Figure grise (Tête en gris) is a portrait by Alberto Giacometti, painted in 1957, in which the figure of a man looms out of the smoky grey of the background. The man has been rendered with a sparing use of darting lines which capture the play of light on his shoulders, around his neck and on several spots on his face. It is the head, though, that is the true focus of this painting: it has been worked up out of a swirling matrix of light and dark lines, a fragile, almost architectural armature that coalesces to give the viewer the impression of the elusive threads of life, and of recognition.
Giacometti's favourite models were his wife Annette and his brother Diego. Indeed, Giacometti himself admitted that he had painted, drawn and sculpted Diego enough that his familiarity with his features had come to flavour all his male portraits. In his monograph on Giacometti, Yves Bonnefoy has explained that Figure grise (Tête en gris), like so many of the artist's male figures, shows Diego (Y. Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of His Work, trans. J. Stewart, Paris, 1991, pp. 426-32). Certainly, the features, and in particular the thick lips and circular, pronounced eye sockets relate closely to named depictions of Diego from this period. Diego was more than a model for Giacometti: he was a sculptor in his own right, an assistant in the studio, an accomplice of sorts, a vital collaborator in his brother's oeuvre, and, as a model, a necessary catalyst for Giacometti's explorations of human form and the human essence.
For Giacometti, the most important aspect of this essence lay in the human head. After all, it is in the face that we recognise people most, and Giacometti was fascinated by the triggers that prompted that recognition, the aspects of a person's appearance that were so essentially them that they could not be mistaken. It was in part because of his quest for a means of capturing this mysterious process that Giacometti used the same models again and again. It is also in the head that the brain resides, that repository of character, hence the artist's belief that, '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). In Figure grise (Tête en gris), Giacometti has focussed on the mass of lines that form the densely-worked head. Like the surface details in so many of his sculptures which were picked out with a sharp implement, this face has essentially been 'drawn' using other means, in this case oils. By contrast, he has discarded much of the visual information about the trunk of the sitter, which to him was so extraneous.
With this in mind, Giacometti has also avoided rendering any sense of architectural space in the background, in contrast to his portrait paintings from before 1953, when he often located the figure within the specific context of a room. Here, the scumbled background heightens the contrast with the visual activity of the head area, invoking the artist's knowledge of sculpture, of working in three dimensions. This is reinforced by the faint halo that he has granted the figure, which throws the head into bolder relief. Similarly, the frame-within-a-frame device that he has used appears to accentuate that idea of psychological distance that was so integral to Giacometti's sculptures and paintings, heightening the viewer's awareness of the space that divides us from our fellow humans. Giacometti deliberately depicted people as he saw them, as he felt them; it is for this reason that the head in Figure grise (Tête en gris) remains relatively diminutive within the expanse of the background, perfectly giving that sense that artist and sitter are unavoidably apart, and exploring the void between them. 'It is impossible to grasp a figure as a whole,' he said, further explaining in terms that perfectly apply to this painting: 'the form disintegrates, one is left with particles moving on from about on a deep black emptiness' (Giacometti, quoted in ibid., p. 374).
In a sense, the grey background in Figure grise (Tête en gris) is representative of Giacometti's own environment: because he was a sculptor as well as a painter, his studio had accrued a film of dust throughout it. When Françoise Gilot visited it with her then lover, Pablo Picasso, she said:
'I was struck by the degree to which the physical aspect of the place recalled Giacometti's painting. The wooden walls seemed impregnated with the colour of clay, almost to the point of being made out of clay. We were at the centre of a world completely created by Giacometti... There was never the slightest colour accent anywhere to interfere with the endless uniform grey that covered everything' (F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, Toronto and London, 1964, pp. 204-05).
In this context, the grey of Figure grise (Tête en gris) gains a new context. It is, then, surprising to find that Giacometti often began his paintings using bright colours as a background: these would then be subsumed by the grey with which the artist first sketched out the background and then gradually built up the head itself, usually sitting under four feet from his subject. Jacques Dupin, discussing this technique, said: 'Colour which gleams brightly to begin with is soon smothered under a greyness from which only its glow is diffused, like embers under ash' (Dupin, quoted in Bonnefoy, op. cit., 1991, p. 392).