A Swiss sculptor, painter, draftsman and printmaker, Alberto Giacometti is best known for his elongated, withered representations of the human form. An icon of 20th-century art, his iconic sculpture Walking Man concentrates the suggestive energy of his oeuvre and epitomizes the most powerful aspiration of his time - to humanize the world, history and art.
For the first time ever, an exhibition at Institut Giacometti brings together a collection of several life-size models of this emblematic work of art, including the very first life-size sculpture of Walking Man dating from 1947 as well as Walking Man I, II and III.
Simply titled The Walking Man, the show recounts the history of Giacometti's most celebrated work with most of the variations on that theme, sculpted and drawn, retracing the genealogy of the motif, from the Walking Woman of the Surrealist period to the icons created in 1959-1960.
One of the greatest Modernist sculptors, Alberto Giacometti devoted much of his career to the struggle between matter and meaning, engaging in an extended exploration of how to reduce the figure’s mass as far as possible while imbuing it with essential force. Becoming focused on the human figure, he explored themes of sexuality, obsession, trauma, perception, alienation and anxiety.
In 1930, Giacometti joined André Breton’s Surrealist movement, a period in which he created a series of objects with symbolic and erotic connotations. After distancing himself from the group in 1935, he returned to the question of the representation of the human figure, which would remain the main subject of research for his whole life. After spending the war years in Switzerland, he resumed his work on the human figure, often reflecting the suffering during World War II. These human figures were represented as alone in the world without the possibility to communicate with their fellows.
In 1947, the artist created his first version of Walking Man, followed by several variations on the theme, in works of smaller format. In 1959-1961, he produced three other life-size models for a commission, never fulfilled, for the Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York, which became icons in his oeuvre.
The most famous of the artist's works, Walking Man is a contemporary icon representing humanity. This symbolic sculpture depicts everything about the human being - a matter compressed to its extreme limit, an attitude devoid of pathos, essentially human in its simplicity, a symbol without emphasis, a title without lyricism.
The work that first took on this theme, Walking Woman from 1932 reasserted the importance of the human figure within Giacometti's oeuvre. Based on an imagination that goes back to the principles and posture of Egyptian motifs, the slender body of the figure is similar to an archaeological find. Accepting to present the sculpture at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in 1936, he decided to rework the original model by accentuating the silhouette’s naturalist style. In a letter to his mother, he described it as "probably the best thing I've ever made".
After the war, he undertook experiments for two commissions that were never realized, which turned to be crucible of ideas for new pieces of universal human figures. In 1947, he created two walking bronze figures purposefully made without a stand, making it possible to place it directly on the ground. Although called Walking Man, the first one of the figures didn't have strong gender-related features, as the artist sought to strip all that was not essential to the representation, which distinguishes his work after the war. The second, smaller version features certain parts highlighted with color, tending to epitomize the sculpture rather than to emphasize the resemblance to a specific model.
In the following years, the artist created several sculptures of the motif, but instead of referring to a stereotype of the representation, these referred to the perception of a daily life occurrence. These include The Square from 1948, Men walking quickly in under the rain from 1948, Man walking in the rain from 1949, Man crossing a square from 1949, Man crossing a square on a sunny morning from 1950, all indicative of the desire to restore the immediacy of the movement.
After abandoning the motif for a few years, in 1959 Giacometti was invited to compete for the installation of an outdoor artwork, at the foot of the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York. He decided to create sculptures of various natures in dialogue, one representing a very large and stationary woman, the second a walking man and the third a huge head, all three directly placed on the ground. During the production, the artist encountered many difficulties, reworking his pieces several times. When the works were finally finished, he was unhappy with the result, writing:
All of them are good in some respect, perhaps, but all very far from what I wanted (or thought I wanted), so wide of the mark, so bad that it’s out of the question for me to send them, I’d rather never again make any sculpture, I’d rather die than send those bronzes to New York now.
The sculptor tried to rework the pieces, but finally gave up on the commission. In total, he had four models of giant female figures, two models of Walking Man and two Large Head cast in bronze. They were individually shown in the exhibitions that followed.
Paradoxically, those sculptures, which he considered a disappointment, were very quickly considered his most symbolic oeuvres. The Carnegie Prize was awarded to him in 1961 for Walking Man I, and the sculpture figures amongst the museum masterpieces.
Among the collection of works exhibited in Paris are Walking Woman from 1932, an intriguing figure inspired by Egyptian art; the first Walking Man from 1947 of large dimensions, also inspired by Egyptian art; Three Walking Men from 1948, The Square from 1948 and Man Walking across a Square from 1949, conveying the fugitive vision of life given by the movement of people walking in the distance; the very poetic Figurine between two houses from 1950; and four life-size Walking Men from the 1960s, three of them cast in bronze.
Curated by Catherine Grenier, the museum exhibition The Walking Man will be on view at the Institut Giacometti in Paris until November 11th, 2020.
The museum exhibition will be accompanied by a bilingual catalogue in English and French co-edited by Fondation Giacometti, Paris and FAGE éditions, Lyon, featuring essays by Catherine Grenier, Vincent Blanchard and Franck Joubin and around 100 illustrations.
Featured images: The exhibition view of The Walking Man exhibition at the Fondation Giacometti Institut.