Between 1947 and 1950 Giacometti made several sculptures which feature the walking figure, alone or in a small group, set on a platform suggestive of a city square. Other sculptures in this series include Homme qui marche sous la pluie (fig. 1) and La place (fig. 2). Reinhold Hohl has commented about these sculptures:
The "compositions with figures" that Giacometti made between 1947 and 1950, with various groupings of walking men, standing women and gazing heads, presented on pedestals or in boxes, play an undeniably crucial part in the sculpture of the twentieth century... They express an intense awareness of life at mid-century, after the experience of war and hardship...[but also] suggest a timeless, rather than a historical or specifically modern, situation. One would imagine them as a public monument that would represent the twentieth century. (R. Hohl, "Giacometti and his Century," in ed. A. Schneider, Alberto Giacometti, Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, New York, 1994, p. 49)
The present work, conceived in 1949, is perhaps the most beautiful of all these sculptures.
Giacometti himself has explained the psychological concerns which led to the conception of this series of sculptures. He recounted that upon leaving a cinema in 1945 he suddenly had a new sense of the people and space around him.
People seemed like a completely foreign species, mechanical... mindless machines, like men in the street who come and go...a bit like ants, each one going about his own business, alone, ignored by the others. They cross paths, pass by, without seeing each other, without looking... In the street people astound and interest me more than any sculpture or painting. Every second the people stream together and go apart, they approach each other to get closer to one another. They unceasingly form and reform living compositions in unbelievable complexity... The men walk past each other without looking. Or they stalk a woman. A woman is standing... It's the totality of this life that I want to reproduce in everything I do. (Quoted in P. Schneider, "Ma longue marche par Alberto Giacometti," L'Express, June 8, 1961, pp. 48-50)
Giacometti did not formulate his post-war sculptures with the deliberate intention of illustrating the tenets of Existentialism; rather his motives were artistic and intuitive. Nevertheless, these sculptures have often been interpreted as Existentialist, and the emphasis in this text on solitude, abstraction, and anonymity might seem to support such an interpretation. Moreover, Giacometti and Sartre were friends: Giacometti made drawings of the philosopher, and Sartre wrote the introduction to the artist's exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in 1948 (his first post-war exhibition in the United States), an essay entitled "The Search for the Absolute."
In the catalogue of that exhibition, Giacometti also published a letter to Pierre Matisse which included an autobiographical sketch of his career. This letter expresses some of the formal and aesthetic issues which had occupied the sculptor throughout much of his life.
Since I wanted to realize a little of what I saw, I began as a last resort to work at home from memory. This yielded objects which were the closest I could come to my vision of reality, but I still lacked a sense of the whole, a structure, also a sharpness that I saw, a kind of skeleton in space... Figures were never for me a compact mass but like a transparent construction... There was [another] element in reality that concerned me: movement. (Quoted in exh. cat., Alberto Giacometti, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1965, pp. 18-19)
While Giacometti was talking about the sculptures from an earlier part of his career, these remarks nevertheless indicate the kind of concerns evident in Trois hommes qui marchent II, in which slender, nearly transparent, figures made from memory glide by one another.
The present work, conceived in 1949, is the second of two versions of the sculpture, the first modeled in 1948. The differences from the first version are significant, if subtle. In the present work the figures are arranged more tightly and their movements are more closely coordinated, especially as two of the figures stride in diametrically opposite directions. Moreover, in the present piece two of the figures stand on line with the diagonals of the platform. The result is a more complex and harmonious composition.
In the present work, the close placement of the figures has the effect of making the space between and around them an integral part of the sculpture. Rather than thinking of space as a neutral medium in which figures are set, Giacometti instead sought to make space an active component of the sculpture. There are precedents for this in the history of sculpture, but it is rare and significant. As Reinhold Hohl has commented, Giacometti realized that "space does not exist merely in front of a figure, but surrounds and separates it from other objects" (R. Hohl, "Form and Vision: The Work of Alberto Giacometti," in exh. cat., Alberto Giacometti: A Retrospective Exhibition, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1974, p. 24).
The figures in the present work are made of thin, almost insubstantial, lines; and the modeling is extremely rough. Their spindly, open forms recall Giacometti's remarks about his interest in skeletal shapes in sculpture. Moreover, the openness of the figures and their close placement permits the artist to achieve an extraordinary effect: as one walks around the sculpture, it is possible to look at and through each figure in turn and to see the other two figures behind it. This creates a series of visual echoes between foreground and background and makes the sculpture rich in compositional complexity.
The extreme thinness of the figure in Giacometti's sculpture has often been related to contemporary interest in the field of phenomonology. Indeed, Sartre, in his introduction to the catalogue of Giacometti's first exhibition at Pierre Matisse, makes the connection explicitly:
When [sculptors] worked from nature, instead of rendering what they saw--that is to say, the model, ten paces off--they outlined in the clay what they knew to be there--that is to say, the model. As they wanted their statue to give a spectator standing ten feet off from it the impression they had experienced before the model, it seemed to them logical to make a figure which would be for the spectator what the model had been for them; and that was only possible if the marble were here as the model were there. But what does it mean to be "as it is" or "there"? At ten paces, I form a certain image of that nude woman; if I approach her, and regard her from up close, I no longer recognize her: these craters, tunnels, cracks, this rough black hair, these smooth shiny surfaces, this whole lunar orography; how could all these qualities go to compose the sleek fresh skin that I admired from far off? What is it then that the sculptor ought to imitate? However close he comes to this face, one can approach closer still. Thus the statue will never truly resemble what the model is or what the sculptor sees; one must construct it in accordance with certain rather contradictory conventions, imagining certain details which are not visible so far off, under the pretext that they exist, and neglecting certain others which exist just the same, under the pretext that one does not see them...in frontally opposing classicism, Giacometti has restored an imaginary and indivisible space to statues...this is because he was the first one to take it into his head to sculpt man as he appears, that is to say, from a distance. (J.-P. Sartre, "The Search for the Absolute," in exh. cat., Alberto Giacometti: Exhibition of Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1948)
Giacometti devised some of the most original and inventive pedestals in the history of sculpture and the present work brilliantly reveals this aspect of his genius. The cutback between the platform and base of the pedestal serves to emphasize the lateral tension of the platform, and thereby helps to suggest the extension of the platform's plane beyond its edges. This implication of the continuance of space is also made by the way that the figures stride implacably toward the edges. This, however, was not Giacometti's first design for the pedestal. Three drawings, including one in The Museum of Modern Art and one at Galerie Beyeler (fig. 3), show Trois hommes qui marchent set atop the cage structure which contains Le nez. The artist abandoned this conception in favor of a somewhat more traditional support; as he built it, the pedestal bears a clear relationship to that of Homme qui marche sous la pluie.
The forward tilt of the men in the present work is characteristic of Giacometti's sculpture of walking figures; the artist seems to have derived this stance from his own gait (fig. 4).
(fig. 1) Alberto Giacometti, Homme qui marche sous la pluie, 1948
Alberto Giacometti Foundation, Zurich
(fig. 2) Alberto Giacometti, La place II, 1948
Private Collection (Christie's, November 7, 1995)
(fig. 4) Alberto Giacometti, Etude pour 'Trois hommes qui marchent' et 'Le nez', 1948
Galerie Beyeler, Basel
(fig. 4) Giacometti installing his sculpture at Galerie Maeght, Paris, 1961
(Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson)