Diego is an oil painting by the Swiss born sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti, signed and dated by the artist on its front lower right-hand side. The work is a portrait of Giacometti’s younger brother, Diego Giacometti, who is depicted alone against a sparsely painted grey backdrop, infused with tones of ochre and sage green. The background is built up in layers, so that the thinly coated periphery of the painting, where patches of the canvas remain exposed, give way to a more densely painted centre from which the figure of Diego emerges. In contrast to the broad, sweeping brushstrokes that make up the ground of the painting, the figure is formed from thin, linear strokes of black, white and grey paint. The outline of the torso is lightly sketched, while the head is heavily worked and solid in appearance, with the paint applied in shorter, thicker, layered marks. In 1960 Giacometti stated that this painting was ‘made in two short evening sittings’, and indeed the variety of mark-making and the movement of line within the work give the impression of intense energy and urgency. (Quoted in Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, p.283.)
Giacometti’s rendering of Diego’s face directly confronts the viewer’s eye-line, taking on the scale of a real human head. When seen from afar the subject’s features seem distinct and sculptural in form. The lines making up the face are suggestive of incisions in plaster or clay, creating the appearance of deep-set, contoured eye-sockets and hollowed out cheeks. However, when the painting is seen close-to, the defined features distort into an abstract flurry of lines and marks. This parallels Giacometti’s own way of seeing: while he could determine his subjects as whole forms from a distance, up close, as he stated in 1951, he could perceive them only ‘as a blur’. (Quoted in Sylvester 1994, p.37.) Because of this Giacometti often made his portraits standing around nine feet away from his model. As described by the curator Peter Selz works such as Diego ‘do not allow us to come into intimate contact with [their subjects]. They remain unreachable and can only be seen from the distance from which they were modelled or painted.’ (Selz 1965, p.9.)
An artist in his own right and a lifelong assistant to his brother, Diego was a recurrent subject of Giacometti’s. The older artist’s very first sculpture was a head of Diego made in 1914, and throughout his career he continued to paint and sculpt studies of his brother. However, whereas earlier portraits of Diego gave equal attention to both the sitter and their environment – often the artist’s studio – from the late 1950s Giacometti’s focus shifted to the figure.
Darkened and skull-like, the heads of this later period seem to emerge from nothingness, appearing alone and isolated in space. Giacometti’s later subjects are also surrounded by what looks like a heavy cloud or mist, often painted a lighter shade of grey, as appears in Diego. This later stylistic development might be seen as an exploration of the work of Giacometti’s close friends and contemporaries in Paris, who included the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and the writer Jean Genet, who sought to reconsider how a person related to the world after the violence of the First and Second World Wars. A comment made by Giacometti in 1945, fourteen years before he painted Diego, seems to explain the halo-like form along these lines:
I have often felt in front of living beings, above all in front of human heads, the sense of a space-atmosphere which immediately surrounds these beings, penetrates them, is already the being itself.
(Quoted in Sylvester 1994, p.34.)
This statement suggests that Giacometti was less interested in the loss of an environment for his figures than in the integration and confrontation of the subject and the world around them. Diego, in particular, is a significant work because it captures one of Giacometti’s most enduring subjects at this moment of great transition in his practice, and now stands as a defining work of his later oeuvre.
Lucius Grisebach, Alberto Giacometti: Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, Munich and New York 1987, reproduced p.82.
Peter Selz, Alberto Giacometti, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1965, reproduced p.9.
David Sylvester, Looking at Giacometti, London 1994, reproduced pp.34 and 37.