From the Archives: Giacomettiʼs Thin Figures

Alberto Giacometti painting in his Paris studio, 1958. Photo Ernst Scheidegger. © 2018 Stiftung Ernst Scheidegger– Archiv, Zürich. Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

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Giacometti,” on view through September 12 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, presents works in bronze and in oil, as well as plaster sculptures and drawings. Here we look back in A.i.A’s archives to our May 2002 issue, in which psychoanalyst and art historian Laurie Wilson considered the impact that a series of family losses and the shattering revelations of the Holocaust had on the Swiss artist. Wilson begins her essay by describing Giacometti’s childhood obsession with mortality, particularly its depiction in Egyptian art, and the unfounded guilt he felt at his father’s early death. She then shows how early reports from German concentration camps allowed the sculptor to sublimate his confused and restricting feelings into something universal. “I believe that confronting the difference between his fantasies and the realty of war and mass murder was one of the turning points of Giacometti’s emancipation from the guilt that had paralyzed him so long,” Wilson writes. We present her essay in full below. —Eds.

 

By the late 1940s, Alberto Giacometti was widely regarded as the artist who best represented mankind at midcentury. He had been a celebrated Surrealist sculptor, working in a semiabstract style, whose career was marooned in the mid-1930s, at first by his return to figuration and then by a decade of inhibition and voluntary obscurity which included the war years. In January 1948, Giacometti burst back into the art world with the first exhibition of his gaunt postwar figural sculptures. From the outset these works were startling, forcing viewers to confront some perceptual puzzles. Even today, they often look formidable or frightening when seen face-on, their bodies seemingly eaten away. Yet in profile, they appear quite different: remarkably resilient, elegantly lifelike, persistently human. Their formal and iconographic contradictions arrest our eyes and raise questions: How did Giacometti arrive at his new style, and what is it all about?

Giacometti had no satisfactory rationale for the extreme attenuation of his figures, even long after they had become famous icons. In interviews in 1964 he said: “I never tried to make thin sculptures . . . they became thin in spite of me.”1 Over the past 14 years, I have been researching his life and art from the double perspective of art history and psychoanalysis, and I have discovered new information that I am convinced is important to an understanding of his breakthrough style.

Born in 1901 at the Italian edge of Switzerland, Giacometti grew up in the tiny Alpine community of Stampa. His father, the genial Giovanni Giacometti, was an important Swiss Post-Impressionist painter. Alberto and his three younger siblings often posed for him in long, seemingly endless sessions that were a natural part of being an artist’s child. Alberto spent all his free time drawing and reading in his father’s studio, and was acknowledged early on by his father as a fellow artist perhaps more gifted than himself. Alberto’s mother, Annetta, was the pious daughter of the local schoolteacher, and the family disciplinarian. Alberto is remembered by his family as especially talented, curious and intelligent, but also tormented throughout his childhood by doubts, fears and superstitions. Contrary to Alberto’s later assertion that the first death he ever observed was that of a stranger when he was 20, he had already suffered the loss of a grandmother before he was three, and at age 12, the death of a daily companion, his beloved maternal grand­father. In addition, his mother had nearly died, from a prolonged case of typhoid, when he was 10. Not surprisingly, the young Alberto worried excessively about possible fatal mishaps whenever his father or his brother Diego were away too long in the treacherous high mountains surrounding their home.

When Alberto discovered Egyptian art and culture while studying his father’s art journals, he found not only a compelling esthetic but also a civilization which he later said he admired above all others—one which would eventually help him deal with his fears about death and loss. Those lifelong fears were probably exacerbated by the family tradition of supressing expressions of anger. Alberto learned very early to confine his hostile thoughts and feelings to his fantasy life and his art work. Many of his youthful drawings and paintings portray lurid scenes of battle and carnage.2 Family reports and his own writing strongly suggest that his muzzled anger was often accompanied by both guilt and fear that his thoughts might cause actual harm.3

 

After four years at a strict evangelical secondary school, Alberto spent a year studying art in Geneva, then another year in Italy; at age 21, he departed for Paris. During his first three years there, he completed his formal artistic studies with Antoine Bourdelle and made frequent long visits back to Stampa. In 1925, Paris became Giacometti’s primary home. The artist began what was to become a lifelong pattern: in Switzerland he was the hardworking son of a good family, polite and shy around women; in Paris he was a night prowler, frequenting cafés, brothels and late-night parties in the company of his many friends and acquaintances.

By 1929, thanks to the favorable reception of some of his first semiabstract sculptures, Giacometti came to be known as a leading Surrealist sculptor; he was closely associated with André Breton. Works such as Woman with Her Throat Cut (1932) and his text “Yesterday, Quicksand,” a tale of family rape and murder, including patricide, published in May 1933, exemplified two of the Surrealist movement’s prime themes—sex and aggression. In June 1933, a few weeks after the publication of Alberto’s homicidal fantasy, Giovanni Giacometti died unexpectedly. Soon afterward, in a mix of sorrow and guilt eloquently expressed in poetry and drawings, Alberto’s production slowed; he gradually turned away from the abstract style his father had never liked and began to work from nature, as Giovanni had always done. The death—at a critical moment—of the man who had unstintingly supported him seems to have played a major role in arresting Alberto’s richly imaginative and effortlessly productive Surrealist period. Only one major Surrealist piece, Invisible Object (1934), was made after his father’s death.

Shifting his allegiance away from Breton in 1935, Giacometti became part of a group of figurative artists around André Derain. He vociferously defended the return to representation—a growing trend during the ’30s, as avant-garde movements came to seem somewhat frivolous to many in the face of economic hardship and signs of a coming war. From the mid-’30s on, the majority of Giacometti’s sculptures would be figurative: female figurines done from imagination, or the same two heads—his brother, Diego, and a model—made directly from nature.

Another family death was soon to occur. On Oct. 11, 1937, Giacometti’s sister died the day after she had given birth to a son on the artist’s birthday. The second loss of a close and much-loved family member devastated Giacometti, and once again had a direct impact on his art; for the next nine years, almost without exception, he could only make miniature figurines and small busts of his young nephew, and he seemed compelled to destroy practically all his work.

 

Both directly and indirectly, the war played a role in his impasse. In the fall of 1941, Giacometti left occupied Paris and went to Geneva to see his mother, who was caring for her grandson. What was meant to be a short trip turned into a four-year sojourn. After initially living with his brother-in-law, mother and nephew, he moved to a small, comfortless, unheated room in a cheap hotel. Usually dirty, badly dressed and covered with plaster dust, he bathed only occasionally at his family’s spotless apartment, where his mother washed his hair; she also placed newspapers along every path he might tread and on every chair where he might sit. She treated him like a naughty boy, doled out a small allowance at irregular intervals (his only source of funds during the war4), hated his tiny figurines, and called him a “maniac.” Her harshness contrasted sharply with her intense maternal attachment to him.

The sounds of planes overhead at night and the frightening war news weighed heavily on Giacometti. In addition, his family’s dismissive view of his work caused him to experience frustration, guilt and mounting rage: it was clear to him that they saw him as a failure. Giacometti’s tense and uncomfortable family situation in Geneva was tempered, however, by the fact that he was admired and respected in the circle of intellectuals and artists associated with his friend, the publisher Albert Skira, whom he visited every day and through whom he could keep in touch with friends in Paris and hear news from that city. Furthermore, in 1943, he met and subsequently lived for three years with Annette Arm, his future wife. His experience with the docile, adoring young woman was unprecedented. Annette even bought some of the figurines his mother so despised.

During his years in Geneva, Giacometti (like Cézanne and Picasso before him) became obsessed with Balzac’s novella The Unknown Masterpiece, a story about a celebrated aging artist, Frenhofer, who was trying to bring his young, beautiful portrait subject to life. In his attempt to animate his subject he overworked the canvas, ending with a thick, chaotic mess of color and line—“a gigantic wall of paint.” Giacometti apparently felt a close kinship with Frenhofer and kept the book with him constantly, underlining many passages and decorating its margins with drawings.5

In the years following the deaths of his father and sister, the goal that appeared to be driving Giacometti, perhaps without his conscious awareness, was to make sculpture that was or seemed “alive.” Indeed, despite their diminutive size, his figurines (they are primarily female) often had hourglass shapes that hinted at plumpness and fertile futures. By making and unmaking his tiny figurines, Giacometti was inflicting on himself the dangers intrinsic to artists who aspire to be godlike. His writings in Geneva reveal a growing obsession with the “double”—or “lifelike”—work.6 Giacometti’s texts make arcane references to “crystallization” and disclose how magical “doubles” from occult traditions were close to his concept of sculpture, and how both underlay his idea of “lifelikeness.” Rational man that he was, Giacometti did not openly disclose such primitive and superstitious thoughts to his sophisticated friends: it’s likely that he could not fully acknowledge them even to himself.

After Paris was liberated in 1945, though Giacometti longed to return to the city he loved, and to his studio, his brother Diego and his other friends, he was unable to take the active step of leaving Geneva. Months passed. He later claimed that he needed to make one more tiny figurine. He finally went to Paris on Sept. 17, a month after his mother had announced her plans to leave Geneva and return to Stampa. Giacometti’s love for his mother seems to have been intermingled with so much anger and frustration that he could not break free until she herself let go. From this time onwards, his portraits of his mother often show her in an unattractive guise—stern, with staring or vacant eyes  and a downturned mouth (she herself said he made her look like a witch)—something seemingly at odds with his attentive behavior towards her. Though he lived in Paris for the rest of his life, he made long visits to Stampa to see his mother every year, wrote to her frequently, and from the mid-’50s on, telephoned her every day.

 

Descriptions and photographs of Giacometti after the war show an anguished man. Though he had not suffered physically during the war, he appeared to be carrying a tormenting burden, knowing that he had sat safely in Geneva while misery and death had afflicted many of his friends. During his first months back in Paris, Giacometti was unrelievedly poor, usually living on money borrowed from friends and refinding his place after a long exile. For the first few months he remained artistically paralyzed. But soon he would emerge with the first of the filiform figures that were to dominate his postwar production and launch him on the road to fame.

One of Giacometti’s first postwar commissions was a sculpted portrait of Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, who had been in charge of the Resistance in the Ile-de-France region. The piece was to be included in an exhibition, “Art and Resistance,” due to open Feb. 15, 1946. Giacometti made drawings of Rol-Tanguy’s head in two dozen sittings over several months but was unable to make a sculpted version. Finally he began to make some tiny busts, but he was still working on the sculpture when the exhibition opened.

Then one night at the end of February, everything changed. In an ecstatic letter to his mother, he told of his sudden success with the portrait, which he finished in a manic frenzy over several days. Writing feverishly, Giacometti stated:

Since Friday I know how to draw like never in my life, and since yesterday I know how to make sculpture. I made in one night the bust of the Colonel from memory. . . . I know how to do everything I want in drawing, sculpting, and painting.7

Why could Giacometti now succeed with sculpture, swiftly and effortlessly, after a creative block that had lasted with little relief for 10 years? The clues are in his letter:

I see reality for the first time, but in such a way that I can do everything very quickly. . . .  I know how to make nude sculpture like the Egyptians—of the same quality. Every day I find something new. I almost never sleep . . . I haven’t read a paper for eight days or more.”8

At least two factors may have helped release Giacometti from his long-standing creative paralysis, both having to do with the Holocaust. One was the “Art and Resistance” exhibition itself, where he saw works depicting the war’s horrors. Among them were grisly scenes depicting emaciated prisoners and piles of naked corpses, drawn and painted by his friend and neighbor Boris Taslitsky, who had been interned at Buchenwald.9 The second factor was his reaction to the ever-increasing flow of evidence of the Holocaust.

 

In 1945 the world was at last learning the truth about the “final solution.” The death camps had recently been liberated by the Allies, and reports and photographic evidence of unbelievable horrors were circulating. With the opening of the Nuremberg trials in November 1945, the details had become regular fare in the press. For the entire month of February 1946, newspapers published the testimony of the war criminals and victims. On Feb. 20, reporting on German atrocities in Eastern Europe, the Russian prosecutor, Colonel Smirnov, showed films and described some of the more barbaric methods of torture: people being made to walk barefoot on metal planks which delivered electric shocks, 100,000 Jews in Minsk being obliged to dance and sing as they waited their turn to die, Serbian prisoners being stripped in the sub-freezing cold and then turned into statues of ice by having water poured on them. Even Le Figaro, the most conservative of the papers read by Giacometti, went beyond its usual laconic dispatches and published a bold headline, “21,000 cubic meters of corpses.” Combat, the leftist paper written by Giacometti’s friends, was the most explicit, describing recipes for soap and leather made of human fat and skin.

The dramatic release from inhibition that Giacometti relates in his February letter to his mother signals that this was a crucial moment in his career. Based on a careful study of the February issues of the newspapers Giacometti read every day of his adult life, I hypothesize the nature of the impact those news reports had on the artist. According to his letter to his mother, he stopped reading the papers for a week about Feb. 21. I believe that the horrific content of the news reports compelled him to give up his entrenched habit. A person like Giacometti, with a lifelong phobia of death, would have experienced the images and reports of the death of millions of innocent civilians as unparalleled psychic torture.

In his February letter to his mother, Giacometti writes that after seeing a movie, one almost certainly accompanied by a newsreel containing documentary footage from the Nazi death camps (newsreels were on the program with every film shown in Paris at the time), he emerged with a release of his creative energy.10 Because Giacometti’s mental life was already laced with violent fantasies and the guilt they engendered—a facet of his character openly revealed during his Surrealist years and widely known to his friends and family—the shock of seeing so many dead or near-dead people all at once forced him to face himself in the present, to come to terms with his aggressive urges.

Only a few months earlier, in an essay he wrote on Jacques Callot, a 17th-century engraver, Giacometti had commented on the sadistic imagery in the work of Callot, Goya and Géricault, concluding that all works of art reflect artists’ obsessions with a primordial subject which stems from childhood sadism—“their pleasure in destruction, their cruelty (killing insects and other animals, mutilating them and making them suffer).”11 Giacometti’s fascination with Callot’s small-scale but relentlessly detailed scenes of massacre, torture and rape indicates the ongoing nature of his obsession with sadistic feelings and thoughts.

The newsreels and newspaper reports, the “Art and Resistance” exhibition, and the skeletal survivors on the streets of his neighborhood, may have persuaded Giacometti that however angry and aggressive he had been for most of his life, however evil he often felt because of his sadistic fantasies, other human beings had not only imagined, but done, far worse. Unlike the killers of Bergen Belsen, he had never actually implemented his cruel wishes on human flesh; he had confined himself to writing about them or expressing them in sculpture and drawings, as well as by continually decimating his own work.

I believe that confronting the difference between his fantasies and the reality of war and mass murder was one of the turning points in Giacometti’s emancipation from the guilt that had paralyzed him for so long—the guilt triggered initially by his father’s unexpected death, at a time when he was “freely” expressing his patricidal fantasies while basking in the approval of his Surrealist brethren. From the time of his sister’s death in 1937, Giacometti had been unable to create without destroying. The paradoxical sense of relief he felt on emerging from the movie theater in 1946 lasted for the rest of his life, often sustaining him when he drifted back to his habitual self-accusations. Though he would continue to destroy some of his work, he could also now allow much of it to survive.

 

Giacometti’s new-found freedom was first manifested in his portrait of Rol-Tanguy—quite possibly his first non-miniature postwar sculpture.12 An expressive work, the head 5 inches high on a base of about the same height, it succinctly captures the vitality and dignity of the man while retaining the solidity of his physiognomy. Rol-Tanguy was important to Giacometti for two very different reasons. First, he was a hero who had saved countless lives.13 Secondly, he was able to sit absolutely still for long periods of time—an onerous requirement that most of Giacometti’s portrait subjects came to fear and avoid. This practice of lengthy sittings stemmed from Giacometti’s youth, when he had posed frequently for his father, subjected to the penetrating but loving gaze of a man who held him dear and whom he in turn idealized.

The artist’s scrutinizing gaze was so intense that 45 years later, Rol-Tanguy remembered feeling as though Giacometti’s hands were actually touching his face, resulting in “a veritable communion.”14 Giacometti must have felt the communion as well, and the experience of being close to a strong father figure helped him feel safe. Just as Giovanni’s stable presence posing for his son earlier in his career, especially in 1927, when Alberto did a now-famous series of portraits of his father, had helped Giacometti move forward, Rol-Tanguy’s silent support seems to have provided a similar platform for the artist in 1946.

If the Rol-Tanguy sculpture was the first step toward Giacometti’s new postwar style, the 1946 Standing Woman drawings were second; I believe that through them the artist made the transition from tiny to tall.

Here is the way Giacometti, in 1948, explained his achievement in a famous letter to Pierre Matisse, his art dealer in New York:

A large figure seemed to me untrue and a small one intolerable. . . . All this changed . . . through drawing. This led me to want to make larger figures, then to my surprise they achieved a resemblance only when long and slender.15

He was describing several versions of Standing Woman, all showing a faceless woman rising up, her body charred, her arms held tightly at her sides and her feet bound. The figure is spectral, a skull-faced creature from another world. These drawings are forerunners of Giacometti’s next phase of sculpted female images whose tall headdresses and overall elongation draw the eye upward, intensifying the feeling of thrusting verticality, while the scintillating surfaces convey their lifelikeness. The new figures stood on the edge between life and death.

Giacometti frequently observed that the elongation of his figures was beyond his control. “One does things through mania, through obsession, through a need more automatic that escapes the understanding.”16 Having come to artistic maturity with Surrealism, Giacometti was used to accepting his unconscious as an important source of his artistic choices. Yet he seems to have willfully obscured more direct sources. He always vehemently denied that concentration camp survivors were his inspiration.17 Equally strangely, all the familial deaths went unmentioned in the artist’s recorded conversations and writings—in itself a suggestive omission. Though he evaded any acknowledgment of these connections, I am convinced they were important factors for his work.18 And in particular, I believe the horrific images of barely alive people and piles of emaciated corpses pushed him backwards to one specific, earlier traumatic experience.

Most important as a connecting link between present and past, in my view, was his mother’s narrow escape from typhoid in 1911. Giacometti had an exceptionally powerful and retentive visual memory, and his biographer attested to frequent instances of recollections decades old.19 Thirty-six years after his mother’s near fatality, images of the Holocaust must surely have brought to mind the recollected form of his gaunt, comatose mother—the woman with whom he had recently spent four painful years in Geneva. During the war years, his anger toward her had resurfaced, probably accompanied by fear and guilt. Perhaps once he was safely back in Paris among his friends, the old vision of life at the edge of death could finally break through the crust which had held back his memories and feelings for so long and unleash both his rage and his creativity.20

At least some of the time, Giacometti was aware of how important his anger was to his art. In an interview in 1950, he explicitly connected the tense forms of his elongated figures with violence. “I am most touched by sculpture where I feel there is contained violence. . . . If I want to draw, paint or sculpt a head, all is transformed into a tensely stretched form which always seems to me a kind of extremely restrained violence. It is as if the form of the person is . . . above all a sort of kernel of violence.”21

Giacometti’s struggle with his conflicting feelings was lifelong. Only after the war was he able to transform his ambivalence into great art. The impulse to destroy his work alternated with his wish to create art that would live forever. Giacometti’s postwar work—like his life—was the outcome of a consummate balancing act; it was as if whatever emerged and survived had to contain both life and death, creation and destruction.

Counter to his need to ravage and annihilate, Giacometti had long sought a way to give voice to the competing wish—to give birth or bring to life. As with his tiny figurines, the underlying aim of the filiform figures was to convey a sense of the aliveness of the image. “What is important is to create an object capable of conveying the sensation as close as possible to the one felt at the sight of the subject,” he often said.22 The sensation to which the artist was referring was that of being with someone alive, of sensing the breath and movement that represented life itself—the same closeness he had experienced with Rol-Tanguy. To reproduce that closeness, which I believe derived from the daily experience in his youth of being with his father in the warm studio they shared, as well as the miraculous discovery of life at the edge of death when his mother recovered from typhoid, were Giacometti’s oldest and deepest needs. They are also fundamental human needs, and Giacometti’s genius was his ability to make them visible in his art.

 

Since Giacometti’s early adolescence, ancient Egyptian beliefs had animated his work. He knew that the Egyptian definition for the making of sculpture was “to bring to life,” and that the goal of Egyptian artists was to produce idealized images of the deceased so perfect in form and so persuasively vital that they could contain the ka (the Egyptian term for double or spirit) of the person who had died, endowing him or her with eternal life. For the Egyptians, death was a dreaded but temporary state. Giacometti had turned to Egyptian art in the mid-1930s for consolation after his father’s death.23 In the mid ’40s he again sought solace in Egyptian art and thought. That ancient culture had “solved” the age-old problem of death by inventing a complicated religion filled with magical (and artistic) practices that undid its power to permanently end life. Giacometti was looking for a modern (and artistic) solution to the same problem. He was seeking to depart from the horizontality of death (Woman with Her Throat Cut) and to approach the verticality of life (Standing Woman).

The core source here for the verticality of his filiform figures was Egypt, and in particular the image of the revivified Osiris, who was always symbolized by verticality. (To the end of his life, Giacometti kept an Egyptian image of Osiris in his Paris bedroom, one of the few items adorning that room.) The tall headdresses of Giacometti’s first thin female figures in 1946 recall images of Maat, the Egyptian goddess of truth who weighs the heart of the dead at the moment of final judgment. Though Giacometti soon abandoned such headdresses, the verticality of his work would become increasingly important.

A preliminary plaster version of Giacometti’s 1947 Walking Man, photographed by Patricia Matisse, the wife of his dealer, for his landmark exhibition in 1948 at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York, stands in the midst of a debris-filled studio. While the figure is thin to the point of emaciation, its vitality is clear. The ghostly image captured on film appears to rise up from shards of plaster, the man’s arms seeming to swing back and forth as he strides against the dark background. The final bronze sculpture of Walking Man is large (6678 inches high). Seen straight on, with his bald, skull-like head, wasp waist and fleshless body, he appears graceless and impassive, too frail to survive; his limbs appear too thin to bear the weight of his head and torso. But in profile, he is a different man. There is no longer any question about his durability. A subtle play of curves creeps up and down his sinuous silhouette, the broken lines of the rugged surface enlivening rather than stopping the eye’s journey. Despite the man’s skeletal frame, he is sure-footed, solidly set on his chunky feet. He will walk: he has been brought to life by the artist.

Obstinately unlike the Egyptian prototypes of idealized youthful figures that inspired it, however, Giacometti’s Walking Man is a gaunt, ageless wreck, a double of his inner sense of himself. The artist seems to have assumed that the Egyptian standing position for the male, with one leg advanced in what looked like a walking stance, symbolized movement and life. (He once even told an interviewer that the Greeks believed that Egyptian standing sculptures would come to life and walk away if they were not attached at night.)24 In keeping with his oppositional character, Giacometti reversed the traditional positions of the legs, advancing the right leg rather than the left.25 By making a personal ka figure—a man reborn after a decade of paralysis, a man who could finally walk erect with dignity, melding ancient magic with modern myth—Giacometti transformed an Egyptian formula into an icon for his own times.

Tall Figure is one of the few female figures from 1946-47 that survived Giacometti’s destructive impulses.26 It is also one of Giacometti’s largest figurative works. Goddesslike and iconic, it stands nearly 7 feet tall on a coffin-shaped base. Seen from the front, Tall Figure has three remarkable features: it reiterates the hourglass torso of his tiny figurines; its thin limbs emphasize fragility; and an elongated head keeps the viewer’s eye moving upward. We perceive the figure’s sensuality, but only fleetingly. Her starkness arrests us before we can follow the seductive traces.

Once again, however, the profile view of the figure differs dramatically. There is a subtle interplay of curves and an evocative elegance. In this decisive formal and expressive difference between front and profile, we are suddenly reminded of the portraits Giacometti drew of his mother in 1946, where half her face does not exist at all. Now you see her, now you don’t.

These early filiform figures initiate an effect that many viewers of Giacometti’s postwar sculpture have noted but misread: the sculptures seem to disintegrate if approached from the wrong distance or angle, becoming mere shards of messy material. The most frequently cited explanation for this feature is a psychological one—Giacometti’s perennial difficulty in finding a comfortable distance between himself and others. Giacometti spoke of this characteristic as a perceptual issue, and many writers have spun it into an all-encompassing interpretation. However, I believe that the formal and expressive duality of the filiform figures is one more instance of Giacometti’s characteristic ambivalence—and perhaps the most important one of all. To see a person as whole and integrated, both loved and hated, was rarely possible for him. His ambivalence toward anyone close to him was intimately related to his contradictory feelings about destruction and creation, life and death.

By 1947, Giacometti had mastered, at least for a while, his profound conflicts. His sculptures are eloquent proof that he could see his figures as whole and integrated, able to contain conflicting currents. Though the figures are deathly thin, the asymmetries of their profiles force the mind’s eye to shift kinetically back and forth, stirring the viewer to feel the images’ vital energy. Whether we study the constantly shivering profile edge of a bust or a body, or the flickering surface of the sculptures’ skin, we see traces of movement, traces designed to let us believe that art can imitate life, and breathe.

Pushing himself and his work to the very limit, Giacometti had achieved a novel way of representing the human figure. His powerful evocations of men and women who stood for survival—despite the world’s brutality and his own fury—established him as an artist of the first rank.