Conceived circa 1955, Tête de Diego sur socle is one of a series of a half-dozen heads and busts of Alberto Giacometti’s most important and enduring model, his brother Diego. With its dramatic, blade-like construction, this work presents the artist’s most radical development in his sculpture since the visionary, attenuated, and weightless figures he had created during the late 1940s. The centerpiece of this series is the Grande tête mince, 1954, in life-size and more than two feet in height (65 cm.), the largest head that Giacometti produced during that decade.
If I look at you face-to-face, I forget your profile. If I look at your profile, I forget the face. Everything becomes discontinuous. It comes down to this: I am never able to grasp the whole…The human being is complex. And in this measure, I am unable to apprehend it. This mystery continually deepens…”
Like Grande tête mince, when viewed from the front and the side, the present Tête de Diego sur socle startles the viewer with an apparently inexplicable contradiction—frontally, the visage Giacometti has represented is thin (“mince”), yet still incorporating the essential features of eyes, nose, and mouth by which we may recognize the subject, who is clearly Diego. As if shaved down at the sides, this slender presence of the head appears to have been subjected to the same corrosive stresses of surrounding space, feeding on the very substance of the body, that shaped Giacometti’s standing figures into elongated, wraith-like apparitions from an alternate reality. The profiles, right and left, of Diego’s head, despite their plaque-like flatness, manifest more normal proportions. The head resulting from this unprecedented contrast of front and profile, combined into a single representation, has been likened to the shape of a spade.
David Sylvester has described Giacometti’s “slicing heads” as, “a series that could be said to sum up his contribution to the art of sculpture… In the best of these works, in which Giacometti does not give himself anything like the volume of a head to play with, he somehow models the profiles of a head which is physically no more than a wedge, so that his head implies the entire volume of a head and the entire presence of a frontal view. I do not think he ever again made a sculpture reaching the level of those pieces, for he never again attained the perfect balance between likeness and structural coherence” (Looking at Giacometti, New York, 1994, pp. 115-116).
At the beginning of the 1950s, Giacometti began to move from the “visionary” elongated and attenuated full-length figures that had emerged and subsequently defined his sculpture from 1947 onwards, and reembrace working from life. He now sought to reclaim a more concrete sense of the human presence in space, returning to realistic observation and the study of the model. As a result, those closest to him, Diego particularly, as well as his wife Annette, became the abiding subjects of his work. “Giacometti had indeed chosen the existence of individuals, the here and now as the chief object of his new and future study,” Yves Bonnefoy explained. “He instinctively realized that this object transcended all artistic signs and representations, since it was no less than life itself” (Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 2012, p. 369).
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”
The various sculptures that Giacometti created of men during the late 1940s stand full-length and are engaged in some sort of active movement. After 1950, his male subjects instead took the shape of heads or busts; his full-figure subjects were henceforth exclusively female. By focusing on the head and an armless upper torso, and excluding the rest of the figure, the sculptor emphasized a conception of a universal man, in the roles of seeing and thinking. The most important sign of life, Giacometti believed, is awareness, a consciousness of the world, perceived through the faculty of one's gaze. “If the gaze, that is life, is the main thing,” he declared, “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., Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1998, p. 146).
To understand, conceive, and translate into sculpture the head as a totality, however, posed a dichotomy in one’s perception of it. “If I look at you face-to-face,” Giacometti explained to Andre Parinaud in 1962, “I forget your profile. If I look at your profile, I forget the face. Everything becomes discontinuous. It comes down to this: I am never able to grasp the whole…The human being is complex. And in this measure, I am unable to apprehend it. This mystery continually deepens…” (trans. L. Abouhamad, from Alberto Giacometti: Écrits, Paris, 1990, p. 271).
The plaster of the present sculpture is located at the Kunstmuseum, Bern.
Lot Essay Header Image: Alberto Giacometti in his studio, Paris, 1957. Photo: Robert DOISNEAU/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images. Artwork: © 2021 Alberto Giacometti Estate / Licensed by VAGA and ARS, New York.