The expressive, characterful features of Giacometti’s brother Diego are here plainly evident. His prominent upturned nose, serious hooded brow, full lips, tensed jaw and firm chin are just as the artist had been modeling him for more than a decade previously. Most striking of all is a recent development: the Byzantine aspect of wide-open, transfixed eyes that Giacometti bestowed on many of the late heads, male and female alike. "One has the desire to sculpt a living person,” Giacometti explained, “but there is no doubt that as far as the life within them is concerned, what makes them alive is le regard—the looking of the eyes. It is very important. If the look, that is to say life, becomes the essential concern, then it is the head that is of primary importance. The rest of the body is reduced to the role of antennae making life possible for the person—the life that exists in the cranium" (quoted in H. and M. Matter, Alberto Giacometti, New York, 1987, p. 194).
Giacometti’s emphasis here on the head alone, shorn of any bodily support save the tall plinth of a gaunt neck, betokens its kinship to the Grande tête he modeled in 1959-1960, which, together with four tall standing women and a walking man, he intended for installation at the Chase Manhattan Plaza in Lower Manhattan. Measuring more than three feet tall, Grande tête was the largest head Giacometti ever sculpted, and would have been enlarged to an astonishingly gargantuan scale. In the plaza, only two blocks from Wall Street, would have stood the ultimate great head, Giacometti's apotheosis of man the thinker, man the seer. The Chase Manhattan commission, however, was–for admirers of the sculptor and surely many New Yorkers as well–most regretfully never realized.
The series of heads and busts of his brother Diego that Giacometti began to model around 1951 announced a change in his approach to the subject, always the purely human presence, as the head, bust or figure. He had previously created his famously attenuated sculptures from imagination and memory. He now wanted to experience within his hands as he sculpted not an apparitional conception of the body, but instead its flesh-and-blood corporeality, as a singular person existing in that space only a few feet away, directly in front of him. “Giacometti had indeed chosen the existence of individuals, the here and now as the chief object of his new and future study,” Yves Bonnefoy stated. “He instinctively realized that this object transcended all artistic signs and representations, since it was no less than life itself" (Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of his Work, Paris, 1991, p. 369).
Although he was working from a live model, Giacometti did not seek to describe a realistic resemblance of any conventional kind. “For Giacometti it was the essential presence of the human being, as it appears to the artist, that he sought to grasp," Christian Klemm has written, "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). From eye to hand, from the sculptor’s knife to the matière which he molded, Giacometti conjured simulacra of his sitters that bespeak an almost unbearably intense intimacy, revealing nerves exposed, a psyche laid bare.
During the early 1960s Giacometti abandoned the full-length figures he had been sculpting since the end of the Second World War, and instead focused exclusively on heads and busts for the few years that remained to him. Well aware of the challenge that his singular obsession posed, the artist lamented, "I don't know what's wrong with me. I'm only interested in heads now and there's nothing harder than doing a head" (quoted in H. and M. Matter, op. cit., 1987, p. 211). He nonetheless asserted 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).
As Giacometti's devoted, beloved brother, as well as his steadfast studio help-mate, Diego was as close as possible to being a virtual extension of the sculptor himself. “In the presence of someone who is, as it were, his double,” Bonnefoy wrote, “Giacometti more than ever is witness to the mystery of existence” (op. cit., 1991, p. 432). By obsessively concentrating on the features of this single individual, Giacometti created an essential, universal man, a contemporary everyman.
Alberto and Diego were men of the Swiss Alps—the sculptor's great male heads manifest this rugged sense of place. As the artist's most frequent male model, Diego became all men to Giacometti. "One might say that Diego was to Giacometti what the still-life was to Morandi or Mont-Saint-Victoire to Cézanne,” Patrick Elliott wrote. “Diego's features were etched on Giacometti's mind and his portraits of other sitters look strangely like Diego" (Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966, exh. cat., Scottish National Gallery of Art, Edinburgh, 1996, p. 23).
The fundamentally masculine and heroic nature of Giacometti’s approach to creating sculpture, of continually building up and breaking down the plaster or clay image he held in his hands, was an exhilarating but unrelenting and exhausting process, a Sisyphean struggle that required in partnership a male subject who possessed comparable resilience and fortitude. Diego, ever strong, always present, fulfilled this need, especially after 1962, as Alberto faced the crisis of his declining health. “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 explained. The 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).
Whether modeled early, middle, or late, a Giacometti head is the product of the then and there, in which a miraculous sense of presence points Janus-like to every moment of travail that had come before, and all that which will follow. “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).