A Meeting of Two Worlds: Giacometti and the Etruscans

Swiss Sculptor Alberto Giacometti in his Paris studio, 1951

Newton famously attributed his scientific achievements to the fact that he stood “on the shoulders of giants”. As in science, so it is in art. The Swiss sculptor, Alberto Giacometti (1901 – 1966) is famed for his crusty statutes of elongated figures which look as if they had not eaten for weeks. Despite their emaciated appearance, these figures not only became a signature of Giacometti’s postwar artistic style but also an enduring icon of modern art.

While it is widely known that Giacometti was highly influenced by Surrealists such as Joan Miro and Max Ernst, the roots of his “thin figures” go back in time to the Etruscans, a civilization which dominated Central Italy between 900 BC and the establishment of the Roman Empire in 27 BC. A cultured, artistic and pleasure-loving people, Etruscan culture enthralled the world when archaeological digs revealed their treasure troves of richly frescoed tombs, Greek-inspired painted vases, exquisite jewelry and sculpture of metal and stone. One sculpture in particular left a strong impression on Giacometti when he saw it in the early 1960s in a museum in Volterra, near Pisa.

Layers of history in Volterra, Tuscancy, in Central Italy. Seen here are remains of a Roman theatre, Etruscan city walls and medieval houses.

The sculpture in question is an elongated bronze votive figure known as “The Shadow of the Evening”, so named probably because it evokes the shadow of a person cast at dusk. “Shadow” dates back to around 300 BC, a world away from that of Giacometti. Yet when seen side by side with his famous thin figures, their resemblance to “Shadow” is striking.

Ombra della sera (“Shadow of the Evening), Etruscan bronze, 3rd century BC, Museo Etrusco Guernacci, Volterra, Tuscany, Italy.

But there are also notable differences between “Shadow” and Giacometti’s figures. “Shadow” wears a weak smile and originally has a smooth bronze patina from head to toe. By contrast, Giacometti’s figures are solemn and show crusty, almost peeling layers of “skin”, giving them a distinctly melancholic appearance.

Why such sadness? Perhaps here, art imitates life; Giacometti was known for his austere monatic lifestyle (he never left his Paris studio in rue Hippolyte-Maindron which he occupied from 1926 until his death in 1966 despite being able to afford more salubrious housing).

But there is another, most positive side to his art. For Giacometti, men and women are emblems of human endurance rather than weakness or despair. While vicissitudes of life may grind on their psyche like the reworked, texture surfaces of his sculptures, each time, they emerge from the brink, beleaguered but unbowed, or to borrow that famous phrase from Bond, “shaken but not stirred”. It is this rugged, indomitable spirit of hope that counter-intuitively shapes Giacometti’s life – and that of his art.

Further Study

For more examples of Giacometti’s art, visit the website of the Fondation Giacometti.

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