Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)
Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)

Tête d'homme

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)
Tête d'homme
signed 'Alberto Giacometti' (lower right)
oil on canvas
9 ½ x 6 ¼in. (24.2 x 15.3cm.)
Painted circa 1951
Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris.
Dominique Lapierre, Paris.
Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris.
Waddington Galleries, London.
Acquired from the above by Jeremy Lancaster, 7 April 1998.
The Alberto Giacometti Database, no. 547.

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Lot Essay

‘What I tried to say about Diego was that I am sure it is one of the many portraits of him. That circumflex eyebrow of his, which is often very clearly depicted, is present here deeply buried in the paint’
David Sylvester
(Letter to Leslie Waddington, 1 April 1998)

‘Giacometti wants to paint what he sees just as he sees it. He wants the figures at the heart of their original vacuum on the motionless canvas forever to fluctuate between continuity and the discontinuity… He is not vague; he manages rather to suggest through the lack of precision of perception the absolute precision of being’
Jean-Paul Sartre
(J.P. Sartre, ‘The Paintings of Giacometti’, 1954, in Alberto Giacometti: The Origin of Space, exh. cat., Wolfsburg, 2010, p. 242)

‘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’
Alberto Giacometti
(Giacometti, quoted in H. and M. Matter, Alberto Giacometti Photographed by Herbert Matter, New York, 1987, p. 211).

‘In the paintings, space is like a heavy liquid that is seen no less than the mass at the heart of it is seen, and is hardly less tangible’
David Sylvester,
(D. Sylvester, quoted in Schneider 83 – from ‘The Residue of a Vision’ in Alberto Giacometti: Sculpture, paintings, Drawings 1913-65, exh. cat., London, 1965, n.p.)

Emerging from a mist of grey paint, the spectral vision of a male head appears in Alberto Giacometti’s arresting Tête d’homme, painted circa 1951. Formed from a web of dynamic, instinctively rendered lines, the figure’s gaze bores out of the picture plane with a power that belies the small scale of the painting; the eyes – the central component of Giacometti’s work at this time – appearing as deep hollows that captivate and compel the viewer. This painting dates from a pivotal and productive moment in Giacometti’s career. At the beginning of the 1950s, Giacometti felt that he had taken the attenuated, extended figures that he had begun at the end of the previous decade as far as he could. Seeking a more realistic conception of space and mass, he returned to life and to the study of the model, which resulted in a resurgence of paintings and drawings, as well as sculpture, as portraiture came to the fore.

It has been suggested that the identity of the sitter in Tête d’homme is Diego Giacometti, the artist’s younger brother. It was David Sylvester who noted the resemblance of the figure to Diego. In a letter he wrote to Leslie Waddington, from whom Jeremy Lancaster acquired the painting, he wrote, ‘What I tried to say about Diego was that I am sure it is one of the many portraits of him. That circumflex eyebrow of his, which is often very clearly depicted, is present here deeply buried in the paint’ (D. Sylvester, letter to Leslie Waddington, 1 April 1998).

Diego was Giacometti’s most important and enduring model. The subject of Alberto’s very first sculpture and his greatest confidant and constant companion, Diego became for Giacometti more than simply a model whose physiognomy he translated into visual form. His appearance and presence were 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’ (Y. Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of his Work, trans. J. Stewart, Paris, 1991, p. 432).

Giacometti’s artistic aim in both his sculpture and painting was essentially the same: to explore the relationship of a figure within space. As a result, the figures in the artist’s two-dimensional work are imbued with the same powerful physical presence as his sculptures, depicted with myriad layers of paint and line built up on the surface of the canvas. In the present work, the figure is surrounded by a halo of dense grey paint out of which it appears simultaneously to emerge and dissolve. ‘Forms and space “bleed” into each other’, Valerie Fletcher has written about paintings such as the present work, ‘denying to some extent the subject’s autonomy, solidity and permanence while simultaneously endowing “empty” space with an almost tangible presence. When the subjects of his paintings have a startling immediacy yet also remain elusive and ephemeral, Giacometti had achieved a successful pictorial equivalent for his perception of reality’ (V.J. Fletcher, ‘Giacometti’s Paintings’, Alberto Giacometti, 1901-1966, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London 1996, p. 29).

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