This painting is sold with a certificate from the Comité Giacometti and will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti.
Painted in 1951, Buste d'homme dates from the Post-War period which saw Giacometti return to Paris and to painting. For two decades, he had shunned his palette and brushes, but now returned to the medium with renewed enthusiasm, creating paintings that appear to echo in oils the idiosyncratic style that had come to dominate his sculptures. Like those sculptures, the figure of the man in Buste d'homme appears to be coalescing before our eyes, taking tenacious form through the web-like accumulation of thin brushstrokes. And like those sculptures, there is a sense of the spectral, of the diminished-- but where in his sculptures, the forms representing the human figure were pared back to the absolute essence, in the paintings, they seem to be coagulating before us, gradually taking form through the mesh of oils. With its lone figure-- Giacometti would largely forego group subjects from this point onward-- shown emerging from the mysterious dark background, this painting perfectly captures the existential mood of the time, a mood in which the artist, as a friend of philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, was thoroughly immersed.
For Giacometti, an artist who was prone to revelations and revelatory hallucinations even earlier in his career, the sudden new discovery of a visual idiom that occurred in the Post-War period was ascribed in part to a form of epiphany experienced at a cinema:
'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... It was, if you like, a kind of continual marvelling at whatever was there... That day reality was completely revalued for me; it became the unknown, but at the same time a marvellous unknown' (Giacometti, quoted in M. Peppiatt, Alberto Giacometti in Postwar Paris, exh.cat., New Haven & London, 2001, p. 7).
Buste d'homme is a product of this 'continual marvelling'. Indeed, it appears to have been constructed by an artist who is working hard to perceive, let alone to translate, that which he can see. The above revelation, then, was one of the factors that resulted in the deeply existential atmosphere of his paintings, as exemplified in the fact that the form of the body in Buste d'homme appears frail, small, drowned within its vast background and fragile, hinting at the precarious nature of existence itself. Giacometti, after his initial epiphany, could not see the world otherwise, and this new perspective pervaded all his paintings: 'it is impossible to grasp a figure as a whole... the form disintegrates, one is left with particles moving on from about on a deep black emptiness' (Giacometti, quoted in Y. Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of His Work, translated by J. Stewart, Paris, 1991, p. 374).
The fact that Giacometti has depicted the figure in Buste d'homme as small within the scale of the canvas itself is itself a result of the artist's own belief in painting what he could see. In terms of scale, he emphasised, in both his pictures and his sculpture, the distance between the viewer and the person being viewed. Where some portraits by other artists appear almost to burst from their frames and into the world of the viewer, Giacometti underscores the essential distance that lies between individuals. At the same time, in his desire to capture his sitter, Giacometti has focussed on the head in particular, on the eyes of the subject, which themselves are directed appraisingly towards the painter and, by extension, to us as viewers. Giacometti's interest was in this area in particular, and he considered the body to be superfluous, without character or much interest: 'The head is what matters. The rest of the body plays the part of antennae making life possible for people and life itself is inside the skull' (Giacometti, quoted in ibid., p. 377).