Over the course of his career, Giacometti executed more paintings and sculptures of his brother Diego than of any other sitter. As he explained to his biographer James Lord,
Diego sat for me 10,000 times.... He's posed for me over a longer period of time and more often than anyone else.... So when I draw or sculpt or paint a head from memory, it always turns out to be more or less Diego's head, because it's Diego's head I've done most often from life. (quoted in J. Lord, A Giacometti Portrait,
New York, 1965, pp. 24-25)
Between 1956 and 1958, Giacometti made three sculptures of his brother entitled Diego sur stèle I, II, and III, each an armless bust positioned atop a pedestal almost five feet high. The three versions vary only slightly in height, but radically in their portrayal of Diego. The present work, Diego sur stèle I, is naturalistic, almost classical, in its treatment of the figure, presenting a full torso and a head and face without obvious distortions; the second and third versions, in contrast, are both characterized by extremely narrow heads and by jagged, almost knife-like, profiles.
The use of a columnar base to support the bust draws upon an artistic tradition dating back to ancient Greece. In the present work, the pedestal raises the bust to the viewer's eye-level and forces the viewer into head-on confrontation with it; the life-like proportions which the base confers upon the sculpture lend an essential physicality to its gaze. "In these sculptures I tried to make an eye," Giacometti explained. "I raised the head on a base until...you see an eye.... This is very important...just where the eye hits the sculpture" (quoted in V. Fletcher, exh. cat., Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 171). Yves Bonnefoy, in his monograph on Giacometti, attributes still greater import to Giacometti's use of the pedestal, explaining,
Giacometti used to say that the purpose of this tall pillar was only to bring his statue's face up to eye-level. In fact, however, 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... Is that small amount of matter up there...not like the peak of a mountain, which one can easily imagine to be of a different nature from the slopes leading up to it...? It follows from this analogy that this mass of bronze...signifies matter as such, matter in its essential being. And so the bust became an idea almost as much as a presence: the idea of the triumph of being over nothingness. (Y. Bonnefoy, Giacometti, Paris, 1991, pp. 437-438)