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 Alberto Giacometti  (1901 - 1966)

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Lived/Active: Switzerland/France      Known for: surreal elongated figural sculpture, painting

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Ad Code: 1
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Art © 2012 Succession Alberto Giacometti
(Foundation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris)
ADAGP, Paris/VAGA and ARS, New York, NY
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Alberto Giacometti (October 10, 1901-January 11, 1966)

The son of Swiss impressionist painter Giovanni Giacometti, he was born in Stampa in the Bregaglia Valley.  He displayed a talent for painting and sculpture at an early age and with his father's guidance he made his earliest drawings, paintings and sculpture using his family for models.  By age ten he had progressed from a simple illustration of Snow White to a detailed copy of Rembrandt's Good Samaritan.  His first bust, made when he was just thirteen, was of his younger brother, Diego, who would become his lifelong assistant.

Alberto spent six months when he was eighteen as a student at the Ecole Des Arts et Metiers in Geneva.  He visited Venice with his father where he first experienced paintings by Tintoretto.  He stayed a short period in Italy, where he studied Byzantine Mosaics and Baroque architecture.  On the way home they visited a church in Padua filled with frescoes by Giotto where he had his first experience with an almost hallucinatory vision giving him a challenge to portray the world according to his own desires rather than the conventional ones.

He went to Paris in 1922 to study with Rodin's pupil Bourdelle and settled in the tiny Montparnasse studio where he worked the rest of his life.  He allied with the surrealists, until he wearied of creating what he called "these mental reconstructions."  He sought, through his sculpture, to probe for the essence of life, but was never satisfied with the search.  During this period he started the usual figures and busts at typical sizes and after several months of work the figures had shrunk to the size of a pin.  One of the great bohemians, Giacometti loved to haunt cafes until late at night.  His dingy studio, lit by a dusty studio window and bare light bulbs, heated by a potbellied stove, was strewn with cigarette butts.  He traveled little, except to Switzerland at Christmas and New Years.  He left Paris in December 1941 for Switzerland, but Diego stayed behind in Paris to take care of the studio.

Giacometti's extremely personal conception of space and figuration matured after the Second World War and he developed still further his elongated and isolated figures with a suggestion of existentialist tragedy, skeletal and emaciated groups which created their own spatial environment in a unique way.  Between 1940 and 1945 he produced works on a miniature scale which nevertheless created a symbolic impression of magnitude.

It was during the years in Geneva that he met Annette Arm.  She moved in with him and abided by his request that she not change the way he lived.  She became his model, his muse and after a few years, his wife.  He continued to make nocturnal visits to cafes and to use prostitutes for his models.  His personal life has been described (perhaps wrongly) as dealing with impotence, a foot fetish, and his being sexually comfortable only with prostitutes.  He went through a series of inconclusive romances to his ultimately hellish marriage in mid-life while carrying on an affair with Caroline who was a prostitute, extortionist and thief.

In December 1965 he departed for a hospital in Switzerland complaining of exhaustion.  A month later, in January 1966, he died of complications from heart disease. He was sixty-four years old.

Compiled and submitted August 2004 by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California

Sources include:
Jonathan Silver in Art News,March 1986 and Time Magazine 1966
The Oxford Companion to Art, edited by Harold Osborne
"Magnificent Obsession", article by Paul Trachtman in Smithsonian Magazine, November 2001
Review in LA Times by Christopher Knight, Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Biography from
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Alberto Giacometti was born son of the Neo-Impressionist painter Giovanni Giacometti in the Swiss town of Borgonovo on October 10, 1901. He began his art studies at the École des Beaux-Arts and the École des Arts Industriels in Geneva in 1919. Three years later he went to Paris, where he attended the sculpting class of Antoine Bourdelle at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière until 1925.

He started his first studio together with his brother in Paris in 1925. His sculpting style became more lavish and spacious, following the post-cubist sculptures of, for example, Jacques Lipchitz and Constantin Brancusi. As of 1925 he found inspiration in plastic art of primitive people, as can be observed on the torso from 1925.

He executed the Plates as of 1926 - flat figures in form of thin slices, for instance the work Femme-cuiller from 1926-27, with an almost smooth and even surface, he also uses gypsum and marble for these objects that call the attention of the Paris circle of surrealists. He joins them for some time, also showing works in their exhibitions, until they break up in 1934. During this period he makes a lot of surrealist plastics and also drawings.

In the second half of the 1930s Alberto Giacometti worked a lot on studies of heads. His figures got smaller and smaller in size, sometimes not bigger than just a few centimeters, but painting remained just as important means of artistic expression for him. He and his brother Diego earned a living by making designs for lamps and furniture for the Parisian interior architect Jean-Michel Frank.

Alberto Giacometti spent the war years from 1939 to 1945 in Geneva. After the war he retured to Paris where he started to create bronze objects that are thin and elongated, almost appearing as if they were without weight and inertia, their meager impression increased by the contrast with the rather compact bases that Giacometti places them on. Alberto Giacometti found his own unmistakable style, giving his figures a maximum in expression by reducing and making them dense.

The relation between figure and space became the central issue of his artistic work.

His first one-man show took place at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in 1948, in which he presented the skinny figures. The exhibition was a major success and marked his breakthrough.

The series of 150 lithographs titled "Paris sans fin" was made from 1958 to 1965. His oeuvre of paintings comprises numerous portraits of his brother, his wife and friends, but also still life, landscapes and studio pictures. Just as with his sculptures, the predominant theme of his paintings is the relation between the slim object and space.

Alberto Giacometti died in Chur on January 11, 1966.

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