"With space" Jean-Paul Sartre declared, "Giacometti has to make a man" ("The Search for the Absolute," Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1948, p. 3). This Grande tête mince is an especially imposing man, singular in his aspect: in perhaps no other sculpture did Giacometti render such an extreme and radically altered conception of the human visage. At more than two feet in height, in magisterial life-size, Grande tête mince is the largest of the busts that Giacometti executed during the 1950s; only the monumental Grande tête (fig. 1), modeled in 1960 as part of the sculpture group initially intended for the outdoor Chase Manhattan Plaza project in New York, is taller.
This sculpture has been variously known as Grande tête, Grande tête tranchante, Grande tête de Diego, and in the 1962 Venice Biennale and Zurich retrospectives, which Giacometti supervised, as Grande tête mince. The latter title allows for ambiguity in the identity of the model: the sculpture may be viewed as a likeness of Giacometti's brother Diego, or even a self-portrait.
This sculpture is the most important among a series of male heads and busts that Giacometti created during the mid-1950s (fig. 2), "which are as famous as they are beautiful," as Yves Bonnefoy has written. "These sculpted faces compel one to face them as if one were speaking to the person, meeting his eyes" (op. cit., p. 432). Here Giacometti has wrought this likeness of a man as if he had been carved on a craggy precipice; he is the anthropomorphosis of the rugged face of a mountain, "furrowed and scored with holes and chasms like the rocky walls of the Alps... It signifies matter as such, matter in its essential being. And so the bust became an idea almost as much as a presence: the idea of the triumph of being over nothingness" (ibid., p. 437).
By 1950 Giacometti felt that he had exhausted the possibilities inherent in the attenuated, stick-like figures that he made in his elongated, weightless style during the late 1940s. These works, already deemed iconic, made him famous in Europe and America, and indeed his eagerness to move beyond these sculptures also had much to do with casting off the stifling burden of their success and the expectations that they had fostered in the public eye. He now sought to reclaim a more realistic and concrete sense of space, without sacrificing the acute degree of expressivity that he had worked so long and hard to achieve. A renewed interest in painting, set in motion by his passion for drawing, proved to be the key in this next stage in his development. Just as he had done in 1935 when he gave up his surrealist and abstract manner, Giacometti once again committed himself to working in front of his model, his wife Annette or even more often his brother Diego. The intimate nature of these relationships did much to inspire the probing intensity of these new sculptures. Bonnefoy has written:
"It is already surprising enough to find an artist at the height of his powers, who in the space of three or four years had sculpted some of the major archetypes of modern art and was immediately recognized as such, practically abandoning this type of creation in order to devote himself to the portraits of a few individuals. But even more surprising and significant is the fact that during this final period, of almost fifteen years, the 'heads' studied were exclusively those of Diego, Annette, Annetta [the artist's mother], Caroline and a very few other persons, all close friends, which proves that Giacometti had indeed chosen the existence of individuals, the here and now as the chief object of his new and future study; and that he instinctively realized that this object transcended all artistic signs and representations, since it was no less than life itself" (ibid., p. 369).
Giacometti's purpose in re-engaging with a living, present model was not to describe a realistic resemblance of a conventional kind, instead he sought to create a palpable and convincing representation of the reality of being, as he perceived it in space. Christian Klemm has pointed out, "For Giacometti it was the essential presence of the human being, as it appears to the artist, that he sought to grasp--the ceaseless dialogue between seeing and the seen, eye and hand, in which form continually grows and dissolves" (Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001, p. 222).
The very first bust that Giacometti created, a plasticine sculpture done in 1914, depicts Diego. Because Diego was practically an ever-present and absolute constant in his life, it seemed natural and inevitable that he should become the sculptor's most frequent and important model. While most modern artists turned to a wife or lover for their chief inspiration, their woman-as-muse, Giacometti's artistic relationship with his primary model was decidedly masculine on both sides. The sculptor's confrontation with the model, in which he continually built up and broke down the plaster image he held in his hands, constituted in its most extreme circumstances an utterly heroic and seemingly futile endeavor. A strong, resilient male subject was the type best able to withstand the stresses brought to bear by the artist in his Sisyphean quest. "I shall never succeed in putting into a portrait all the power a head contains," Giacometti declared. "Just the fact that one is alive demands so much willpower and energy" (quoted in R. Hohl, ed., Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1998, p. 148). This was a struggle that found its most profound and powerful expression in the depiction of another man, and it was indeed fortunate that this man was his brother, someone who was as close as possible to being a virtual extension of artist himself. Bonnefoy observed, "They were born of the same mother, and Diego, like himself, was 'not of this world' in the ordinary sense. In the presence of someone who is, as it were, his double, Giacometti more than ever is witness to the mystery of existence, like Hamlet thinking of Yorick, in front of a skull in the dust" (op. cit., p. 432).
The various sculptures of men that Giacometti executed before during 1947-1950 stand full-length and are engaged in some sort of motion or activity. An intriguing reversal then ensued. With the notable exception of the larger than life-size Homme qui marche II, 1960, originally conceived for Chase Manhattan Plaza, Giacometti's male subjects after 1950 took the form of heads or busts, without a lower body and often shorn of their limbs, while he continued to model full-length standing women with all their limbs intact, such as the celebrated Femmes de Venise and Grandes femmes debouts. Giacometti's women remained whole, grandly static, and arrestingly physical and sensual in their presence. His men became equally immobile in their pose, but by focusing on the head and an armless upper body, and excluding the rest of the figure, the sculptor has emphasized a conception of man now given to thought, rather than action. Giacometti believed that the most important sign of life is awareness, which fosters a consciousness of the world and of other human beings, and that this faculty is manifest in one's gaze. He declared, "If the gaze, that is life, is the main thing, then the head becomes the main thing, without a doubt. The rest of the body is limited to functioning as antennae that make people's life possible--the life that is housed in the skull" (quoted in R. Hohl, ed., op. cit., 1998, p. 146).
Giacometti began his series of male busts in 1951 (fig. 3). In this process he personalized and brought into closer focus the abstract and existentialist anxiety which he had previously expressed in the anonymous attenuated figures, which were an expression of the distance between the seer and the seen. While Giacometti subjected Diego to varying degrees of distortion, the essential traits of his brother's identity are always present and recognizable: the powerful gaze of wide-open eyes, the prominent, slightly upturned nose, full lips, the tall forehead surmounted by a crest of hair. By obsessively concentrating on the particulars of a single individual, and exploring them from sculpture to sculpture, Giacometti created a universal man, who would become no less iconic than the figures of the late 1940s. Patrick Elliott wrote, "He chose Diego as his principal model partly because he was always there, but more particularly because his features were so familiar and his personality didn't get in the way: 'When he poses for me I don't recognize him' [Giacometti remarked]. One might say that that Diego was to Giacometti what the still-life was to Morandi or Mont-Saint-Victoire to Cézanne. Diego's features were etched on Giacometti's mind and his portraits of other sitters look strangely like Diego" (Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966, exh. cat., Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Art, 1996, p. 23).
Giacometti created two basic types of male busts. In one group Giacometti modeled the upper chest to serve as a massive base for a smallish but realistically rounded head, so that the mass of the head appears to diminish further into the space around it (fig. 2). Valerie Fletcher has analyzed the second group, to which the present sculpture belongs:
"When viewed from different vantage points, Large Head of Diego seems to be two distinct heads. From the front the head is narrow; the effect is like looking straight on at a knife edge. From the side the profile is full-bodied and dramatically silhouetted, completely contradicting the frontal view. This dichotomy contrasts the tangible and substantial (the solidity of the profile in this bust) versus the immaterial and indefinable (implied by the way the head seems to recede and almost disappear in the frontal view). The proportional forms of the Large Head of Diego also convey a subtle duality. The massive shoulders, with their horizontal bulk and downward curve, weigh the head down, yet the elongated head exerts an upward pull... This sculpture is also powerfully expressive in its execution, for Giacometti sliced through the forms with a modeling knife. In addition to supplying a focused intensity to the eyes, these cuts suggest ravaged flesh and imply violence" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1988 p. 180).
Bonnefoy has explained why Giacometti felt it necessary to cut away so much of the substance of the human visage: "This was the period when Giacometti was most strongly conscious of the fact that the inside of the plaster or clay mass which he modeled was something inert, undifferentiated, nocturnal, that it betrays the life he sought to represent, and that he must therefore strive to eliminate this purely spatial dimension by constricting the material to fit the most prominent characteristics of the face. This is exactly what he achieves with amazing vigour when, occasionally, he gave Diego's face a blade-like narrowness--drawing seems to have eliminated the plaster, the head has escaped from space..." (op. cit., pp. 432 and 436).
The essential continuity between the weightless figures of the late 1940s, and the heads, busts and figures of the 1950s--however more massive the latter may appear in comparison--is the degree to which Giacometti persisted in paring down the object of his gaze, thereby reducing the substance of the figure to its essential being. Jean Genet, who was Giacometti's favorite contemporary writer, keenly perceived and sympathized with the sculptor's most profound understanding of things, which had compelled him to take these drastic steps:
"It is Giacometti's work that makes our universe even more unendurable for me, so much has this artist seemingly managed to discard what stood in his way in order to discover what is left of man when false pretenses are removed... His entire oeuvre seems to me to be such a pursuit, bearing not only on man but on any object, even the most ordinary. And when he has succeeded in stripping the object or the chosen being of its utilitarian appearances, the image of it that he gives us is magnificent... [The] kinship manifested by his figures seems to be that precious point in which the human being is restored to what is most irreducible in him: his solitude in being exactly equivalent to any other... Giacometti's oeuvre communicates the knowledge of each being's and each thing's solitude, and the knowledge that this solitude is our surest glory" (E. White, ed., The Selected Writings of Jean Genet, New York, 1993, pp. 310, 314 and 316).
(fig. A) Giacometti with Diego and Annette, circa 1952. Photograph by Alexander Liberman.
(fig. 1) Giacometti modeling Grande Tête, 1960. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger.
(fig. 2) Standing women and heads of Diego, including Grande tête mince. Photograph by Patricia Matisse, courtesy The Pierre Matisse Gallery Archives, The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.
(fig. 3) Alberto Giacometti, Tête de Diego au col roulé, 1951. Photographed by Ernst Scheidegger.