Illustrated companion

Between 1925 and 1928 Giacometti made a group of sculptures which, later, in a letter of 1948 to his gallery in New York, he said were the 'closest I could get to my vision of reality' but, he added, '... they lacked something that I felt about the whole, a structure, a sharpness that I saw as well, a kind of skeleton in space'. The search for these qualities led him most immediately to the open-structured very abstracted sculptures of his Surrealist phase, such as 'Hour of the Traces' in the Tate Gallery collection [T01981], but the phrase 'a kind of skeleton in space' seems an apt description too of his later works such as this. 'Man Pointing' is in fact one of the first sculptures in which Giacometti finally realised to his own satisfaction his vision of the human figure. It is roughly life-size in terms of its height but is inordinately thin. Giacometti has described how, in the years from 1942-7, during which he forged this final style, first 'to my terror the sculptures became smaller and smaller. Only when small were they like ... A big figure seemed to me to be false and a small one just as intolerable and thus with a final stroke of the knife they disappeared into dust.' Then, when he made further efforts to make large figures after his return to Paris in 1945, he found 'to my surprise, that only when long and slender were they like'. The extreme slenderness and blurred outlines of a figure such as 'Man Pointing', combined with its nevertheless vivid human presence, tends to create a feeling of distance. This is even more apparent in other sculptures. such as the 'Four Figurines on a Base' [Tate Gallery T00773], which gives the impression of a group of figures seen on the horizon. This, of course, is because things appear smaller to us and less defined the further away they are. So Giacometti is making sculptures of the human figure as if he is seeing it from a distance, and it seems that this is the basic nature of his vision. This would explain why his figures only looked real to him when very small or very thin. Beyond this Giacometti's sculptures suggest a range of associations and interpretations which may be left to the viewer to explore. However, it is worth noting that they were greatly admired by the Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as by Giacometti's friend, Sartre's protege, the Existentialist writer Jean Genet, whose portrait by Giacometti is in the Tate Gallery collection [T04905]. Giacometti's sculptures do undeniably suggest a vision of human beings as isolated, lonely creatures suffering the anguish of existence in a universe without any given meaning. Genet wrote of them: 'The resemblance of his figures to each other seems to me to represent that precious point at which human beings are confronted with the most irreducible fact: the loneliness of being exactly equivalent to all others.'

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.196