In 1961 Pierre Schneider interviewed Giacometti for Paris L'Express. He published their conversations under the apt title "Ma longue march" ("My long walk"). Giacometti stated: "It occurred to me that I can never make a woman in any other way than motionless, and a man always striding; when I model a woman, then motionless; a man, always walking" (quoted in R. Hohl, Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1998, p. 135). To offset the fact that his work in the confines of his small studio was all-consuming and solitary, Giacometti enjoyed being outdoors and in the street--he was an inveterate walker (fig. 1). He walked long and far each day, and it was in this way that he engaged the world at large and moved within it. It was in the world--the street, not the stuido --where Giacometti experienced the key revelatory moments that transformed and guided his art.
Giacometti created a powerful man who gestures authoritatively with his raised arm, and points out what is to be done (fig. 2). He also made a less fortunate man who appears to stagger and fall (fig. 3). Mostly, however, Giacometti's men walk with a distinctive, determined and purposeful stride (fig. 4). His homme qui marche is no casual or leisurely stroller; instead he always appears to have a destination in mind, and knows there is limited time in which to get there. His gait is not easy, fluent or natural. His legs are always ramrod stiff and straight, his knees do not bend--it is as if he were walking on stilts. Perhaps Giacometti was thinking of the time he spent on crutches following an accident in 1938, when he was hit by a car in a Paris square and his right foot was crushed. He used a cane for years afterward, and walked with a limp.
Giacometti took precedents from Egyptian sculpture and Rodin's own L'homme qui marche, perhaps even from memories of marching soldiers or harried refugees he saw in wartime newsreels. The walker's front foot is always planted firmly on the ground, with his weight placed forward, as he pushes off from the ball of his rear foot. He leans forward as if he were plunging into a strong headwind, straining at an unyielding harness, or pressing forward under some inexorable burden. He does not allow his arms to swing back and forth freely at his sides, but instead they both curve forward in expectation, as if he is prepared to grasp or receive something, or to greet someone. He is a modern-day Sisyphus pushing an invisible stone. He maintains this peculiar stride at all times, in all weather, whether he walking in the sun (fig. 4) or rain (fig. 5). He is, of course, not merely walking. This activity is that and more--the Giacometti walking man is the quintessential Everyman, making his way through life.
These are the stories that a single Giacometti homme qui marche may tell us. Place three figures of this kind in close proximity, as seen here, or four--as in the two versions of Place ("City Square"), 1948, which also includes a standing woman (fig. 6)--and the dynamic of human motion instantly unfolds into further dimensions, both spatially and emotionally. This propinquity of figures spins out a spiraling network of relationships with astonishing exponential multiplicity. The happenstantial meeting of three men here is Giacometti's way of summoning together the proverbial "three is a crowd." There is no single superior vantage point from which one may hang back and study one of Giacometti's multi-figure groupings. Get up close, at eye-level, to this sculpture of three walking men, and allow your gaze to wander among the figures. The permutations of form that stem from this simple triad of armed-sized stick figures are virtually inexhaustible. There are four sides to this sculpture's platform, with many more points of the compass all around and in between, each of which offers a different view of the mysterious interaction between these three men.
Giacometti modeled two versions of Trois hommes qui marchent in 1948; the present sculpture is the first version. While both measure the same height, the platform here is wider than in the second version (fig. 7) by nearly four inches (approximately 10 cm.) on each side. The larger size of the base reflects the fact that in the first version the men stand further apart than in the second; indeed, in the latter, from certain vantage points, the grouping of the three men creates the illusion that they are in very close proximity. The bronze editions of both versions incorporate a cubic plinth which raises up the sculpture as if it were a public monument, dedicated not to any particular luminary, but to those ordinary passersby who daily travel the streets of the city. The base also serves to isolate the sculpture from any supporting flat surface, like the interior frame that Giacometti painted around the figures in his canvases. Other casts from this bronze edition of Trois hommes qui marchent I are located in the Alberto Giacometti Stiftung, Zurich; The Museum of Modern Art, New York (no. 5/6); and the Fondation Maeght, Vence.
The overall scale and inter-related complexity of the figures in this sculpture are a far cry from the miniscule figures and heads that Giacometti brought back with him from Geneva when he returned to Paris in September 1945, following the end of the Second World War. He is said to have carried the sum of his surviving wartime production in several matchboxes that easily fit into the pockets of his overcoat. He realized that he had come to a sterile end with these "pin people." Giacometti declared, "In 1945 I swore to myself that I didn't want to let my figures get smaller and smaller, not even by an inch. But now the following happened: I could maintain the height, but they started to get narrow, narrow tall and thin as a thread" (quoted in ibid., p. 108).
The accelerating evolution in Giacometti's work during the years 1945-1948 stemmed from a sequence of hallucinatory revelations that the sculptor experienced as he reintegrated himself within the cosmopolitan life of Paris, as the city emerged from the deep sleep of the Occupation and amid continuing privations slowly came back to life during the years following the Liberation. His visions revealed the ways in which the private life of the mind contends with the public reality of the street. In December 1946 Giacometti published a visionary text in the art journal Labyrinthe which he titled Le rêve, Le Sphinx et la mort de T., referring to a favorite brothel that had just been closed down, and the death of a close friend. He wrote:
"I had begun to see heads in the void, in the space that surrounded them. The first time I saw a head I was looking at freeze, become fixed in that single instant forever. I trembled with terror as never before in my life, and cold sweat ran down my back. This was no longer a living head, but an object which I looked at as I would look at any other object; yet not quite, not like any other object, differently, like something that was dead and alive at the same time. I let out a cry of terror as if I had just crossed over a threshold, as if I had gone into a world that nobody had seen before. All the living were dead, and this vision came back often, in the metro, in the street, in restaurants or with friends. The waiter at the Brasserie Lipp who stood motionless, bending over me, his mouth open, with no connection to the previous moment of with the following moment, his mouth open, his eyes fixed and unwavering. And at the same time as people, objects underwent a transformation: tables, chairs, clothes, streets, even trees and landscapes" (M. Peppiatt, trans., in Giacometti and Postwar Paris, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 2001, pp. 31-32).
Giacometti had been drawing constantly in a new, non-naturalistic manner in which the figure appears to coalesce from a web of vigorous, matchstick-like strokes. Rendered in this way against the white void of the sheet, his figures became elongated. In statements culled from various interviews given during the 1960s, Giacometti recalled:
"Through drawing all that began to change a little. Not until 1946 and after was I able to perceive the distance which makes people appear real and not their natural size. My visual field widened. The true revelation, the great shock that destroyed my whole conception of space and finally put me on the track I'm on today came in 1945, in the newsreel theater 'Actualités Montparnasse.' I used to go to the movies quite often earlier. I went in, saw the film, left the theater, I was in the street again, in a café--it wasn't anything special, nothing really happened at all, I mean, there wasn't the slightest difference between what I saw outside in reality and what happened on the screen. The one was the continuation of the other. Until the day they separated: instead of seeing a person on the screen I saw--influenced by the drawings I was doing at the time--unfocused black spots that moved. I looked at my neighbors--and suddenly I saw them as I had never seen them before. Not what was happening on the screen was new, but the people who were sitting next to me. On that day--I still remember exactly how I walked out into the Boulevard Montparnasse--I saw the boulevard as I had never seen it before. Everything was different, the spatial depth and the things, and the colors and the silence for silence played a role in it too--the film I had seen was a sound film. Everything appeared different to me and completely new. Boulevard Montparnasse was dipped in the beauty of the Thousand and One Nights, fabulous, absolutely strange. Now I was eager to see more. I was, if you will, in a sort of perpetual enchantment of everything. On that day reality was revaluated for me completely; it became unknown for me, but an enchanted unknown. From that day on, because I had realized the difference between my way of seeing in the street and the way photography and films see things, I wanted to represent what I saw" (quoted in R. Hohl,op. cit., pp. 111 and 114).
During 1946-1947 Giacometti fully realized his visionary, weightless approach to sculpture. He was creating astonishing figures in attenuated vertical forms, ranging in height from only a few inches to nearly life-size. Rather than fleshing out the armature, the plaster seemed to shrink around it, as if it were clinging to it for dear life. These figures were utterly unprecedented, unless one went back to the most primitive works of the ancient man. Giacometti had made it his challenge and task to reinvent the very idea of sculpture.
Pierre Matisse was at this time the only dealer who was closely following and supporting Giacometti's work since his return to Paris. He realized it was high time to give the artist a solo show, his first in almost fifteen years. This would take place in New York, which henceforth became the leading venue in the genesis and expansion of Giacometti's post-war reputation. The exhibition of twenty-nine sculptures (both early and recent), two paintings and two drawings at the Pierre Matisse Gallery which opened in January 1948 was a major event. It proved to be a commercial success, and was the talk of the art world. If critical reception initially seemed hesitant, it was only because it would take time to mull over this approachable but nonetheless daunting body of work, which called into play--in a way New York had not yet experienced--many of the complex and anxious issues that comprised the post-war zeitgeist in Europe. Giacometti selected Jean-Paul Sartre, the leading writer and thinker of the Paris Existentialist set, to provide the introductory catalogue essay. Sartre rose to the occasion with "The Search for the Absolute," which sixty years on remains an essential, classic text on Giacometti and his work. Sartre wrote:
"With space Giacometti has to make a man; he has to write movement into the total immobility, unity into the infinite multiplicity, the absolute into the purely relative, the future into the eternally present, the chatter of signs into the obstinate silence of things. The passion of sculpture is to make oneself totally spatial, so that from the depth of space, the statue of a man may sally forth."
"But space, even if naked, is still superabundant. 'In space,' says Giacometti, 'there is too much.' This too much is pure and simple coexistence of parts in juxtaposition. Most sculptors let themselves be taken in by this; they confuse the flaccidness of extension with largesse, they put too much into their work, they delight in the fat curve of a marble hip, they spread out, thicken and expand the human gesture. Giacometti knows there is nothing redundant in a living man, because everything there is functional; he knows that space is a cancer on being, and eats everything; to sculpt, for him, is to take the fat off space; he compresses space, so as to drain off its exteriority. We know now what squeezer Giacometti used to compress space: there is only one: distance. He puts distance within reach of your hand, he thrusts before your eyes a distant woman--and she remains distant, even when you touch her with your fingertips" (in Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1948, pp. 3 and 6).
Although Giacometti felt bolstered by the adulation his work had received in New York, which brought him a good measure of celebrity in Paris as well, he was not about to rest on his laurels. Turning to figures in groups was the inevitable outgrowth of the single figures he had done of women and men, and a necessary step in avoiding undue repetition. The sculptor only needed to look around at the many plaster figures that crowded every tabletop and filled each corner in his cramped studio to visualize the potential inherent in multi-figure sculptures. Giacometti began to work on the two versions of City Square in 1948, and during this time he also modeled the two versions of Three Men Walking. Other important multi-figure groupings followed in 1949-1950, during the period, which James Lord called Giacometti's anni mirabili, leading up to Giacometti's second New York exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1950. These include La clairière and La forêt (fig. 8). Jacques Dupin has pointed out, "The movement of one figure leads almost inevitably to depicting the movements, conjugated or not, of several figures. An immobile figure surrounds itself with closed space. A figure in motion opens space and attracts other figures there, without however meeting them; in open space, solitude as plural" (in Giacometti: Three Essays, New York, 2003, p. 58).
Again the events in Giacometti's daily life, from his long walks on the streets of Paris, served as a catalyst. The sculptor described one such incident in conversations he held during the 1960s with Raoul-Jean Moulin and Pierre Schneider:
"Once I had to leave the Louvre, I couldn't take it anymore. Not because of the artworks, but because of the reality of all those faces I met and which snapped at me as they went by. In the street the people astound and interest me more than any sculpture or painting. Every second the people stream together and go apart, then they approach each other to get closer to one another. They unceasingly form and re-form living compositions of unbelievable complexity. The men walk past each other, they pass each other without looking. Or then they stalk a woman" (quoted in R. Hohl, op. cit., p. 135).
Giacometti's interest in depicting the coincidence of figures in an open public space looks back to several sculptures that he executed during the early 1930s, in which abstract elements share and interact within the area of the platform, such as Man, Woman, and Child, No More Play, Circuit, and especially Model for a Square. Giacometti had intended to enlarge the latter to a height of six feet for installation in a public space, where people might freely wander among it component elements. The narratives in these early works are abstractly symbolic and imaginary; the Place and Trois hommes qui marchent sculptures are, on the other hand, based on everyday life. Dupin has observed just how realistically Giacometti's figures recreate our daily experience of crossing paths with strangers on a city street:
"We walk in the street with our eyes closed. We see only through the deforming prism of contracted habits, of a blinding knowledge: we see those passersby only as we know they are. If I call this knowledge into doubt, if I purify my eye of all the mental correctives which dull and estrange it, everything changes. These same passersby issue from a wide lateral opening; the immense space which imprisons them makes them appear small, thin, nibbled by the void, almost undifferentiated and especially elongated, drawn out by the attentuation of their verticality... It is thus that the eye really sees and it is thus that Giacometti represents beings and things: in their distance, in their space, hence by depicting that space, by incorporating into his figures the distance which separates them from him" (op. cit., pp. 53-54).
Yves Bonnefoy was, like Dupin, another important French poet who was drawn to the manifold ambiguities and metaphorical inferences that were impossible to overlook in Giacometti's sculpture. He has noted that the Place and Trois hommes qui marchent sculptures "solve the problem of composition, and of conveying meaning, in an unexpected way." He wrote:
"The novelty in these two sculptures, which even Walking Man did not foretell, resides in the suddenly crystallized impression for the observer that he is at the theater, confronting a bare stage such as soon to become the fashion, and in the presence of characters, who although silent and impenetrable, are involved in a quest which is certainly intense and might even be tragic... Walking Man revealed something, spoke of self-assertion, of being, but met no other beings: this figure bore no relation to other figures. And now in Square, in Three Men Walking, such a relationship is unmistakably suggested. What happens between men, the connection with one another, proclaims itself as the theme of the work."
"The sculptor had come close in these unexpected compositions to what was then called 'existentialist' drama, which was concerned with the human condition at it most fundamental. But he did not learn it from the theatre of Jean-Paul Sartre, in whom thought, ideas, psychology, 'words' as Sartre himself said, predominated. He was more akin to his friend Beckett, whose constant preoccupation with absence and with instants of presence--real or dreamed--knew how to exist and maintain itself on the farther and boldest margin of language, amid the same mist which enshrouds the passersby in these two sculptures" (in Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of his Work, Paris, 1991, pp. 331 and 332).
Giacometti welcomed the perceptive attention of poets, playwrights and philosophers; he disliked, however, overly literary and purely intellectualized efforts to make his work appear representative of their ideas. He did not want his work to be viewed merely as models that reflected currently fashionable polemics about estrangement, irrationality and despair, and he refused to be held up as the avatar of the topical Existential mindset in modern sculpture and painting. This was a distraction from what really mattered; he wanted to make clear that it was more far important to understand the essential physicality of his sculptures, the fact that they connected with the art of the most distant past, and at the same time they were deeply embedded in our experience of modern life. Giacometti protested:
"While working I have never thought of the theme of solitude. I have absolutely no intention of being an artist of solitude. Moreover, I must add that as a citizen and a thinking being I believe that all life is the opposite of solitude, for life consists of a fabric of relations with others. There is so much talk about the malaise throughout the world and about existential anguish, as if it were something new. All people have felt that, and at all periods" (quoted in J. Lord, Giacometti: A Biography, New York, 1985, pp. 309-310).
(fig. 1) Alberto Giacometti in the rue d'Alésia, Paris, 1961. Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson. BARCODE 24408608
(fig. 2) Alberto Giacometti, L'homme au doight, 1947. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger. BARCODE 24408592
(fig. 3) Alberto Giacometti, L'homme qui chavire, 1947. Sold Christie's New York, 9 May 2007, lot 51. BARCODE 25605211
(fig. 4) Alberto Giacometti, L'homme traversant une place, 1950. Sold, Christie's New York, 7 May 2003, lot 25. BARCODE 24408547
(fig. 5) Alberto Giacometti, Homme qui marche sous la pluie, 1948. Sold, Christie's New York, 15 November 1988, lot 34. BARCODE 24409704
(fig. 6) Alberto Giacometti, Place II, 1948. Sold, Christie's New York, 6 May 2008, lot 32. BARCODE 25011999
(fig. 7) Alberto Giacometti, Trois homes qui marche II, 1948-1949. Sold Christie's New York, 14 May 1997, lot 12. BARCODE 24408561
(fig. 8) Alberto Giacometti, Le forêt, 1950. Sold, Christie's New York, 7 May 2002, lot 34. BARCODE 24408554