Today is the birthday (1901) of Alberto Giacometti, Swiss sculptor, painter, draughtsman and printmaker. Giacometti was born in Borgonovo, now part of the Swiss municipality of Bregaglia, near the Italian border. He was a descendant of Protestant refugees escaping the inquisition. Alberto attended the Geneva School of Fine Arts. His father, Giovanni Giacometti, was a well known post-Impressionist painter and his brothers, Diego (1902–85) and Bruno (1907–2012), went on to become artists as well. Additionally, Zaccaria Giacometti, later professor of constitutional law and chancellor of the University of Zurich grew up together with them, having been orphaned at the age of 12 in 1905.
In 1922 Giacometti moved to Paris to study under the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, an associate of Rodin. It was there that Giacometti experimented with cubism and surrealism and came to be regarded as one of the leading surrealist sculptors. Among his associates were Miró, Max Ernst, Picasso, Bror Hjorth and Balthus.
Between 1936 and 1940, Giacometti concentrated his sculpting on the human head, focusing on the sitter’s gaze. He preferred models he was close to: his sister, Ottilia, and the artist Isabel Rawsthorne (then known as Isabel Delmer). This was followed by a phase in which his statues of Isabel became stretched out; her limbs elongated. He often carved until his sculptures were as thin as nails and reduced to the size of a pack of cigarettes, much to his own consternation. A friend of his once said that if Giacometti decided to sculpt you, “he would make your head look like the blade of a knife.” After his marriage to Annette Arm in 1946 his tiny sculptures became larger, but the larger they grew, the thinner they became. Giacometti said that the final result represented the sensation he felt when he looked at a woman.
His paintings underwent a parallel procedure. The figures appear isolated and severely attenuated, as the result of continuous reworking. Subjects were frequently revisited: one of his favorite models was his younger brother Diego.
In 1958 Giacometti was asked to create a monumental sculpture for the Chase Manhattan Bank building in New York, which was beginning construction. Although he had for many years “harbored an ambition to create work for a public square”, he “had never set foot in New York, and knew nothing about life in a rapidly evolving metropolis. Nor had he ever laid eyes on an actual skyscraper,” according to his biographer James Lord. Giacometti’s work on the project resulted in the four figures of standing women—his largest sculptures—entitled Grande femme debout I through IV (1960). The commission was never completed, however, because Giacometti was unsatisfied by the relationship between the sculpture and the site, and abandoned the project.
In 1962, Giacometti was awarded the grand prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale, and the award brought with it worldwide fame. Even when he had achieved popularity and his work was in demand, he still reworked models, often destroying them or setting them aside to be returned to years later. The prints produced by Giacometti are often overlooked but the catalogue raisonné, Giacometti – The Complete Graphics and 15 Drawings by Herbert Lust (Tudor 1970), comments on their impact and gives details of the number of copies of each print. Some of his most important images were in editions of only 30 and many were described as rare in 1970.
In his later years Giacometti’s works were shown in a number of large exhibitions throughout Europe. Riding a wave of international popularity, and despite his declining health, he traveled to the United States in 1965 for an exhibition of his works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As his last work he prepared the text for the book Paris sans fin, a sequence of 150 lithographs containing memories of all the places where he had lived.
Giacometti died in 1966 of heart disease (pericarditis) and chronic bronchitis at the Kantonsspital in Chur in Switzerland. His body was returned to his birthplace in Borgonovo, where he was interred close to his parents.
Normally I end my posts on artists with a gallery (before my recipe), but for Giacometti I’m going to give you some of my favorite quotes of his. I look at his art better through them.
What I am looking for is not happiness. I work solely because it is impossible for me to do anything else.
The more you fail, the more you succeed. It is only when everything is lost and – instead of giving up – you go on, that you experience the momentary prospect of some slight progress. Suddenly you have the feeling – be it an illusion or not – that something new has opened up.
When I make my drawings… the path traced by my pencil on the sheet of paper is, to some extent, analogous to the gesture of a man groping his way in the darkness.
In a burning building I would save a cat before a Rembrandt.
The one thing that fills me with enthusiasm is to try, despite everything, to get nearer to those visions that seem so hard to express.
Failure is my best friend. If I succeeded, it would be like dying. Maybe worse.
The head is what matters. The rest of the body plays the part of antennae making life possible for people and life itself is inside the skull.
I don’t know who I am or who I was. I know it less than ever. I do and I don’t identify myself with myself. Everything is totally contradictory, but maybe I have remained exactly as I was as a small boy of twelve.
The cooking of the Italian Graubünden or Italian Grigioni (Grigionitaliano or Grigioni italiano) where Giacometti was born and lived for some time is very much like the cuisine of Lombardy because most of the Swiss Italians of that region came originally from Lombardy. Milanese-style saffron risotto is a popular dish and I gave a recipe for it here on Verdi’s birthday which happens to be today also — https://www.bookofdaystales.com/giuseppe-verdi/ . In fact pretty much any dish from Lombardy would work.
Turkey with chestnut stuffing is popular in this region at this time of year. Italian turkeys are usually smaller than the U.S. monsters which I think is great deal better from a culinary standpoint. For me an 8 to 10 pound turkey is more than adequate for a family meal and if you have a large number of guests (at Thanksgiving for example) cook two, rather than one giant bird. That way you stand a chance of the meat tasting of something other than cardboard. Here’s the classic Lombardy chestnut stuffing for a turkey that is no more than 5 pounds:
2 eggs, hard boiled
125ml white wine
4 fresh Italian sausages,
salt and black pepper,
100g sliced white bread, diced
Preheat oven to 425°F/220°C with the rack in the middle. Cut an X in the rounded side of each chestnut with a small sharp knife. Roast the chestnuts, cut side up, in a shallow baking pan until the shells curl away from the nut meat (20 to 30 minutes). Wrap the hot chestnuts in a kitchen towel and squeeze gently to further loosen shells. Whilst still warm, peel off the shells.
Soak the bread in milk.
Chop the chestnuts and eggs coarsely.
Heat the butter in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat and, when melted, add all the other ingredients. Season with salt and pepper to taste and cook for 5-10 minutes stirring frequently so that the ingredients do not stick and so that they are all combined thoroughly.
Stuff the cavity of the turkey and roast.