The Nihilistic Desperation In Alberto Giacometti’s Paintings

A sense of futility pervades Alberto Giacometti’s oeuvre. While his sculptures are relieved in their literal forms, his paintings are distilled in desperation, where form only exists as an illusion.

Aug 24, 2020By Truman Chambers, BFA Two-Dimensional Studies
alberto giacometti
Alberto Giacometti Sitting with his sculptures, via Gagosian Gallery, New York (left); with Homme Assis by Alberto Giacometti, 1950, via Christie’s (right)


Alberto Giacometti was a Swiss sculptor and painter associated with Cubism, Surrealism and contemporary art during the 20th century. He is most well-known for his totemic, humanoid sculptures and is considered one of the most prolific sculptors of his time. His paintings, however, were also unique in their abstraction and sense of rugged desolation. Read more for an analysis of the existential desperation of Giacometti’s paintings. 


The Context Of Alberto Giacometti’s Work

the artists mother
The Artist’s Mother by Alberto Giacometti, 1950, via MoMA, New York 


“it wouldn’t be so bad. If I could just do a head, one head, just once, then maybe I’d have a chance of doing the rest, a landscape, a still life. But it’s impossible”

– Alberto Giacometti


The works of Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti are defined by what they lack. As the world around him was wracked by war in the first half of the 20th century, torn down and reduced in meaning, Giacometti’s works exhibited the same desolate spareness. His sculptures and paintings are reduced to the barest, slightest versions of themselves. Figures appear desiccated and deformed, and even the portraits struggle to recall likeness. All three of Giacometti, the sitter, and the viewer remain isolated from each other. The inability for Giacometti’s works to fulfill their purpose, despite his unrelenting process, brings a sense that the potential for meaning has been entirely eroded. This is the existential dread that pervades Giacometti’s art.


isaku yanaihara alberto giacometti
Isaku Yanaihara by Alberto Giacometti, 1956, via The Art Institute of Chicago


Across his body of work, Alberto Giacometti’s process of reduction is expressed variously. In his sculptures, he would dig away at figures to the point “he would make your head look like the blade of a knife”. In his paintings as well, he was known to endlessly rework a portrait until almost nothing remained. When speaking about the experience of painting the philosopher Isaku Yanaihara, Giacometti remarked “We used to work all day, and by the evening, it was a painting. And the more it worked out, the more he disappeared.” One of the strongest constants in Giacometti’s work is that an inability to uncover meaning is what drives him to act so insistently in deforming and reconstituting his subjects. Accepting that, this notion is best expressed in his paintings, even better than in the sculptures, because of the nature of representational painting as a whole, as well as the crisis of modernist painting, especially as it relates to photography, and its attempts to reinvent itself.

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Why Painting Was Impossible for Giacometti

black annette alberto giacometti
Black Annette by Alberto Giacometti, 1962, via the Guggenheim Museum, New York


In regards to the crisis of modernist painting, take this quote, attributed to Alberto Giacometti by his biographer, James Lord:


“It’s impossible to paint a portrait, he said. Ingres could do it. He could finish a portrait. It was a substitute for a photograph and had to be done by hand because there was no other way of doing it then. But now that has no meaning. The photograph exists and that’s all there is to it.”

(James Lord, A Giacometti Portrait, pg. 9)


On account of the gradual unbinding of oil paint from realist depiction, the finish of a piece has become elusive. In the modernist painting which Alberto Giacometti participated in, the goal could no longer be merely illusionistic, as paintings had been outmoded as the most convincingly “real” looking images. That title now belonged to the photograph. Since the invention of photography, painters have been compelled to reach beyond the visual, but still must abide by the means of the visual. This is the impossibility of painting. The painter must create an imagistic illusion, but can never adequately complete such a task. The painting must come to rest at some point and that point cannot be entirely satisfying, hence, Giacometti’s insistence that he cannot finish a painting.


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Jean Genet by Alberto Giacometti, 1954-55, via Tate, London


The existence of a new standard in representational imagery caused painting to enter a crisis of identity. Especially over the first half of the 20th century, when Alberto Giacometti lived and worked, painting felt the increasing pressure of the photograph as an alternative form of representational imagery. As color photography became commercially available in the 1940s and 50s, the identity of painting was radically shifting, leading to such movements as abstract expressionism, where representation was entirely waylaid in order to reify the qualities which differentiated painting from photography, such as materiality and process. Conversely, in other art forms, such as sculpture, no supremely realistic replacement existed. While sculpture certainly participated in the same arc of modernism as painting, and in some cases led the way (The hugely influential sculptor Constantin Brancussi, for example, was one of the earliest abstract expressionists), the same pressure to reinvent and reestablish itself did not exist.


The Fundamental Issues of Painting

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Man Pointing by Alberto Giacometti, 1947, via Tate, London


As for the nature of painting and its relevance to Alberto Giacometti’s pursuit, we can again understand by comparing it to sculpture. Sculptures, even representational ones, can operate as references to themselves. There is a necessarily assuring reality to a sculptural representation because, by its dimensionality, it is more able to accurately reflect the nature of a real, physical subject. Representational painting, in contrast, is merely illusionistic, and its physical qualities are often more a hindrance to its ability to reflect the subject than an advantage. Incidents of visible brushwork, the canvas grain, or the impasto of the layered paint call attention to the artificiality of a piece. Painting does not lend itself to representation of objects in the observable world nearly as well as sculpture. Painting can be incredibly effective at capturing scenes, or the sense of light, but form is the territory of sculpture.


Considering this, it can be observed how Alberto Giacometti confronts the shortcomings of painting. In Giacometti’s paintings, the subject is formed from a mass of criss-crossed lines. Occasionally this treatment extends across the entire picture but is more typically focused only on the head, with the rest of the space left unformed, or only suggested by hazy masses of paint radiating out from the sitter. Notably, he is not usually describing the head in relation to anything else, intending instead to establish its presence beyond the circumstances in which he is observing it. His goal with painting is not to regard an entire scene or space, but to manifest one definite form. In this way, his painting is sculpture-like.


diego alberto giacometti
Diego by Alberto Giacometti, 1959, via Tate, London


Evident by this is Giacometti’s absolute fixation on a single form, the head, often to the exclusion of all else. So then, in Giacometti’s paintings, where form is a primary issue, if not the only one, the medium is immediately put to test, its limitations exposed. The existence of these limitations is only exacerbated by Giacometti’s relentless pursuit of the tangible form. Over the course of his laborious process, we can observe how Giacometti gradually restructures forms in his paintings, most obviously the heads and bodies of his sitters. He works against the impossibility of a real portrait, and begins attempting to resolve fundamental issues of painting by way of the medium itself. Counterintuitively, the body of his sitter and the image that houses it begins to deform.


seated man alberto giacometti
Seated Man by Alberto Giacometti, 1949, via Tate, London


As another example of Alberto Giacometti reckoning with the issues of painting, his habit of drawing a frame for the subject is notable. A common device in Giacometti’s pictures is the framing of an image inside the image; he often draws another box within the bounds of the canvas, wherein the entire picture is made, leaving the edges unmolested. He is acknowledging and exaggerating the artificial framing of a painting. This works to formalize the subject, trapping it, and ensuring the total isolation of the image and body from the outside world. The image appears more distinct and separate from the outside world. In one sense, by isolating the image in this way, Giacometti aids the attempt to manifest form in his painting, as it is less beholden to the standards of actual, dimensional form. In another sense, the exaggeration of the artificial confines of the picture plane is a sort of self-sabotage, ensuring that the subject of the painting cannot ever be mistaken for a literal form. Regardless, what is clear is Giacometti’s commitment to the tradition and limitations of representational painting, and his refusal to obfuscate the nature of his work; he means to achieve tangible form in painting on his own terms: the established terms of oil painting.


The Loss Of Meaning In Alberto Giacometti’s Paintings

caroline painting alberto giacometti
Caroline by Alberto Giacometti, 1962, via The Art Institute of Chicago


Alberto Giacometti’s work is about loss. This appears in a literal sense through his ceaseless, reductive process, and more abstractly by his engagement with nihilism. While the theme is omnipresent in his practice, there is a particular, shared feeling between painting and this sort of existentialism. The loss of meaning in an unsettled world, as it is reflected in an outmoded medium desperate for a new purpose. The artist’s failed attempts to grasp anything from a void of dread coincide with the futility of conjuring something tangible in painting. Just as the fragile illusion of meaning is dispelled in the world around Giacometti, the illusion of form vanishes from painting with the slightest change in perception.

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By Truman ChambersBFA Two-Dimensional StudiesA painter and contributing writer from Toledo, Ohio. Truman graduated from Bowling Green State University with a BFA in Two-Dimensional Studies.