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Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)
The James and Marilynn Alsdorf Collection
Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)

Portrait de Diego

Details
Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)
Portrait de Diego
signed and dated ‘Alberto Giacometti 1953-54’ (lower left) 
oil on canvas
18 1/8 x 13 in. (46 x 33 cm.)
Painted in 1953-1954
Provenance
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the late owners, 3 November 1956.
Literature
The Alberto Giacometti Database, no. 4133.
Exhibited
The Arts Club of Chicago, Surrealism: Then and Now, October 1958, no. 23 (illustrated).
New York, The Museum of Modern Art; The Art Institute of Chicago; Los Angeles County Museum of Art and San Francisco Museum of Art, Alberto Giacometti, June 1965-April 1966, p. 117, no. 89.

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Max Carter
Max Carter

Lot Essay

The thick accumulation of pigment on the canvas of this Portrait de Diego attests to the numerous sessions that Alberto Giacometti devoted during 1953-1954 to this intensely realized depiction of his brother, his preferred male subject, “the presence of someone who is, as it were, his double,” as Yves Bonnefoy wrote (Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 2012, p. 432). During this time the artist also modeled in plaster and cast in bronze some of his most handsome, characterful heads of Diego, d’après nature, as he subtitled one of them. In 1954 Giacometti completed the painting Diego en chemise écossaise, widely regarded as the most impressive portrait that he created of his brother; sold at Christie’s New York, 5 November 2013 lot 9, when it achieved the still record sum at auction for any painting by the artist.
The present Portrait de Diego represents a precious component in Giacometti’s production during this significant period—paintings in smaller formats that embody, record, and demonstrate the day-by-day efforts of this incomparably conscientious and self-demanding artist at work. In pictures of this kind, Giacometti most clearly reveals his method—intuitive, probing, improvisational, and exploratory—as he pitted the skill of his technique against the vision of the likeness, that sense of a replete, palpable presence, which he perceived in his mind’s eye and pursued as his essential, abiding goal.
“The visionary quality that Giacometti wanted to convey is not of the fleeting impression,” Christian Klemm has written. “Rather, it was the essential presence of the human being, as it appears to the artist, that he sought to grasp… And this he wanted to capture as a momentary experience, as in an epiphany: ‘to create [Giacometti declared] a complete whole all at once’” (Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001, p. 222). This outcome, the artist would eventually and freely concede, was impossible to achieve. “From the mid-1950s on,” David Sylvester observed, “the paintings and sculptures alike became increasingly expressive of the difficulties in making them” (Looking at Giacometti, New York, 1994, p. 82).
Giacometti, like Cézanne, was unflinching and unforgiving in his self-critical assessment of anything he had just done; indeed, Giacometti could not help expressing his displeasure—as his sitters have told us—while the very act of creation was still in progress. This artist would rarely admit to any sense of self-validation. He took hope only in what he might save—that is, spare from destruction—of the day’s travail, and the next morning, begin all over again, an ordeal he knew he must suffer, like Sisyphus, in perpetuity.
The serious admirer of Giacometti’s oeuvre may discover in this Portrait de Diego a revelatory experience of this private, existential drama. A painting of this kind is perhaps the only means left to the viewer today to enter into the complex, doubt-driven, and often anguished thinking of Giacometti’s creative genius. “His procedure turns into a stubborn, furious pursuit of a prey which escapes him or a shadow which he rejects,” Jacques Dupin wrote. “The closer he comes to the truth of the object, the more he deepens the gulf which separates him from it, the more he feels and communicates the acute feelings of his difference and separation” (Giacometti: Three Essays, New York, 2003, p. 11).
Giacometti typically began a painting by drawing with his brush and thinned black paint a frame around the perimeter of the canvas, a device that directs the viewer’s gaze into the indefinite, vaporous, yet resonant emptiness of space in which the portrait head and bust materializes, becomes manifest, and we “behold the man.” The artist often rooted his subject in the lower right quarter, with space rising like smoke around and above it; the bottom edge of Portrait de Diego is correspondingly most heavily encrusted with clotted pigment, the detritus of pentimenti left behind from repeated forays in fugitive figuration, of which only the outer, final skin remains visible. The scored and scoured terrain of the painted canvas resembles in places the magma-like textures of the artist’s sculptures. This weighty, corporeal effect is akin to the dense build-up of matière that Jean Fautrier incorporated into his famous wartime “hostage” paintings, the stressed surfaces on Dubuffet’s Corps de dame canvases, or in the work of other exponents of Art informel.
The emerging head is ostensibly silhouetted against a luminous void, but its contours—like those in a Cézanne drawing—appear frayed and discontiguous. Beyond this ambiguous meeting of figure and ground the substance of form dissolves, as if transfigured into an aura that is absorbed into the surrounding space. In this Portrait de Diego, Giacometti reminds us that our perception of the phenomenon of presence is simultaneously substantial and illusory; the image he gives us is only a tenuous, uncertain simulacrum of the reality that he wished to represent “all at once.” This head of Diego is but a linked chain of moments, piled one atop the other, which Giacometti must keep painting to keep the experience alive and real. A final filigree of thread-thin white highlights lends the head the glint in its eyes, creating the gaze to which the viewer will connect. This is the moment to which Giacometti must accede—the work is done, and he will desist.
“How does he succeed?” Jean-Paul Sartre asked. “By refusing to be more precise than perception. He is not vague; he manages to suggest through the lack of precision of perception the absolute precision of being… Then Giacometti will know that through his paintings he has given birth to a real emotion and that his likenesses, without ever ceasing to be illusory, were invested with true powers. If he does not succeed, no one can. In any case, no one can surpass him” (“The Paintings of Giacometti” in Alberto Giacometti: The Origin of Space, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, 2010, pp. 242 and 243).

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