Michael Glover: Giacometti showed man boiled down to his godless essence

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The Independent Culture

It is not in the least surprising that a figure of a walking man by Alberto Giacometti should have broken auction records for 20th-century art at Sotheby's. Giacometti was a giant of 20th-century art. It was just a matter of time before the collectors noticed.

Giacometti painted, he drew, he wrote texts – in his tiny austere studio in Montparnasse. But it was for sculptures such as this that he will be most deservedly remembered. These ghostly, overstretched, attenuated figures, spectral essences of themselves, haunt the mind and the memory.

The sculptures lack the essential sociability of detail. They look stony and bleak. It is as if Giacometti has boiled man down to his godless essence – he was at his most productive when Existentialism was at its most fashionable in the French capital. There is no essence, no spiritual being to rescue us, this walking man seems to be muttering. This bleakness imbues Giacometti's work from first to last. All we can do is walk and to keep on walking, ever restless, ever unsatisfied, hand in hand with Samuel Beckett.

There is also a paradox. Giacometti was gifted with worldly calculation. He would not have been displeased by what has happened at Sotheby's. He carefully cultivated the legend of his monastic life. That hirsute appearance, that leaden, reptilian eye, were photographed by some of the world's greatest photographers – Irving Penn, Robert Doisneau, Karsh. Were he being photographed today, he might hazard a small smile of satisfaction.