Petit buste (Diego) presents Alberto Giacometti’s most important and enduring model and muse: his younger brother, Diego. The subject of his very first sculpture and his greatest confidant and constant companion, Diego became for Giacometti more than simply a model whose physiognomy he translated into visual form. His appearance and presence were so ingrained into the artist’s psyche that he became an intrinsic part of his vision, and more than this, an extension of himself. As Giacometti described, Diego was, ‘the one I know best’, or as Yves Bonnefoy has written, ‘In the presence of someone who is, as it were, his double, Giacometti more than ever is witness to the mystery of existence, like Hamlet thinking of Yorick, in front of a skull in the dust’ (Y. Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of his Work, trans. J. Stewart, Paris, 1991, p. 432).
Conceived circa 1955, this depiction of Diego is one of a series of bust-length sculptures that Giacometti created in the midst of a period of rediscovery in his career. At the beginning of the 1950s, Giacometti felt that he had gone as far as he could with the attenuated, extended figures that he had begun at the end of the previous decade. Seeking a more realistic conception of space and mass, he returned to life and to the study of the model, using the same vigorous technique of modelling to ensure that he lost none of the visceral sense of expression that defines his full-length figures. As a result, those closest to him, Diego particularly, as well as his wife Annette, became the abiding subjects of his work.
In deciding to return to life, Giacometti soon realised that it was the eyes, portals to man’s inner life, and by extension the head, that were the integral part of the human form. ‘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… 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’ (Giacometti, quoted in H. & M. Matter, Alberto Giacometti, New York, 1987,p. 194). This abiding concern is immediately recognisable in the present bust. Amidst the rugged, gestural surface of his head and monumental shoulders, Diego’s deep-set eyes, represented with nothing more than two round indentations, bore into the viewer, serving as the expressive centre of this commanding sculpture.
While Giacometti’s return to the model and to specific individuals within his life could have seemed like a retreat from the archetypal and transcendent vision of man that he had attained with his elongated figures of the previous decade, in fact, with these busts, Giacometti had taken his portrayal of humanity a step further. ‘Giacometti had indeed chosen the existence of individuals, the here and now as the chief object of his new and future study’, Yves Bonnefoy has written, ‘and he instinctively realised that this object transcended all artistic signs and representations, since it was no less than life itself’ (Y. Bonnefoy, op. cit., 1991, p. 369).