Alberto Giacometti is, both because of the nature of his work and because of his close friendship with the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, the artist most closely identified with the Existentialist movement. Part of his art-historical importance springs from his defence of figuration at a time when the advantage was with abstract art. He was born in October 1901 in Italian-speaking Switzerland and came from an artistic background -- his father, Giovanni, was a well known Post-Impressionist painter. Alberto was the eldest of four children and was always especially close to the brother nearest to him in age, Diego. From the beginning, he was interested in art:
As a child, what I most wanted to do was illustrate stories. The first drawing I remember was an illustration to a fairy-tale: Snow White in a tiny coffin, and the dwarfs.
He remembered his youth as being very happy; he also recalled his own arrogant self-confidence: 'I thought I could copy absolutely anything, and that I understood it better than anybody else.' This self-confidence began to waver in 1919:
Once in my father's studio, when I was eighteen or nineteen, I was drawing some pears which were on a table - at the usual still-life distance. But they kept getting smaller and smaller. I'd begin again, and they'd always go back to exactly the same size. My father got irritated and said: 'Now start doing them as they are, as you see them. And he corrected them to life-size. I tried to do them like that, but I couldn't help rubbing out; so I rubbed them out, and half an hour later my pears were exactly as small to the millimetre as the first ones.
His father allowed him a break from school in order to find himself, but instead of returning to school afterwards, Giacometti went to the School of Arts and Crafts in Geneva, where he studied with a member of Archipenko's circle.
In May 1920 he went to Venice for the Biennale, where his father was an exhibitor, and discovered Tintoretto, who inspired him with a kind of euphoria. But on the way back he visited Padua, where he discovered Giotto in the Arena Chapel: 'The frescoes of Giotto gave me a crushing blow in the chest. I was suddenly aimless and lost, I felt deep pain and great sorrow."
He made two more visits to Italy in quick succession. During the second one, an old Dutchman whom he had agreed to accompany, and whom he in fact scarcely knew, was suddenly taken ill and died. His death made a great impression on the young Giacometti -- he later said it was the reason why he had always lived provisionally, with as few possessions as possible:
Establishing yourself, furnishing a house, building up a comfortable existence, and having that menace hanging over your head all the time -- no, I prefer to live in hotels, cafés, just passing through.
In 1922 Giacometti went to Paris, to study under the sculptor Bourdelle at the Ecole de la Grande Chaumiére, and in 1925 he and his brother Diego set up an atelier together. In 1927 he had his first one-man exhibition, at a gallery in Zurich, and in the same year the brothers moved to the cramped studios in the rue Hippolyte-Maindron which they were to use for the rest of Alberto's life.
In 1928 he exhibited two sculptures at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher. These not only sold immediately, but brought Giacometti into contact with the Paris avant-garde: in particular, he met Masson and the circle surrounding him. In 1929 he signed a contract with Pierre Loeb, then the Surrealists' preferred dealer, and this was followed by an invitation to join the Surrealist Group. His first one-man show took place in 1932, and set a fashion for Surrealist objects with symbolic or erotic overtones. Much of Giacometti's art at this time was influenced by primitive sculpture seen at the Musée de l'Homme -- an influence which was to persist even after he changed direction as an artist.
Like many avant-garde artists of the time, Giacometti found himself in a dilemma. His clientele was a fashionable one, and in addition he supplemented his income by making decorative objects, in collaboration with his brother Diego, for the leading decorator Jean-Michel Frank; but he was keenly aware of the class struggle in France and sympathized with the underdogs. Louis Aragon, the member of the Surrealist Group with whom he felt the closest bond of sympathy, reacted to the same tensions by becoming a committed Communist. Giacometti moved in a different direction: he gradually separated himself from the Surrealists and returned (a great heresy) to working from the model -- he began with a series of portrait busts of Diego. Breton did not like this development and Giacometti was tricked into attending what turned out to be a Surrealist tribunal. Before the proceedings could be fully started, he said, 'Don't bother. I'm going,' and turned his back and walked out. There was no public excommunication, but his friends in the movement deserted him.
In the late 1930s his career was repeatedly interrupted -- first by an accident when a car ran over his foot, then by the outbreak of war. In 1941, in wartime Paris, he made very important new friendships, with the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. But as the Occupation tightened its grip, he moved to Switzerland, arriving in Geneva on the last day of 1941. He lived and worked in a small hotel room and supported himself by making furniture and doing interior decoration work passed on to him by his brother Bruno, who was an architect. While living in Geneva, he met Annette Arm, whom he later married.
An important development in Giacometti's work took place during the war years. In the period 1935-40 he had worked from the model, and had also made some paintings; he then began to make heads and standing figures from memory, but had an experience which paralleled his attempt in his late teens to draw the still life of pears in his father's studio:
To my terror the sculptures became smaller and smaller. Only when small were they like, and all the same these dimensions revolted me, and tirelessly I began again, only to end up, a few months later, at the same point.
When he packed up to leave Geneva, his total output while he was there fitted into half-a-dozen matchboxes. it was only when he returned to Paris after the war that he found himself able to make sculptures of more normal dimensions, but now they were tall and thin. He reoccupied his studio, which was still intact, and shortly afterwards he was rejoined by Annette. In January 1948 Giacometti's new work was exhibited at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York. The catalogue preface, written by Sartre, did much to propagate the idea that Giacometti's art was now one 'of existential reality'.
From this point his post-war reputation as a sculptor (the paintings were neglected until the late 1950s) grew rapidly. He held his first European one-man show of the new work at the Kunsthalle in Basle in 1950, and his first Paris exhibition since the war at the Galerie Maeght in 1951. The year 1956 saw a further development in his work -- he was now seized with a desire to produce paintings which were recognizable likenesses. Each portrait required many sittings -- the business of sitting for Giacometti has been described in a lively book by James Lord, who stresses the artist's half-humorous despair at his continual inability to catch precisely what he wanted.
Giacometti himself once said:
If I could make a sculpture or a painting (but I'm not sure I want to) in just the way I'd like to, they would have been made long since (but I am incapable of saying what I want). Oh, I see a marvellous and brilliant painting, but I didn't do it, nobody did it. I don't see my sculpture, I see blackness.
He was awarded the major prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale of 1962, and the award brought with it worldwide celebrity. He was philosophical about the penalties of fame:
I refused the intrusion of success and recognition as long as I could. But maybe the best way to obtain success is to run away from it. Anyway, since the Biennale it's been much harder to resist. I've refused a lot of exhibitions, but one can't go on refusing forever. That wouldn't make any sense.