, eyes to ears, head to window, window to table’s edge, table to floor. The face vanishes then reappears, is obliterated, reassembled, crumbles, disintegrates, is encased, then erased, and finally is left––sometimes because his sitter had to leave the country or the exhibition’s deadline had passed. One model said that Giacometti would “eat up sitters.”

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The spatial dynamic was critical to him; locating himself in space, as if to ground his mercurial, relentless nature of dissatisfaction. He sought to free himself from reflexive habits and to surprise himself. When he was 56, he said he was trying to “see better… to bite into reality… to discover new worlds… to be as free as possible.” The endless search to get to something utterly original, “rediscover that naïve contact with the world.”

Born in 1901 in a tiny village near Stampa, Switzerland, Giacometti’s early world was the surrounding mountains and forest, his beloved mother and his father, Giovanni, an excellent and demanding painter. His father would give his son an apple to paint and after no matter how many attempts, Alberto continually made the apple smaller and smaller, frustrating his father. His brother, Diego, was born in 1902 and eventually became Alberto’s constant companion, assistant in the studio and model—his rock.

Giacometti was a prolific copier throughout his life, starting as a young child copying masterpieces—an important education for any artist. “For many years I have known that copying is the best means for making me aware of what I see, the way it happens with my own work; I can know about the world out there, a head, a cup, or a landscape, only by copying it…You never copy the glass on the table; you copy the residue of the vision… it is always between being and nonbeing.” He felt that Paul Cezanne was the only artist able to copy nature. “His painting is nature.”

A oil pastel drawing of a woman done in shades of black and white
‘Black Annette,’ 1962, oil on canvas. Fondation Giacometti @ Succession Alberto Giacometti/Adagp, Paris 2024

Giacometti’s drawings map the head, body and surrounding space with crossing lines, getting the proportions and distances exact. He had an unusual conception of time and a prodigious memory that enabled him to perceive time in a non-linear way, as if released from the passage of time, with past, present and future merging. He moved easily and rapidly among materials––drawing, painting, sculpture and modeling in wet plastic and in clay. “The days pass and I delude myself. I am trapping, holding, what is fleeting.” He would often return to earlier works to modify them.

At age 21, he relocated to Paris to study sculpture, and four years later, moved into the studio at 46 Rue Hippolyte-Maindron where he would remain for the next forty years until his death. Through the years, the studio remained unheated and the roof leaked. Buckets, which also leaked, were scattered around. Plaster coated everything; walls, floor, shoes, clothes. When he was 30, he became a member of André Breton’s Surrealist group and four years later was expelled.

Giacometti had many friends that he’d join in the cafés: Derain, Cocteau, Genet, Beckett, the philosopher Sartre, de Beauvoir. Picasso and Matisse were early supporters. Giacometti saw Picasso often throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s and for a time they ate dinner every night at Café Lipp, frequented by artists and poets. In 1942, he met Annette Arm who later became his wife. She was his regular model along with Diego. Many excellent paintings and sculptures were of them both. In 1947, gallery owner Pierre Matisse put on Giacometti’s first solo show in New York. The rest, as they say, is history.

The influential art critic, Clement Greenberg, said that Giacometti’s work is “showy morbidness… archaic artiness.” That’s one way of looking at it. Another more current critic, the late Tom Lubbock, wrote, “…the tiny female figures standing bolt upright, arms clamped to their sides, stuck rigid onto disproportionately large rectangular bases. They’re nearer three centimeters high, and I wouldn’t call them revolting—powerfully magnetic, rather. They draw your gaze with their sheer elusive minuteness, like the Lord’s Prayer written on a grain of rice.”

A small statue of a woman standing on a much larger block of stone
‘Very Small Figurine,’ 1937-39, Plaster, 4.5x3x3.8 cm. Fondation Giacometti @ Succession Alberto Giacometti / Adagp, Paris, 2024

What makes an artist great and lasting? Personal taste, certainly, but there is something else that speaks to us through the ages. A voice that is indelible and unique, magnetic and powerful, certainly, but something else. There is a vulnerability, as with Giacometti’s drawings, paintings, and sculptures. A striving and never reaching. Giacometti’s sculptures are passages of time, the unstable equilibrium that we all feel. The thin bodies standing tightly erect as if they might fall over at any moment except that the artist gave them broad feet and bases. We can feel in them the artist at work. The figures grow and disintegrate as he slaps plaster onto the armature and then picks it off, shard after shard. He keeps searching for the likeness, the true reality, until there is barely anything left and then he casts the figure in bronze. A fragment of a being with a soul.

A semi-abstract statue of a tall slender man
‘Walking Man II,’ 1960, Bronze, 190×112.5×28 cm. Finn Brøndum, Fondation Giacometti @ Succession Alberto Giacometti / Adagp, Paris, 2024

Toward the end of his life, Giacometti had retrospectives in New York, London, Germany and Zurich. He was awarded the Grand Prix for sculpture and the National Prize for the Arts by the French Ministry of Culture. He was on magazine covers all over the world. And then he died of heart failure in 1966 at the relatively young age of 65.

Fast forward to 2014, when Chariot (one of six casts and only two that were painted) sold for $101 million at Sotheby’s, nearly breaking the sculptor’s $104.3 million record. That would happen the following year when L’homme au doigt (1947) was sold at auction by Christie’s for $141.3 million after a $130 million estimate. In 2021, the sculpture, Le Nez (1947) sold for $78.4 million, and Femme Leoni (1960), a bronze, sold for $28.5 million in 2023. Femme debou, a simple sketch the artist penned in blue ink on a page of Michel de M’uzan’s La Nouvelle Revue Francaise, sold at Christie’s for more than $40,000 that same year.

Clearly, Giacometti’s work lives on.

A statue of a man's face with a long neck and nose, hanging on a metal grid
‘The Nose,’ 1947, Plaster, painted metal and corde de coton, 82.5x37x71 cm. The Nose, 1947, Plaster, painted metal and corde de coton, 82.5x37x71 cm – Fondation Giacometti @ Succession Alberto Giacometti / Adagp, Paris, 2024

Disintegrating to Permanence: On the Life and Art of Alberto Giacometti