While occupying an important place in the pantheon of modern art, Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) is not a name that resonates with the general public as loudly as Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso or Andy Warhol. More people could probably describe the artistry of Jackson Pollock or Roy Lichtenstein than Giacometti, and yet, at the high end
of the art market, the Swiss sculptor is breaking records. In 2010, his L’homme qui marche I (Walking Man I) became the most expensive art work ever sold at auction, bringing $103.4 million at Sotheby’s in London.
Giacometti’s success didn’t end there. On Nov. 4, 2014, one of his pieces took the highest bid at the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale at Sotheby’s in New York. His Chariot, a painted bronze figure of an impossibly spindly figure standing atop a two-wheeled contraption, went for an impressive $100,965,000 (hammer with buyer’s premium).
Obviously, Giacometti has soared out of reach for most collectors, but his rise is indicative of a larger trend. Sculpture, which long had ridden in the auction world’s backseat when compared with paintings, has been hitting higher numbers. Bids are increasing even for sculptures cast in relatively large editions after the death of the artist. In the 21st century, prices for Auguste Rodin pieces have gone up 400 to 500 percent. With the masters leading the way, work in bronze, clay or stone by lesser-known talents may also rise in value.
Giacometti also painted and made prints, but earned most of his fame in sculpting. The son of Swiss artist Giovanni Giacometti (1868-1933) and brother of Swiss sculptor and designer Diego Giacometti (1902-1985), Alberto was born in Borgonovo in the Canton of Grigioni, an area of Switzerland inhabited in part by Italian speakers. Giacometti studied art in Geneva before moving to the center of modern art, Paris, in 1922. There, he studied sculpture under Antoine Bourdelle, a former apprentice of Rodin. By 1925, his focus turned to sculpture; his painting, which resembled his father’s Post-Impressionist and Fauvist style, was put aside. His brother Diego followed him to Paris and, in 1927, they moved into a studio in Montparnasse, where Alberto worked for the remainder of his life. In those early years, Giacometti worked in a variety of modernist modes, including Cubist sculptural works such as Composition (Man) and Composition (Man and Woman) in 1927. He dabbled in African art, whose simplified forms of the human figure, sexual and symbolic, became a lasting innuendo in his work. By 1930, Giacometti had met the French writer Georges Bataille (1897-1962) and Surrealist painters Joan Miro (1893-1983) and Max Ernst (1891-1976) who drew Giacometti officially into the Surrealist group of artists in Paris.
For the first half on the 1930s, Giacometti was shown widely. A 1930 group exhibition in Paris with Miro and fellow Surrealist Jean Arp lead to his first one-man show in Paris and other Surrealist shows in the city; a 1936 exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and others in Brussels, Zurich and Copenhagen. For the next decade Giacometti struggled and stalled and eventually abandoned the Surrealist style. Near the end of 1941, with the German occupation in place for more than a year, Giacometti, prompted by his mother, returned to live with her in Geneva. There he met, fell in love with and married Annette Arm, who remained with the artist until his death.
Returning to the French capital in late 1945 and riding on the exuberance of postwar Paris, his sculpture matured into what would become his masterpieces.
His figures were now looming tall and skeletal, mounted on heavy bases and exuding a sense of isolation and unease; a universal consequence of the devastating war related to by millions. His friend, French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (author of the seminal
work Being and Nothingness) penned two essays on his work, introducing an existential interpretation of his paintings and sculptures as “beings in the void of existence.”
It’s not hard to imagine the philosophical bond the two men must have shared. He also resumed his drawing, sketching portraits, nudes and still lifes with a fervor of lines and smudges overlapping and often obscuring his subject matter.
Giacometti’s postwar work brought him into greater international attention. He exhibited repeatedly during those years at such prestigious venues as New York’s Pierre Matisse Gallery and Paris’ Galerie Maeght. Museums acquired his work, and he had retrospectives at the Arts Council Gallery in London and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. In 1962, he was awarded the grand prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale. In 1957, Giacometti began what he called “the artist’s last testament to his own life and to modern art,” the book Paris Sans Fin illustrated with 150 plates depicting Giacometti’s sketches of Paris. Completed in 1962, the work was published posthumously in 1969 in an edition of 250. The lithograph proofs (a pre-publication edition of 20) currently sell for around $2,400 each.
The Swiss National Bank honored its citizen artist with a 100-franc bank note, issued in 1988. The paper currency depicts a portrait of Giacometti on the obverse and his sculpture, Lotar ll, four views of L’Homme qui marche I on the reverse.
Walking Man I, Giacometti’s 100 million dollar man, captured the world’s attention with its record-breaking price tag. Standing 6 feet tall, the gangling stick-thin figure, elongated and modeled with a bark-like surface from head to toe, conjures the horror genre of a walking dead man, aimless and forlorn. Cast in 1960, it was commissioned for the Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York for an outdoor installation alongside the 60-story glass-and-steel Chase building, although the installation was never realized. Commenting after the 2010 London sale, Philip Hook, senior director of Impressionist and Modern Art for Sotheby’s (London) described the sculpture as “the 20th century equivalent of Michelangelo’s David or Rodin’s Thinker.” Although the antithesis of Michelangelo’s ideal, David, Giacometti’s man illustrates the changing aesthetic in what attracts the eye or the soul of the collector.
If money talks, then it follows Giacometti walking into the record books.