The Walking Man, L'homme qui marche (fig. 1) is a familiar Giacometti figure; it is in this way that the artist usually depicted a man full-length. This figure strides forth, he is a man who acts, advancing purposefully, facing straight ahead; he is neither distracted nor deterred; he possesses an air of absolute self-assurance, he is confident and unwavering. One measured step leads to the next, and so on, as an inexorable momentum accumulates, propelling the figure onward, without pause, into the distance and beyond. If he halts on his walk, his journey, it is to observe and point, as L'homme au doight (fig. 2).
Giacometti's female figure also has her characteristic stance. She is the Standing Woman, the Femme debout (fig. 3). She stands upright, unbending, ramrod straight, legs pressed together, head erect, staring forward, her arms held to her sides. As if planted in the earth, she appears to have germinated and grown skywards. Her huge feet anchor her to the ground. She remains impassive, immobile, sometimes vulnerable, but never weak--this stillness is her great strength. While the walking man is transient, her presence is permanent and fixed; she will endure because she is immutable, unchanging and eternal. If she pauses in her vigil, it is to sit and rest, but only briefly (fig. 4)
This Falling Man expresses something altogether different. He staggers, he seems to stumble, as if knocked over by a blow or missile; he may have taken a bullet, perhaps from behind, the result of some treacherous act. Think of the fallen loyalist Spanish soldier in Robert Capa's classic photograph of sudden death. Or perhaps the Falling Man has lost his balance on some precarious precipice. For a split second he appears suspended in endless space, plummeting from a great height, a tall tower, arrested in stop-motion between the point of departure and the place of ultimate arrival, beyond which one does not continue. He glides momentarily, extending his arms, defying gravity, but his trajectory is inevitably terminal. His journey is a descent, following an accelerating line between birth and the tomb. He is L'homme qui tombe.
The Falling Man is proud Lucifer fallen from grace, remorseful Adam during the Fall, a great king broken in tragedy, like blind Oedipus stumbling, or the foolishly adventurous Icarus plunging haplessly from the clouds, his waxen wings melted away. He is all of these and everyman. L'homme qui chavire: he is the "capsizing" man, he is the drowning man, his arms splayed, desperately trying to tread water, as he is swallowed up in the abyss and sinks, in ultra-slow motion, as in a Bill Viola video (fig. 5). This is the fragility of life as all of us have experienced it, painfully, pathetically, and inexorably. It may be true that Giacometti has used an armature that appears as brittle as a burnt twig, yet he has managed to invest his Falling Man with such heroism that his fall is as graceful as a dance. It might even seem possible, should one believe it for a second and hold out the slimmest thread of hope, that this man is about to fly, to ascend on the most tenuous of wings.
There is surely no other Giacometti figure that is more poignant and compelling in its pathos, more gripping in its terror, more revealing of the very heart and essence of its creator, or its time. Christian Klemm has written, "Giacometti's Man Falling was in fact to become a central icon in the Existentialist view of his work. This sculpture, one of his slenderest, most fragile figures, seems about to topple from its small, cylindrical pedestal. Yet holds it position by throwing the head back ecstatically; it seems to emerge straight out of Sartre's Nausea or Camus's The Stranger in an extreme moment when the ground seems to open to the choice of life or death. Man Falling is a human being in precisely the situation in which his transcendental destiny becomes apparent" (in Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York 2001, p. 184).
Falling Man is one the key sculptures in what Klemm has called Giacometti's new "weightless, visionary" style, which emerged after the end of the Second World War. He returned to Paris from Geneva in the fall of 1945; in his suitcase he carried a matchbox that held the tiny plaster heads and figures that had been the sum product of his wartime work. Through the practice of drawing continuously he acquired the resolve to enlarge these figure into ever taller sculptures. Giacometti recalled, "In 1945 I swore to myself that I didn't want to let my figures get smaller and smaller, not even by an inch. But now the following happened: I could maintain the height, but they started to get narrow, narrow tall...and thin as a thread." The artist noticed that "You don't feel your weight. I wanted--without having thought about it--to reproduce this lightness, and that by making the body so thin" (quoted in R. Hohl, Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, Stuttgart, 1998, pp. 108 and 125).
Yves Bonnefoy has pointed out that, as Giacometti was now projecting the experience of his own body, "he could now achieve what had hitherto been denied him: the expression of a thought about life We have seen what a synthesis of mind and body it enabled Giacometti to achieve and what a basic experience it therefore conveyed, by way of the statue, to other beings, thus restoring a social function to the artist." (in op. cit., p. 326). Bonnefoy noted that Staggering Man (his title for this figure), was cast in bronze in 1950, but that the sculpture appeared in a drawing Giacometti made of his studio as early as 1947. "What is closer to steady balance than its opposite, a fall," he noted, assuming that the source of this subject was likely Giacometti's own accident on a Paris street on 18 October 1938, when a car driven by a drunken American woman ran over his right foot, crushing it, and knocking him down. The vehicle hurtled onward and crashed, although the driver was unhurt and later evaded responsibility for the harm she had caused. Giacometti would limp long afterwards as a result; he used crutches at first, and thereafter a cane.
The present cast of Falling Man was included in Giacometti's second exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, in November 1950. Matisse's initial landmark exhibition of Giacometti sculptures two years earlier had been the artist's first show in more than fifteen years, and it established his international reputation virtually overnight. Sartre wrote a classic text, The Search for the Absolute, for the catalogue of the first Pierre Matisse show. He declared:
"It is to give sensible expression to this pure presence, to this gift of the self, to this instantaneous coming forth, that Giacometti resorts to elongation. The original movement of creation, that movement without duration, without parts, and so well imaged by these long, gracile limbs, traverses their Greco-like bodies, and raises them towards heaven. I recognize in them, more clearly than in an athlete of Praxiteles, the figure of man, the real beginning and absolute source of gesture. Giacometti has been able to give this matter the only true human unity: the unity of the Act" (in C. Harrison and P. Wood, ed., Art in Theory 1900-1990, Cambridge, Mass., 1993, pp. 603-604).
(fig. 1) Alberto Giacometti, L'homme qui marche, 1947. Photographed in Giacometti's studio by Patricia Matisse. Courtesy of the Pierre and Maria Gaetana Matisse Foundation. Copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris BARCODE 20625153
(fig 2) Alberto Giacometti, L'homme au doight, 1947. Photographed in Giacometti's studio. Courtesy of the Pierre Matisse Gallery Archive, The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. Copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris BARCODE 20625146
(fig. 3) Alberto Giacometti, Femme debout, 1948. Photographed in Giacometti's studio by Ernst Scheidigger, Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris BARCODE 20625139
(fig. 4) Alberto Giacometti, Femme assise, 1950. Photographed in Giacometti's studio by Ernst Scheidigger, Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris BARCODE 20625122
(fig. 5) Bill Viola, 'Ascending Angel,' from Five Angels for the Millenium, 2001. Video still courtesy _______. BARCODE 20625115