“With space,” Jean-Paul Sartre declared, “Giacometti has to make a man” (“The Search for the Absolute,” Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1948, p. 3). The male heads and busts that Giacometti created during the mid-1950s “are as famous as they are beautiful,” Yves Bonnefoy has stated. “These sculpted faces compel one to face them as if one were speaking to the person, meeting his eyes” (op. cit., 1991, p. 432). Giacometti wrought the likeness of a man in Buste d’homme (Diego au blouson) as if he had been carved into the peak of a craggy precipice, “furrowed and scored with holes and chasms like the rocky walls of the Alps…It signifies matter as such, matter in its essential being. And so the bust became an idea almost as much as a presence: the idea of the triumph of being over nothingness” (ibid., p. 437).
The male heads that Giacometti modeled during this period usually manifest their material mass in one or the other of two radically different figural paradigms. In one group Giacometti modeled the upper chest to serve as an immense base for a small rounded head that appears to diminish even further into the vastness of space surrounding it. Buste d’homme (Diego au blouson) is the artist’s initial representation of an even more striking formal dichotomy, preceding the well-known Grande tête mince, 1954, for which such sculptures became especially prized. When viewed frontally, the head surmounting the broad, massive base appears blade-thin, cut away along the sides, while from the side the silhouette is full-bodied, the head shaped like a spade.
By 1950 Giacometti felt that he had exhausted the possibilities inherent in the attenuated, stick-like figures that he made in his elongated, weightless style during the late 1940s. He now sought to reclaim a more concrete sense of space, without sacrificing that acute degree of expressivity he had long struggled to achieve. Just as he had done in 1935, when he gave up his surrealist and abstract manner, an art created from memory and imagination, Giacometti once again committed himself to working before a living model—his wife Annette for female figures, and his brother Diego for male heads. “Giacometti had indeed chosen the existence of individuals, the here and now as the chief object of his new and future study,” Bonnefoy explained. “He instinctively realized that this object transcended all artistic signs and representations, since it was no less than life itself” (ibid., p. 369).
Giacometti's purpose in re-engaging with the model was not to describe a naturalistic semblance of any conventional kind; he sought instead to create a palpable and convincing representation of the reality of being, as he perceived it in space. “For Giacometti it was the essential presence of the human being, as it appears to the artist, that he sought to grasp,” Christian Klemm has pointed out, “the ceaseless dialogue between seeing and the seen, eye and hand, in which form continually grows and dissolves” (Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001, p. 222).
While Giacometti subjected his brother’s features to varying degrees of distortion, the characteristic traits of Diego’s appearance are always present and recognizable: the powerful gaze of wide-open eyes, the prominent, slightly upturned nose, the full lips, the tall forehead surmounted by a crest of hair. In various busts, he wears a jacket with a turned-up collar, as seen here, or a sweater. By obsessively concentrating on the particulars of a single individual, and exploring these features from sculpture to sculpture, Giacometti conceived the powerful presence of an essential, universal man.
Many modern artists turned to a wife or lover for their chief inspiration, their woman-as-muse. Giacometti’s artistic relationship with his primary model in the heads and busts was masculine on both sides. To achieve the sense of presence that he desired, the sculptor continually built up and broke down the plaster model he held in his hands. “I shall never succeed in putting into a portrait all the power a head contains,” Giacometti lamented (quoted in R. Hohl, ed., Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1998, p. 148). This heroic and seemingly futile, Sisyphean quest, this struggle with being and nothingness, required a staunch, resilient male subject. It was indeed fortunate that this man was Giacometti’s brother, someone who was as close as possible to being a virtual extension of the artist himself.
The various sculptures that Giacometti created of men during the late 1940s stand full-length and are engaged in some sort of motion or activity. His male subjects after 1950 instead took the shape of heads or busts, without arms and a lower body, while he continued to model full-length standing women with their limbs intact—they remain whole, grandly static, and arrestingly physical and sensual in their presence. The men became equally immobile in their pose. By focusing on the head and an armless upper torso, and excluding the rest of the figure, the sculptor emphasized a conception of man no longer applying himself to any effortful action, but given instead to seeing and thinking. The most important sign of life, Giacometti believed, is awareness, a consciousness of the world, perceived through the faculty of one's gaze. “If the gaze, that is life, is the main thing,” he declared, “then the head becomes the main thing, without a doubt. The rest of the body is limited to functioning as antennae that make people’s life possible—the life that is housed in the skull” (quoted in ibid., p. 146).
Buste d’homme (Diego au blouson) is the presence of a man pared down to his essentials. “[Giacometti] seemingly managed to discard what stood in his way in order to discover what is left of man when false pretenses are removed,” Jean Genet wrote. “And when he has succeeded in stripping the chosen being of its utilitarian appearances, the image of it that he gives us is magnificent…Giacometti’s oeuvre communicates the knowledge of each being’s solitude, and the knowledge that this solitude is our greatest glory” (“The Studio of Alberto Giacometti,” in E. White, ed., The Selected Writings of Jean Genet, New York, 1993, pp. 310 and 314).