It is not in the least surprising that a figure of a walking man by Alberto Giacometti should have broken all auction records for a work of 20th century art at Sotheby’s. Giacometti, though diminutive in scale himself, was one of the giants of 20th-century art. It was just a matter of time before the collectors noticed.
Giacometti worked in a variety of mediums - he painted, he sculpted, he drew, he wrote texts - at the tiny, austere studio in Montparnasse which he occupied for almost forty years, from 1926 onwards. But it was for sculptures such as this one that he will be most deservedly remembered. The fact is that these ghostly, over-stretched, attenuated figures, which seem like spectral essences of themselves, haunt the mind and the memory. The sculptures look fragile and lonely, as if they are operating on the extreme outer edge of themselves where only the coldest of cold winds blow. They lack the fuss and the essential sociability of detail. They look stony and bleak in their pared-backness. It is as if Giacometti has boiled man down to his godless essence – yes, don’t forget that he was at his most productive when Existentialism was at its most fashionable in the French capital, that lonely, bleak philosophy which tells us that there is nothing beyond the self which we choose to invent, day in, day out. There is no essence, and no spiritual being to rescue us, this walking man seems to be muttering. This kind of bleakness imbues Giacometti’s work from first to last. It represents a long, hard pitiless stare into the emptiness of all human life, a distillation of what it is to be a human being, now or then. All we can do is to walk and to keep on walking, ever restless, ever unsatisfied, hand in hand with Samuel Beckett.
And yet there is also an amusing paradox at the heart of all this. Giacometti was also gifted with a touch of worldly calculation. He would not have been entirely displeased, we feel, by what has just happened at Sotheby’s. He carefully cultivated the legend of his ruthlessly focused, monastic life from first to last. That hirsute appearance, that leaden, repitilian eye, were photographed by some of the world’s greatest photographers – Irving Penn, Robert Doisneau, Karsh. Were he being photographed today, he might even hazard a small smile of satisfaction.