Qu’est-ce qu’un tête, Giacometti?

Alberto Giacometti by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1961)

Alberto Giacometti by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1961)

Alberto Giacometti’s portraits are some of my favorite 20th century works, and the painter himself is probably one of my very favorite artists. Critics laud his work, as they should, but he was also wise, his observations penetrating, and his tireless work ethic an inspiration.

That being said, I really haven’t written much about Giacometti, though he certainly stands out in my mind as an influential artist. After poking around the interwebs a bit to uncover some post inspiration, I ran across a 2001 french documentary: “Qu’est-ce qu’une tête? [What is a head?]”. The film skims the surface of his biography, divulging details every now and again about certain events and personalities in his life, but the root topic is an exploration of how Giacometti conceptualized and realized the human head in his artwork. Filmmakers unfolded these philosophies with a patchwork of old video/audio of Giacometti and new interviews with people that were close to him.

“What interests me most in the head? The whole head interests me.” -Giacommetti

Well, Alberto, I feel ya. So I watched the documentary, piecing together and discussing what I consider to be the bones of the topic.


Alberto Giacometti by Sabine Weiss (1954)

Alberto Giacometti by Sabine Weiss (1954)

When artists sit down to paint a portrait, it is the physical features that we draw first and foremost. The eyes, in particular, beckon our gaze; they can sing a like a siren, promising to expose the soul of the subject. They confuse and intrigue us with their direct yet mysterious nature, and it’s easy to find ourselves forgetting the rest of the painting and attending to the eyes like we’re circling a drain.

Though he might pay careful attention to them, Giacometti was not seeking to have the viewer marvel at the eyes, however.

“But I think now what must happen is to construct as precisely as possible, the eye. Because if I have that, if I have the root of the nose, the starting point for the eyes, the curve of the eye itself, everything would flow from there.” -Giacometti

I noticed that in other interviews Giacometti mentions concentrating upon certain physical features on the face but then quickly steers away from isolating those areas as paramount to the portrait. Take this account of painting a skull:

“Since I wanted as much detail as possible, I’d spend days trying to find the root of a tooth. which goes up close to the nose and to follow is as precisely as possible in its entire movement. I wanted to do the whole skull, but I couldn’t. I was reduced to doing the lower part, the mouth, or the nose, the eye sockets but no more…” -Giacometti

In both of these quotes, Giacometti chose physical features (the eyes or the tooth) upon which to focus, not because they unveiled something about the model in particular, but because he saw them as pivotal points of connection with the rest of the face. Perhaps the key word here is root: something that lies hidden but to which all the visible features connect to create that overall expression.

After all, a head is not just eyes or ears, a nose or a mouth. When looking at a head, we are affected by the impression of all these elements combined.

In an audio clip of Giacometti discussing “The Scribe”, an Egyptian sculpture in the Louvre, he notes that “…we reproduced the eyes with glass or stones, we imitated the eye as closely as possible. But ‘The Scribe’ doesn’t look at you. He has glass eyes, which bothers me in spite of my adoration for ‘The Scribe.'” Giacometti says that obviously the sculpture of the artwork was very skilled and knowledgeable than, say, a sculptor of the New Hebrides works. However, the New Hebrides objects manage to “render the expression without modeling the eye—and only the expression counts.”

Comparing the faces of "The Scribe" (left) and New Hebrides sculpture (right). Screenshots from the video.

Comparing the faces of “The Scribe” (left) and New Hebrides sculpture (right). [Images are screenshots from the video.]

He declares that this tribal work, despite its lack of realistic features, is actually more akin to reality. Reality is, after all, not a stagnant thing but an experience; and the very word experience seems to lean more towards the verbal quality of expression than the inert nature of a single physical feature.


Alberto Giacometti, "Portrait of David Sylvester" 1960 at MoMA

“Portrait of David Sylvester” (1960) at MoMA

The head isn’t the only thing of consequence in a portrait; one cannot consider an object without also including the space around that object. It is a prickly beast to render, because for the most part, this “space” is just air. It is invisible and yet utterly essential. How an artist grapples with the problem is very revealing, I think, as to the artist’s view of how humans connect with the world.

So what kind of air surrounds Giacometti’s head? His friend, Jacques Dupin, recalls how the artist sensed a sort of emptiness enveloping everyone and everything:

“He said he felt this emptiness which completely isolates people he saw in the street, and the head, too, even objects, the table, the briefcase…He said of a briefcase on a chair at his place that is seemed to float in emptiness. That the stools and table in the cafe also seemed to flaot, etc. That the waiter suddenly stopped, he froze as he was pouring the drink he’d ordered. It was a revelation which completely changed his perception of the model and of finding in the head an unsolvable mystery.”

Alberto Giacometti, "Diego" 1959)

“Diego” (1959)

Although he describes objects as “floating”, this emptiness is not a weightless one. It is heavy, a force that isolates and freezes, that actively drives a wedge between people and things and skirts out of our grasp when we try to understand it. The weight and power of that emptiness creates a kind of aura around Giacometti’s model. The brushstrokes around the head are often a perceptibly different shade than the other background strokes, resulting in a kind of weight by layers.

Furthermore, he uses an interesting framing technique to underline this idea of isolation:

“It’s amusing, this need to encage something and even to build into his paintings sometimes successive frames. I find it quite clever because the cages condense things. When something’s encaged, you obviously look at it more. If there is space around, it gets lost in space. That way it takes on more consistency.” -Roger Montandon

Roger Montandon goes on to say:

“But at the same time, I hear Giacometti saying something which struck me. When he sis portraits he’d stop and say, ‘It’s no good, no good…’ But the next day he’d say, ‘There’s an opening.'”

Jacques Dupin mentions something along the same lines:

“He always talks about an opening. It’s open. None of his drawings are closed like a drawing by Matisse. or a drawing by Picasso. But maybe like one by Cezanne which is indeed open…or by Bonnard.”

"Sir Robert Sainsbury" 1958, Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti 1994-0640 © Succession Alberto Giacometti 2013

“Sir Robert Sainsbury” (1958) Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti 1994-0640 © Succession Alberto Giacometti 2013

What is this ‘opening’? They don’t talk about it too much in the film, here’s what I think. Let’s look at the definition of ‘open’:

adjective: (1) allowing access, passage, or a view through an empty space; not closed or blocked up. (2)exposed to the air or to view; not covered.
verb: (2) move or adjust (a door or window) so as to leave a space allowing access and view. (2) unfold or be unfolded; spread out.

The word prompts me to imagine movement and heat radiating from a body, of water bursting from a pipe and and the rhythm of breath coming and going freely from the lungs.

It seems that although the air around the head appears heavy and the frames around the portrait encages the model somewhat, Giacometti did not, in the end, see the human as a helpless lump in the world. There is always a balance – an eternal battle perhaps – between the inward pressure of isolation and the outward energy of life.

“When you pose there is immobility, yet you aren’t movement itself. Everything, the head the nose…everything is alive, defends itself in the middle of space which with Alberto often resembles an abyss…” -Roger Montandon


As much as he enclosed the head, Giacometti sought to tear down those barriers by giving the head its own energy:

“The most insignificant head, or the least violent one…in the vaguest, weakest head, or in the most deficient state, if I begin to look at it and try to draw it, paint it or rather sculpt it — it all transforms into a tense form and it always seems extremely violent…contained. For it to exist, not to be crushed, requires a certain strength to maintain it!” -Giacometti

"Yanaihara de profil", 16 ou 18 octobre 1956 Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris, inv. 1994-0620  © Succession Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris + ADAGP, Paris)

“Yanaihara de profil” (16 ou 18 octobre 1956) Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris, inv. 1994-0620 © Succession Alberto Giacometti

Life does not come from exactly copying the living model in from of him, however. Roger Montandon explains that the artist was always “seeking to get a likeness…It isn’t a resemblance…not photographic…or anecdotal…” As we discussed above, Giacometti saw less reality in rendering the exact shape of things than he did the broad relationship between features. He was not cloning the living being before him but searching to create a life unique to the artwork.

Formally, the energy in the Giacometti portraits seem to come from his style of painting and drawing.

“There’s a sort of search…something desperate, a sort of perpetual contradiction…They are living drawings, they refute what immobilizes a drawing, the contour, there is a constant trembling, a sort of trembling of life. This is permanently with him, one line questions the next and so on…” -Ernest Pignon-Ernest

There is freedom of line and contour in the face, and that wild, sketch-like quality leaves the viewer with the sense that the head is “unfinished.” The action of the artist’s hand is almost perceptible in the somewhat scribbled strokes. The form’s future still seems open to change.


Alberto Giacometti, "Rita" 1965 Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti 1994-0626, © Succession Alberto Giacometti 2013

“Rita” (1965) Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti 1994-0626, © Succession Alberto Giacometti 2013

Giacometti wrote a story in 1946 called “The Dream, the Sphinx, and the Death of T.” Dupion summarized the tale, saying that Giacometti described two deaths (or two very different effects of death). The first was the obvious one: a description of a friend who had just died, who lies as a meaningless object in the other room. However, “at the same time, the whole personality of this dead friend filled the studio and the street. It was everywhere in the air except in the dead body…”

This strange contradiction was a weighty subject for Giacometti: “This feeling that death also inhabited the living – the living more than the dead – obsessed him constantly.” -Dupin

And that fight for life against the tide of inevitable death appears in these portraits. Perhaps the very thing that brings the head to life – that jungle of individual brushstrokes – is also what alludes to its eventual demise. The portrait’s form is a stubborn knot of lines and pigment that threatens to be disentangled.

“If you talk about a head, when Alberto wants to make a head come alive and Haute….It’s obvious that its a function of the disappearance of this head. It will disappear, so it must live before disappearing. It must be given all its strength to resist. He is aware of this. But at the same time, death, the feeling of death, I find it behind all his work, obscurely or clearly, constantly. There’s a sort of constant anguish.” -Roger Montandon

Alberto Giacometti, “Portrait of Jean Genet”, 1954 – 1955)

Alberto Giacometti, “Portrait of Jean Genet”, 1954 – 1955)


“You could sit for a thousand years and I’m certain in a thousand years I’d say, ‘Everything’s wrong, but I’m getting a little closer’” -Giacometti

“…my only concern [is] to focus more on the same subject and try to push it as far as possible without worrying about the outcome. Because whether it’s a failure or a success, the truth is exactly the same. There’s only success in relation to failure. The more it fails, the more it succeeds.” -Giacometti

Those quotes sums up much of what his life and portraits were about. He was a hard worker and a perfectionist, but he did not strive to create a paragon of aesthetic beauty. Instead, Giacometti set his sights on, well, something he could not see. He insisted on following the path towards a more dynamic goal; a painting that snares some true vein of reality and that insists on reaching out and connecting with viewers for as long as time allows.

Of course, those are just my thoughts at the moment. There’s much more in those portraits, and I have so many more questions swimming about in my head…and I think that is what Giacometti would want.

Enjoy the movie! (Don’t worry…there are English subtitles!)


"Qu'est-ce qu'une tête ?", de Michel Van Zele (France 2000 - coul, 64 minutes)

“Qu’est-ce qu’une tête ?”, de Michel Van Zele (France 2000 – coul, 64 minutes)

[Note: title photo is “Alberto and Annette Giacometti in the studio in Stampa” by Ernst Scheidegger, Paris (1965)]


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