Giacometti painted this Homme debout in 1950, during a period in which he executed a series of large portraits depicting his wife Annette and his mother in Stampa, and his brother Diego in his Paris studio (fig. 1). In the delineation of the surrounding space and details of their environments these portraits are among the most elaborate canvases that the artist ever painted. Giacometti did not describe as intricate a spatial environment in this Homme debout, which he painted in a smaller format, but otherwise this painting shares characteristic aspects of the painter's technique, which are more plainly exposed because there is less background detail to distract the eye. This painting is actually more closely aligned than the large portraits with the effects that Giacometti was creating in his sculptures during this time, those extraordinary attenuated figures of walking men and standing women, who appear to contend with the vast emptiness of space that surrounds them.
One important point of comparison with these portraits, and most other canvases that Giacometti painted, is the presence of the frame that the artist drew in black paint around the standing man, which sits well within the edges of the canvas and its wooden support. Valerie J. Fletcher has described the addition and purpose of this pictorial device:
"Giacometti usually painted a linear frame around the subject of each painting, after the motif was established, to determine the final proportion of the figure to its environment. By painting a frame around the figure he controlled the effect of what might be termed 'being in space.' The framing device separates the illusion of pictorial space-in-depth from the reality of the canvas' flat surface, as if to acknowledge the Renaissance definition of painting as a 'window' into an imaginary place. The framing device creates a subliminal tension between illusion and reality, or rather between Giacometti's reality and the canvas reality. Moreover, depending on the relative sizes of the figure, frame and canvas, the artist could define the 'distance' of the painted motif from the viewer" (in The Studio of Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2007, pp. 187-188).
It was through the persistent practice of drawing, mainly from memory, that Giacometti began to elongate the figures he was modeling in plaster during the years immediately following the end of the Second World War. His paintings are essentially drawings rendered with brushes and oil colors on canvas. He normally worked with an array of sable brushes at hand, in a variety of sizes ranging from those with broad tips to others with very fine points. The figure in Homme debout appears to coalesce from a dense filigree of linear brushstrokes which both construct and model its presence on the canvas. The lines seem to follow the path of the eye as it visualizes the subject, thereby defining it in paint; its more salient aspects have received repeated working from the brush, and have been further heightened with whitish paint. The build-up of paint on the surface of the canvas calls attention to Giacometti's use of paint as matière, as a substance with a physical presence in its own right, like the plaster or clay with which he modeled his sculptures. One can detect in this standing man a black plumb-line running through his torso and forward-reaching right leg, which steadies the figure, like the wire armature that Giacometti used inside his plaster and clay sculptures.
The contours in Homme debout are broken and discontinuous. No limb is whole; parts of the man's body appear to bleed into the surrounding space. Giacometti employs only a few lines to suggest the enclosed space in which the figure stands-- there are traces of many more, but these the painter has scrubbed out and painted over with broad strokes of the brush. A Giacometti painting is, in the end, the sum of countless such tentative actions, an unrelenting accretion and layering of pentimenti that ceased only when the painter decided he could proceed no further. Fletcher has observed, "a painting by Giacometti functions not as a static statement of being but as a perpetually renewed action" (in Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, Edinburgh, 1996, p. 29). The space surrounding the figure--the foreground into which he advances his foot, and the more distant wall at his back--receives summary treatment with a wider brush. There is no question that Giacometti was a "natural" as a painter; the variety and energy in his brushwork is as delectable to behold as that of any modern master.
Giacometti was, however, no colorist. He did not aspire to become one, and he had good reasons for not dressing up the palette in his pictures. In conversations with Gotthard Jedlicka in 1953 and 1958, the artist explained:
"People say I paint only with gray. 'Paint with colors,' my colleagues advise me Already as a boy I got to know the colors on my father's palette and in his paintings; I already understood the primary colors. And when I was young I painted with those colors, too. Isn't gray a color, too? When I see everything in gray and in this gray all the colors I experience and thus want to reproduce, then why should I use any color? I've tried it, because I never intended to paint only with gray and white or with any one single color at all. I have as often put just as many colors on my palette as my colleagues when starting in to work; I've tried to paint like them. But as I was working I had to eliminate one color after another, no--one color after the other dropped out, and what remained? Gray! Gray! Gray! My experience is that the color I feel, that I see, that I want to reproduce--you understand?--means life itself to me; and that I totally destroy it when I deliberately put another color instead. A red that I put violently into the picture damages it simply because it forces a gray out, a gray that belongs here, at exactly that spot" (quoted in R. Hohl, Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1998, pp. 159-160).
Giacometti's paintings, and indeed this Homme debout, are very much a picture of the place--that is, the nature of the space--in which he worked (fig. 2). The reddish setting seen in the Stampa portraits reflects the tone of the wood paneling and rugs in the artist's family home. His cramped and dusty studio at 46, rue Hippolyte-Maindron in Paris had a very different appearance. When Alexander Liberman, the New York artist and publisher of Vogue, visited Giacometti's studio in 1955, he reported that "The walls are gray, the sculptures gray and white, interspersed with the sepia accent of wood or the dull glint of bronze In the dark corners of the room, the long, narrow life-size figures seem like apparitions from another planet" (in The Artist and His Studio, New York, 1960, p. 277).
Giacometti was far more interested in creating a spatial context in his paintings that conformed to his acute perception of reality, and his understanding of the human presence within it, than he was in the other more sensuous aspects of the world that attract most painters. He told Carlton Lake in 1964: "It's not a matter of choice with me. If [the painting] comes out black, that's not because I want to make it black. I try to do it with other colors, but I can't put on color if I don't have a framework. And to construct that framework is already such a job, there's no end to it And to go from there to color is something which seems almost impossible for me. I don't know how it's done. I just don't see it" (quoted in R. Hohl, op. cit., p.160).
There are numerous precedents for the grayness in Giacometti's painting: the grisaille studies of J.A.D. Ingres, as well as the pre-Impressionist portraits of Edouard Manet, with their neutral-toned, undefined backgrounds (fig. 3), which also prefigure Giacometti's treatment of the figure in space. And in turn, Giacometti's insistence on restraining the inherent expressivity of color in deference to other ends appears to have resonated with at least one other important painter of the late 20th century, Jasper Johns, who was then only starting out, and throughout his career continued to employ monochrome grayness as an essential element in his work (fig. 4). James Rondeau has postulated that Johns was familiar with Giacometti's gray paintings, which he could have seen in shows at the Pierre Matisse and Sidney Janis galleries during the 1950s, and in an important show that included twenty such works that took place at Galerie Maeght in 1961 while Johns was in Paris (see Jasper Johns: Gray, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2008, pp. 41-42).
There is an understandable tendency to read into Giacometti's gray paintings a view of the world that is willfully austere, even desolate and bleak. This characterization of his work may be difficult to deny, but it is hardly the full picture. David Sylvester has observed: "The greatness of Giacometti's art is that it is tentative but not vague. What his art does is to convey precisely why our sensations of reality cannot be conveyed precisely Fluidity of vision is reconciled with a crystalline clarity of structure. A precise tentativeness in recording facts is warmed by an intoxicating breath of the sublime The air is alive. Solid bodies of uncanny lightness are locked into a space charged with a buoyant, exhilarated, numinous energy and filled with light" (in Looking at Giacometti, New York, 1994, pp. 16 and 121).
(fig. 1) Alberto Giacometti, Diego assise, 1949. Tate, London. BARCODE 26019376
(fig. 2) Alberto Giacometti painting in his studio. BARCODE 26019574
(fig. 3) Edouard Manet, Portrait de Théodore Duret, 1868. Le Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. BARCODE 25013023
(fig. 4) Jasper Johns, Winter, 1986. Private collection. BARCODE 25013054