This Buste de Diego is one of two sculptures Giacometti modeled in clay of his brother while using his studio in the family home at Stampa during early 1964. Alberto, Diego and Bruno Giacometti had been attending to their 92-year-old mother during her final illness; she passed away on 25 January. Diego had the plaster models from the clay busts made in the nearby town of Chiavenna, across the border in Italy; the two sculptures have been thus distinguished with this venue in their title. The sculptor created two more heads of Diego the following year in his Paris studio. He brought the plasters of the latter with him when he crossed the Atlantic by liner to attend his 1965 retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, New York; as last-minute additions to the exhibition these busts consequently assumed the subtitles New York I and II.
These four heads, and the meditative, seated Diego–Homme à mi-corps–are the final works in which Alberto used Diego as his model. Together with two busts of his wife Annette he created in 1964, and three of the photographer Élie Lotar realized during 1965-1966, as well as paintings of Diego, Annette and Caroline, these sculptures of Diego constitute the final chapter in Giacometti's life's work. Conceived de profundis during the final two years that remained to him, these are Giacometti's late, great visionary works; in them he probed with searing intensity the very essence of life in its most extreme, existential state, as he stood at the threshold of eternity.
During 1959-60, Giacometti conceived the models for the four Grande femme debout figures, the two large Homme qui marche and the Grande tête, sculptures which he proposed for the outdoor Chase Manhattan Plaza project in New York. While in New York for his 1965 MoMA exhibition, he took the opportunity to view firsthand the plaza and its surroundings. He decided that a single, monumentally tall standing woman would be most effective amid the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, and asked Diego to prepare the armature for such a work. It was the monumental Grande tête, nevertheless, that came to obsess him. Measuring more than three feet tall, and based on Diego's features, this sculpture was the most massive head Giacometti ever modeled, and would have been enlarged to gargantuan scale had the Chase Manhattan Plaza commission been carried out as he had initially planned.
Giacometti thereafter focused exclusively on heads and busts, in his sculpture and painting–the latter include the late series of "black heads"–for the remaining half-dozen years of his life. "I don't know what's wrong with me," he said. "I'm only interested in heads now and there's nothing harder than doing a head" (quoted in H. and M. Matter, Alberto Giacometti Photographed by Herbert Matter, New York, 1987, p. 211). He nevertheless averred that "The great adventure is to see something unknown appear every day in the same face" (quoted in M. Peppiatt, Alberto Giacometti in Postwar Paris, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 2001, p. 10).
A decade earlier, around 1951, having believed he had exhausted the potential in the iconic attenuated, visionary figures he had created during immediate post-war period, Giacometti began to model a series of heads and busts of Diego and Annette, sculptures which exerted a profound impact on the rest of his career. Working not from memory, but once again with a living model in front of him, Giacometti did not seek to describe a realistic resemblance of any conventional kind. As Christian Klemm has pointed out, “For Giacometti it was the essential presence of the human being, as it appears to the artist, that he sought to grasp–the ceaseless dialogue between seeing and the seen, eye and hand, in which form continually grows and dissolves” (Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001, p. 222). He created a “likeness” of his sitter that expresses an almost unbearably intense intimacy, with nerves exposed and the psyche laid bare.
As Alberto's devoted brother, his reliable studio help-mate, as well as a sculptor in his own right, Diego was as close as possible to being a virtual extension of the artist himself. In the act of depicting this other man, Giacometti was also scrutinizing his own inner self. The result of this research was Giacometti's creation of a contemporary everyman, which embodied the existential anxiety of the immediate postwar period no less compellingly than the famous visionary figures of the late 1940s. Giacometti's harshly unforgiving treatment in forging the bust or figure, in which he continually built up and broke down the plaster or clay image he held in his hands, actually seemed to require the participation and partnership of a strong male subject, a role which Annette or another woman as “muse” could not fulfill in the same manner. Diego, however, fit this need.
The essential traits of Diego's identity are usually recognizable: the riveting gaze of wide-open eyes (often likened to those of a Byzantine icon or the ancient funerary portraits from Fayum), the forceful mouth, the tall forehead surmounted by a crest of hair–although in the present bust, in which every feature has been pared down to the absolute rudiments of masculine being, Diego’s head appears as if shaved. There are distortions that Giacometti carried over from earlier busts and further exaggerated. "A head that has unreal-looking proportions seems more alive," Giacometti explained, "than when the proportions look real" (quoted in J. Lord, Giacometti: A Biography, New York, 1985, pp. 472-473).
In the tensed, tautened flesh of Diego’s cheeks and jaw, the gauntness of his neck and the truncated appearance of the upper body, Giacometti has here emphasized a conception of man given not to action, but to contemplation and thought. Giacometti believed that the most important sign of life is awareness, a faculty that is manifest in one's gaze. “If the gaze, that is life, is the main thing,” he declared, “then the head becomes the main thing, without a doubt. Everything else is only the framework for the gaze. The rest of the body is limited to functioning as antennae that make people’s life possible–the life that is housed in the skull” (interview with George Charbonnier, 1951; quoted in R. Hohl, ed., op. cit., 1998, p. 146). Ten years later, having narrowed the range of his subjects, while deepening his insights, Giacometti stated, “Paris is reduced to me, now, to trying to understand the space between the eyes in sculpture” (quoted in Y. Bonnefoy, op. cit., 1991, p. 522).
"The head is all," Lord declared, "and the head is the look, the gaze. The artist is inside, an explosive energy, galvanizing what appears to be absent, so that it, too, has life...pulsing with Giacometti's determination to seize what he saw. He pretended to deny the imperative of personality, but his models are immensely present in their own right. They, too, seem to have aged, to have shed the triviality of organic existence" (op. cit., 1985, p. 472). “Diego...had possessed only one wish, to help Alberto be himself, and the new statues show that Giacometti was able to seek and find and recognize himself in these late portraits of his brother, a meditation on his destiny,” Bonnefoy has written. These late busts “constitute Giacometti’s borrowing of another face to experience the anguish of what will be his own death” (op. cit., 1991, p. 519).
“Giacometti, by dint of excavating the appearance of what he sees and lives...by skinning it of accident and of circumstance and by going to the very end of uncovering the real, touched the crux and touched death,” Jacques Dupin observed. “But Giacometti doesn’t stop there. Behind the hardness of cranium and bone, athwart the fire of the other’s gaze, he uncovers and causes to burst forth the formidable energy of life” (Giacometti: Three Essays, New York, 2003, pp. 88 and 89).
Giacometti in his Paris studio, 1964. Photograph by Budd.
Alberto Giacometti, September 1965. Photograph by Yousuf Karsh.
[FIG A] Alberto Giacometti with the plaster model for Grande tête, 1960. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger.
[FIG. B] Alberto Giacometti, Tête sans crâne, 1957-1958. Sold, Christie’s, New York, 7 November 2012, lot 6.
[FIG. C] Alberto Giacometti, Tête d’homme IV (Diego), 1964. Alberto Giacometti Stiftung Zürich, Kunsthaus Zürich.
[FIG. D] Alberto Giacometti, Homme à mi-corps (Diego), 1965. Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris.