Conceived circa 1949 and cast in 1965, this powerful bust-length sculpture appears to take as its subject Alberto Giacometti’s most important and enduring model, his younger brother, Diego. A sculptor and designer, Diego lived with Alberto in his ramshackle rue Hippolyte-Maindron studio in Paris, a constant companion, confidant, and at times a crucial collaborator in his brother’s artistic process. The subject of the artist’s first ever sculpture, Diego was largely responsible for the bronze casting of Alberto’s plasters and would famously enter the studio each morning while his brother slept to make a mold of the previous night’s work before the sculptor woke the next day and felt the compulsion to destroy it. As a result of their closeness and kinship, Diego’s appearance and presence became so ingrained into the artist’s psyche that he became an intrinsic part of his vision, and more than this, an extension of himself. As Giacometti described, Diego was, ‘the one I know best,’ or as Yves Bonnefoy has written, ‘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’ (Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of his Work, trans. J. Stewart, Paris, 1991, p. 432).
The great adventure is to see something unknown appear every day in the same face”
At the beginning of the 1950s, Giacometti began to move from the elongated and attenuated full-length figures that had emerged and subsequently defined his sculpture from 1947 onwards, and reembrace working from life. He returned to realistic observation and the study of the model, using the same vigorous technique of modelling to ensure that he lost none of the visceral sense of expression that defines his full-length figures. As a result, those closest to him, Diego particularly, as well as his wife Annette, became the abiding subjects of his work, appearing both in sculpted portraits such as the present Tête au long cou, as well as in paintings. ‘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 realised that this object transcended all artistic signs and representations, since it was no less than life itself’ (Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 2012, p. 369).
Although working from a live model, Giacometti was not seeking to translate any form of physiognomic exactitude in his sculpture. Instead, he sought not only to create a psychological interpretation of the model who sat in front of him, but also to capture the experience of regarding a figure within space. ‘I have often felt in front of living beings, above all in front of human heads,’ he explained, ‘the sense of a space-atmosphere which immediately surrounds these beings, penetrates them, is already the being itself; the exact limits, the dimensions of this being become indefinable. An arm is as vast as the Milky Way, and this phrase has nothing mystical about it’ (quoted in D. Sylvester, Looking at Giacometti, London, 1994, p. 34).
This concept of rendering not only the physical presence of the sitter, but the negative space that surrounded them fascinated Giacometti. Indeed, these portrait busts exemplify one of the defining preoccupations of the artist: the difference between a figure’s profile and their frontal appearance. He is reported to have said that, ‘when a person appeals to us or fascinates us we don’t walk all around him. What impresses us about his appearance requires a certain distance’ (quoted in R. Hohl, Alberto Giacometti, New York, 1972, pp. 274-275). Seen face on, Tête au long cou appears to almost disappear, the head so narrow it seems to slice blade-like through the space in which it exists. Yet, by contrast, when regarded from the side, the silhouetted profile of Diego appears inherently material, the undulating, textured surface and expansive plane of the sitter’s head and neck lending this piece an incontrovertible physicality and powerful presence. As such, this work encapsulates Giacometti’s desire to unite the two different experiences of looking at and interacting with the human head. ‘If I look at you from the front,’ he told David Sylvester, ‘I forget the profile. If I look at you in profile, I forget the front view’ (quoted in op. cit., 1994, p. 42).
I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m only interested in heads now and there’s nothing harder than doing a head”
‘These sculpted faces compel one to face them as if one were speaking to the person, meeting his eyes and thereby understanding the compression,’ Yves Bonnefoy has described. ‘This was the period when Giacometti was most strongly conscious of the fact that the inside of the plaster or clay mass which he modelled 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 – and demands therefore that the spectator stand in front of the sculpture as he did himself, disregarding the back and sides of his model and as bound to a face-to-face relationship as in the case of work at an easel’ (op. cit., 1991, pp. 432 and 436).
Lot Essay Header Image: Giacometti at his studio. Photograph by Rene Burri. Photo: © Rene Burri/Magnum Photos. Artwork: © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris), licensed in the UK by ACS and DACS, London 2021.