The effect, at first encounter and viewed straight on, is startling: a full bust of a man has been elevated to eye-level, somewhat precariously it may seem, on a tall, narrow plinth. His gaze meets your own, appears to pass through you and beyond. This imposing sculpture dominates the room. Yves Bonnefoy has observed that "with this stele the portrait is restored to physical space, since it becomes a sort of monument, occupying a place and giving that place a centre" (in op. cit., p. 438). The male bust with stele presentation is rare in the artist's work; this sculpture is one of only three versions of this kind, all dating from 1958, and the Petite buste sur colonne, circa 1951-1952 (fig. 1), which anticipates the later and more massive elevated busts. Giacometti's subject in each of these works is his brother Diego, whose presence in this, the third version, is the tallest, most massive and fully characterized of the three stele portraits.
Giacometti created various sculptures of men, standing full-length and engaged in some sort of motion or activity, before 1950. Thereafter his male subjects usually took the form of heads or busts only, without a lower body and shorn of extremities, while he continued to model standing women full-length with all their limbs intact, such as the celebrated Femmes de Venise and Grandes femmes debouts, which like the present sculpture also date from the late 1950s. Giacometti's stele sculptures, then, may stand as a counterpart to his large standing women (fig. 2), with the difference that a formal, abstract device--the base--stands in for the remainder of the body. Giacometti's women are whole, grandly static, and deeply physical and sensual in their presence. The men are now equally immobile in their pose, and by focusing on the head and an armless upper body, the sculptor has emphasized the cerebral and philosophical side of the male character.
The placement of the portrait bust on a tall base recalls the elongated figures that Giacometti executed in late 1940s. The sheer verticality of the stele portraits suggests a later variation on this theme, but with further implications: by incorporating such a substantial and significant base within the overall conception of the sculpture, and by calling on this conventional means of exhibiting a sculpture in a public space (albeit in exaggerated form), Giacometti is perhaps inferring that the elevation of art as an object in itself has taken precedence, in this instance at least, over the depiction of the body as a physical presence, which had been his primary concern during the 1950s. When planning his exhibitions Giacometti often had Diego prepare bases for his sculptures that were usually only slightly wider than the sculpture he would place atop it, a preference which emphasized the attenuated verticality of his work. It was an inevitable step, then, to make the base an integral part of the sculpture, and to play with aspects of presentation in juxtaposition to the figure itself. The use of the stele also recalls the ancient practice of raising figures of estimable men and commemorating their achievements on tall plinths; the term 'stele' is from the Greek word for 'pillar.'
The stele, morever, has a clearly calculated practical purpose. Giacometti wanted to control the height at which onlookers observed the portrait bust, and also to suggest exactly how far one should stand from it--ideally, at a distance from which the observer could take in the entire work from top to bottom in one's vertical field of vision. It was this from distance that one was meant to study the bust and meet its gaze--this was precisely the same distance at which in the studio the sculptor sat from his brother Diego while modeling the work. Giacometti wanted the viewer to encounter this presence of Diego directly at eye-level. The artist told Thomas B. Hess in 1958, "In these sculptures I tried to make an eye. I raised the head on a base until the eye is at eye-level. You see an eye This is very important just where the eye hits the sculpture" (quoted in T. B. Hess, "Giacometti: The Uses of Adversity," Art News, vol. 57, no. 3, May 1958, pp. 34-35 and 67).
These considerations reflect the importance that Giacometti had given during the 1950s to evoking the actual physical presence of the model as he encountered it. By the end of the 1940s Giacometti felt that he had exhausted the possibilities inherent in the attenuated, stick-like figures that he made in his "visionary, weightless style" during the years immediately following the end of the Second World War. He now sought to reclaim a more realistic and concrete sense of space, without sacrificing the acute degree of expressivity that he had worked so long and hard to achieve. Christian Klemm has noted, "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" (in Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001, p. 222). Just as he had done in the mid-1930s when he gave up his Surrealist and abstract manner, he worked directly in front of his model--his wife Annette or, or even more frequently, as seen here, his brother Diego (fig. 3). The intimate nature of these relationships did much to inspire the probing intensity of these new sculptures. Bonnefoy has observed:
"During this final period, of almost fifteen years, the 'heads' studied were exclusively those of Diego, Annette, Annetta [the artist's mother] Caroline and a very few other persons, all close friends, which proves that Giacometti had indeed chosen the existence of individuals, the here and now as the chief object of his new and future study; and that he instinctively realized that this object transcended all artistic signs and representations, since it was no less than life itself" (in ibid., p. 369).
Giacometti's very first bust, a sculpture done in plasticine in 1914, depicts Diego, and as Diego was practically an ever-present and absolute constant in Alberto's life, it seemed natural and inevitable that he should become the sculptor's most frequent and important model. There was, moreover, something innately heroic and masculine in Giacometti's rugged and searching approach to the model, in which he continually built up and broke down the plaster image he held in his hands, that often required a male subject, and found its truest expression in the depiction of another man. Indeed, it was fortunate that this man as subject was his brother, someone who was as close as possible to being a virtual extension of himself, his double.
Giacometti began his series of Diego busts in 1951. In the course of these portraits the artist personalized and brought into closer focus the abstract and existentialist anxiety which he had previously expressed in the anonymous "visionary, weightless" figures. While Giacometti subjected Diego to varying degrees of distortion, seen here in the thinness of the head as viewed from the front, the essential traits of his brother's identity are always present and easily detectable: the powerful gaze of wide-open eyes, the prominent, slightly upturned nose, full lips, the tall forehead surmounted by a crest of hair. By obsessively concentrating on the particulars of a single individual, Giacometti created a universal modern man, whose image would become no less iconic than the figures of the late 1940s. Patrick Elliott wrote, "One might say that that Diego was to Giacometti what the still-life was to Morandi or Mont-Saint-Victoire to Cézanne." (in Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966, exh. cat., Scottish National Gallery of Art, Edinburgh, 1996, p. 23). The stele portraits represent Giacometti's apotheosis of his brother, and are a fitting tribute to Diego's importance in Alberto's life and art.
(fig. 1) Alberto Giacometti, Petit buste sur colonne, circa 1951-1952. Alberto and Annette Giacometti Foundation, Paris. BARCODE: 25983258
(fig. 2) Installation view of the Giacometti exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, May 1958, showing a cast of Buste de Diego (Stele II) and two large Standing Women. Photograph by Herbert Matter. BARCODE: 25983265
(fig. 3) Giacometti, at left, with his brother Diego and wife Annette, in the artist's studio, 1952. Photograph by Alexander Liberman. BARCODE: 25983272