An undisputed masterpiece of Giacometti's sculpture, L'Homme qui marche I is also one of the most iconic images of Modern art. It represents the pinnacle of Giacometti's experimentation with the human form, combining a monumental, imposing size with a rich rendering of the surface. Capturing a transient moment in the figure's movement, Giacometti created both a humble image of an ordinary man, and a potent symbol of humanity.
The present work is the first of two versions of L'Homme qui marche, executed in 1960, at the highpoint of Giacometti's mature period. By this time, the image of a standing or walking human figure was established as pivotal to the artist's iconography. Between 1947 and 1950 Giacometti made several sculptures on the subject of the walking man, alone or in a small group positioned on a platform suggestive of a city square (fig. 3). Never before, however, had he tackled this image on a monumental scale. Giacometti's lean, wiry figures reached their ultimate form during this period. No longer interested in recreating physical likenesses in his sculptures, the artist began working from memory, seeking to capture his figures beyond the physical reality of the human form. In the years after the Second World War his figures were reduced to their bare essential form, displaying an austerity that embodied the artist's existentialist concerns, and reflecting the lonely and vulnerable human condition.
The sculpture originated as part of the public project that Giacometti was commissioned to do for the Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York, which, when completed, was to be the first modernist outdoor project in the city's financial district. While the installation was never completed, L'Homme qui marche I became an iconic work in its own right. A committee consisting of curators and major figures from principal public museums in New York and Boston selected Giacometti over Alexander Calder and Isamu Noguchi for the project. Given Giacometti's fascination with the theme of city squares, as well as his high international acclaim, he was perhaps the obvious choice for this commission. According to James Lord, the artist 'was immediately responsive to the American proposal. It is true that he felt a keen nostalgia for the idea of executing a sculpture to be placed in a city square, and that the theme of people seen either singly or in groups in urban environments had long been important to him. [...] Alberto wrote to his mother of the project. It interested him passionately, he said' (J. Lord, Giacometti. A Biography, New York, 1983, pp. 377-378).
Christian Klemm explained the genesis of this project: 'In 1956 Gordon Bunshaft, the architect of the headquarters of the Chase Manhattan Bank, invited Giacometti to design a group of sculpted figures for the plaza on Pine Street in New York City. His suggestion that the Three Walking Men of 1949 could be enlarged to a height of nearly sixty feet was hardly likely to find favour with an artist for whom questions of dimension were a central issue. But after lengthy deliberations Giacometti proposed a group of larger-than-life-size sculptures: a standing woman, a walking man, and a head on a pedestal, representing the three major themes that almost exclusively occupied him in his mature sculptural work. He made tiny models and started, in his cramped studio, to work on a number of variants for the large figures. In 1960 a head, four different women, and two variants of the Walking Men were cast, albeit without ever arriving at their ultimate destination' (C. Klemm in Alberto Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York & Kunsthaus, Zurich, 2001-02, p. 232).
In preparation for the Chase Manhattan project, Giacometti executed a number of sculptures, among which, according to the sculptor, were at least forty versions of the walking man. However Giacometti destroyed most of them, and only seems to have been satisfied with the two versions that remain today – L'Homme qui marche I and II. He struggled with the project as a whole, claiming later: 'I had practically no feelings about how they should be grouped' (A. Giacometti in David Sylvester, Looking at Giacometti, London, 1994, p. 228). Realising that it would take him many years to complete, Giacometti eventually abandoned the project, however he was evidently satisfied with the individual figures, which he had cast in bronze and exhibited. A cast of L'Homme qui marche I was first exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1962.
Giacometti paid significant attention to the modelling of his works, and L'Homme qui marche I exhibits a vibrancy and vitality unique to his sculpture. The rich treatment of the bronze, its deep recesses and moulds, create a dynamic surface, and invite a play of light and shadow in such a way that they become a part of the work itself. As Valerie J. Fletcher observed: 'Although the sculpture's eyes are almost on the viewer's level, the figure remains essentially remote, staring out at an unseen goal. With its gnarled, devastated surfaces, Walking Man I stands as a symbol of humanity always striving, ever seeking, never at peace. The roughly modeled surfaces shimmer under different light conditions, as if indicating the transient nature of reality, and the figure's nervous energy activates the surrounding space' (V. J. Fletcher, Alberto Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. & San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 1988-89, p. 218).
Other casts of L'Homme qui marche I are now in major public collections, such as the Carnegie Institute Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Fondation Maeght, St. Paul-de-Vence and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo. Casts of L'Homme qui marche II are in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo; Fondation Beyeler, Basel (fig. 2); the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, and Fondation Maeght, St. Paul-de-Vence.
Alberto Giacometti at the Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght, St. Paul-de-Vence, in the mid-1960s
Fig. 1, Giacometti in his studio, working on L'Homme qui marche. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger
Fig. 2, Alberto Giacometti, L'Homme qui marche II, 1960, bronze, Fondation Beyeler, Basel
Fig. 3, Alberto Giacometti, La Place, 1948, bronze, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Fig. 4, Giacometti installing his sculptures at the Galerie Maeght, Paris, 1961. Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Exhibition of Painting & Sculpture by Giacometti and Dubuffet, 1968, no. 13, illustrated in the catalogue (titled Great Walking Figure)
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Giacometti, 1976, no. 16, illustrated in the catalogue
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Masters in 20th Century Art, 1979
Dresdner Bank, Frankfurt (on public display from circa 1980 until 2009)
Frankfurt, Museum für Moderne Kunst, Szenenwechsel XIV, 1998-99, no. 334, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Berlin, Kunsthalle Koidl, Kunstsammlung Dresdner Bank, 2008, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Height: 183cm. 72in.
Carlo Huber, Alberto Giacometti, Zurich, 1970, illustration of another cast p. 71
Axel Matthes (ed.), Louis Aragon mit anderen, Wege zu Giacometti, Munich, 1987, no. 11, illustration of another cast p. 53
Herbert & Mercedes Matter, Giacometti, New York, 1987, illustration of another cast p. 150
Tahar Ben Jelloun, Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 1991, illustration of another cast p. 3
Yves Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti, biographie d'une œuvre, Paris, 1991, no. 390, illustration of another cast p. 409
Ernst Scheidegger, Traces d'une amitié, Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 1991, illustration of another cast p. 146
Andreas Bee, Zehn Jahre Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, 2003, illustrated in colour p. 334
Behind the Mirror: Aimé Maeght and his Artists (exhibition catalogue), Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2008-09, illustration of the cast in the Fondation Maeght p. 131
'Walking Man I stands as a symbol of humanity always striving, ever seeking'
Valerie J. Fletcher
Galerie Maeght, Paris (acquired from the artist)
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York (acquired from the above in December 1961)
Mr & Mrs Isidore M. Cohen, New York (acquired in 1962)
Dr Milton Ratner, New York
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York (acquired in 1980)
Dresdner Bank AG, Frankfurt (acquired from the above in 1980)
Acquired from the above by the present owner