'In the street 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 in unbelievable complexity'
‘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’
‘To me, Giacometti’s art seems to wish to discover the secret wound of any being and even that of anything, in order to illuminate them’
‘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’
Conceived in 1948, a period that saw artist reach the height of his creative powers, Trois hommes qui marchent (Grand plateau) is among the earliest of Alberto Giacometti's famous multi-figure works, showing three walking men, positioned as if fleetingly passing each other on a street. This seminal period saw the emergence of a new sculptural species that has come to define not only Giacometti’s own career, but in many ways, post-war sculpture as a whole. Like figures from a lost age, in 1947, a tribe of thin, elongated human figures began to populate Giacometti’s small, ramshackle studio in Paris, their turbulent, trembling surfaces bearing every moment of their creation from the artist’s fingers, a visual encapsulation of man’s emergence from the horrors wrought by the Second World War. Part of an extraordinary surge of productivity in preparation for the artist’s first solo show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York in 1948, this group of sculptures includes what have come to be regarded as some of the masterpieces of Giacometti’s career, including L’homme qui marche, L’homme au doight, Le nez as well as the present work.
It is perhaps the figure of the striding man, at once an anonymous part of the mass of society and at the same time, an isolated and highly unique individual, that has come to be the most recognised motif of the artist’s career. Rendered mid-stride, these men are seen to have a distinct purpose and direction, at once determined and purposeful. Indeed, the renown of the walking man has been heightened thanks to its resemblance to Giacometti himself, who often wandered around Paris' streets, a 20th Century flâneur observing life and meditating on the human condition.
In Trois hommes qui marchent (Grand plateau), the three figures are weaving their way past each other, connected yet isolated: the perfect embodiment of city life and the human condition during the post-war years during which the spirit of Existentialism reigned supreme in the intellectual realm of the city. 'In the street people astound and interest me more than any sculpture or painting’, Giacometti once explained. ‘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 in unbelievable complexity' (Giacometti, quoted in R. Hohl, 'Form and Vision: The Work of Alberto Giacometti', in Alberto Giacometti: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., New York, 1974, p. 31).
‘We walk in the street with our eyes closed’, Jacques Dupin has written of Giacometti’s figures, explaining how they capture the experience of modern life in the metropolis. ‘We see only through the deforming prism of contracted habits, of a blinding knowledge: we see those passers-by 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 passers-by 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 attenuation 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' (J. Dupin, Giacometti: Three Essays, New York, 2003, pp. 53-54).
The scale and complexity of the composition of Trois hommes qui marchent (Grand plateau) was paradoxically conceived from a series of tiny, individually rendered sculptures of only around two centimetres high. Having returned to figuration at the beginning of the 1930s, from around 1937 Giacometti had begun to mould small figures mounted on large bases. These works had been inspired by a nocturnal vision that he had seen while walking the streets of Paris at night. He caught sight of his lover and muse of the time, the British beauty and artist’s model, Isabel Nicholas, in the distance, and as he described, ‘the sculpture I wanted to make of this woman was exactly the vision I had had of her when I saw her in the street, some way off. So I tended to make her the size that she seemed at this distance… I saw the immense blackness of the houses above her, so to convey my impression I should have made a painting not a sculpture. Or else I should have made a vast base so that the whole thing should correspond to my vision’ (Giacometti, quoted in Y. Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of his Work, transl. J. Stewart, Paris, 1991, p. 272). Captivated by this memory, he became obsessed with recording the vision as he had seen it, rendering the sense of space that had existed between him and the subject. This fidelity to reality quickly became the abiding aim of Giacometti’s practice.
Yet, in his desire to remain faithful to his initial vision, Giacometti was unable to enlarge the figure itself. Living in exile in Geneva during the Occupation of Paris, he worked obsessively with these tiny figures, continuously modelling them so that they became smaller and smaller before regressing back into the lump of clay from which they had grown. Deeply frustrated, he was finally able to return to Paris in September 1945; all that he had produced during his three-year exile could fit into six small matchboxes.
On his return, Giacometti sensed that he was on the right track, yet did not know how to move forward with his figurative experiments. He promised himself that he would not let his plaster figures decrease any further in size. It was a few months later, on a trip to a cinema in Montparnasse that Giacometti had the revelation he needed to progress, or as he described it in later years, the ‘shock which upset my whole conception of space and set me definitely travelling along my present path’ (Giacometti, quoted in ibid., p. 298). Sitting in the cinema, he suddenly became acutely aware of the difference between the images conveyed in black and white on the screen and those experienced in real life. When he emerged from the darkened theatre out into the busy light filled boulevard, he saw reality with new eyes, the juxtaposition between reality and artifice made starkly apparent. Giacometti later described this revelatory moment:
'It happened after the war, around 1945, I think. Until then... there was no split between the way I saw the outside world and the way I saw what was going on on the screen. One was a continuation of the other. Until the day when there was a real split: instead of seeing a person on the screen, I saw vague blobs moving. I looked at the people around me and as a result I saw them as I had never seen them... I remember very clearly coming out on to the Boulevard du Montparnasse and seeing the Boulevard as I had never seen it before. Everything was different: depth, objects, colours and the silence... Everything seemed different to me and completely new’ (Giacometti, quoted in M. Peppiatt, Alberto Giacometti in Postwar Paris, exh. cat., New Haven & London, 2001, p. 7).
This experience irrevocably altered Giacometti’s sculptural practice: no longer seeking to model an image that corresponded to a memory, he became fixated upon the reproduction of the reality that he could observe in front of him. This was not a mimetic, naturalistic reproduction of reality, but instead a portrayal or a distillation of human presence. ‘What is important is to create an object capable of conveying a sensation as close as possible to the one felt at the sight of the subject’, he explained (Giacometti, quoted in J. Lord, Giacometti: A Biography, London, 1986, p. 279). In his practice, Giacometti relinquished any preconceived knowledge of the human form and attempted to tackle representation as though for the first time, relying uniquely on his sense of perception, rather than on traditional convention or academic techniques. His figures soared vertically; enlarged and drastically elongated, the clay stretched, modelled and manipulated to its farthest limit as he reduced the human form to its barest components.
Trois hommes qui marchent (Grand plateau) stands at the genesis of this new discovery. Both the active, dynamic poses of the three male figures, and the rivulets, mounds and indents of their forms suggest a potent life force, as if energy is twitching just below the surface. Here, man is reduced to the barest necessity, with humanity therefore appearing all the more poignant and exposed. It was no coincidence that when Giacometti had an exhibition in 1948, around the time that Trois hommes qui marchent (Grand plateau) was created, the foreword to the catalogue was written by Jean-Paul Sartre. These elongated, attenuated men show their upward thrust, yet are filled with a sense of fragility that only heightens their existential credentials. As the artist himself said, 'I always have the impression or the feeling of the frailty of living beings, as if at any moment it took a fantastic energy for them to remain standing, always threatened by collapse. And it is in their frailty that my sculptures are likenesses' (Giacometti, quoted in ibid., p. 178).
With Trois hommes qui marchent (Grand plateau) Giacometti took the discovery of his new form of figurative sculpture a step further by creating compositions made up of numerous figures. His multi-figure compositions such as this and La place, which features four figures, introduced a sense of interaction and dialogue between the people depicted, creating novel interrelationships within a single work. The idea of placing these figures together may in part have been suggested by Giacometti's small studio, where all the sculptures were massed together; certainly, his later sculpture La clairière, with male and female figures of different scales, was the result of a chance arrangement of his sculptures on the floor there. These groups of sculptures also tapped into Giacometti's interest in human relationships – perhaps made keener by his own relationship with Annette Arm, whom he would marry in 1949.
As Yves Bonnefoy has written: ‘The novelty in these two sculptures, which even L’homme qui marche did not foretell, resides in the suddenly crystallised impression for the observer that he is at the theatre, 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... L’homme qui marche revealed something, spoke of self-assertion, of being, but met no other beings: this figure bore no relation to other figures. And now in La Place, in Trois hommes qui marchent, 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 passers by in these two sculptures’ (Y. Bonnefoy, op. cit., pp. 331-332).
The dynamic, kinetic poses of the three male figures of the present work encapsulate the binary difference that exists in Giacometti’s presentation of male and female figures. In Giacometti’s work, man is always active and moving – pointing or striding purposefully forwards – while women appear static, hieratic and frozen. Giacometti himself explained, ‘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’ (Giacometti, quoted in R. Hohl, Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1998, p. 135).