The thin man

26th September 2003 at 01:00
The essence of the human form or anorexic action man? James Sharp looks at Giacometti's approach to sculptural representation

At nearly two metres tall, Giacometti's "Man Pointing" confronts the viewer at eye level. The tall, emaciated figure stands with one arm outstretched, the other curled upwards at the elbow, almost like a policeman on traffic duty. Cast in bronze, the surface of the sculpture is gouged and rough, with the thumbprints of the artist's rapid gestures clearly visible. Its surface resembling thick oil paint, the sculpture appears to have been continually stripped back and reworked as if the artist was trying to reach the essence or core of the human body.

Giacometti's working methods involved continual demolition and revision; although the sculpture was made quickly during the course of a single night, it did not escape his restless attentions. The plaster was apparently still wet when the men from the foundry came to collect it the following morning.

"Man Pointing" was bought by the Tate Gallery in 1949. It is one of several life-sized pieces made by the artist for his exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in 1948. This show was important for his career; his first since he broke away from the Surrealist movement in 1935.

Having grown tired of Surrealism, Giacometti had returned to working from nature, using his brother Diego as a model. His figures are usually described as haunting, isolated and solitary. They are seen as metaphors for modern man, the large base or feet trapping them in a huge and meaningless void. The somewhat expansive gesture of "Man Pointing" is thus rather unusual and invites narrative speculation.

In 1951, Giacometti made a companion piece, a male figure standing with his arms at his side. The two scupltures were exhibited together in 1951 with the pointing man having one arm around the other as if he were directing the other's attention towards something in the distance. The second figure was made out of plaster; immediately after the exhibition, the artist destroyed it and the pointing man remained on his own. Although the idea of a group sculpture was abandoned, it still provides an interesting contrast to his other group sculptures. such as "Three Men Walking" (1949, private collection), in which the forms seem isolated and detached. The lack of eye contact between the figures emphasises their isolation.

Giacometti was closely associated with the Existentialist movement in post-war Paris; he developed his characteristic style after becoming good friends with writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who pondered on how humanity is to give meaning to life in a meaningless world.

Giacometti's distinctive and challenging sculpture can provide endless opportunities for classroom talk. Pupils will also want to discuss why the figure looks as it does. What was the artist trying to say? Did proportion and realism not matter to Giacometti? Diaries and letters reveal that as he worked on his sculptures they got smaller and smaller. He felt that they only began to capture an inner likeness if they were long and thin. Elsewhere, Giacometti has described how all that mattered to him was capturing the model's gaze. Pupils can discuss if this is what's really important when making portraits; they can explore different ways of making images to capture more than just physical appearance.

Giacometti's work fits in well with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority key stage 1 unit "What is sculpture?". Compare his work with that of figurative works by other sculptors, such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. At KS2 the QCA unit "People in action" encourages students to look at how movement is shown in visual form. Other work by Giacometti, such as "L'homme qui marche"(1960), offers unusual depictions. "Man pointing" could also be used with the QCA KS3 unit on self-image, in which pupils look at how artists have tried to represent themselves or others.

They could discuss what Giacometti's sculptures say about his models or what he was trying to portray.

Giacometti lived most of his life in Paris, a long way from his home town in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland. Some writers have noted that the surface of a Giacometti sculpture resembles molten rock, a feature of the landscape of Stampa where he was brought up. Pupils could investigate the sense of place within his work as part of the QCA unit on recreating landscapes. They could study the work of other displaced artists, such as De Kooning (who came from Holland and worked in the US), and how their sense of place affects their work. In the 1950s, the artist returned to painting and print making. Older pupils could study his portraits and drawings, which are full of nervous lines, and look for clues to understanding his three-dimensional work and his tireless efforts to capture the human figure.

Giacometti had many friends among the artists of his day. He collaborated with Samuel Beckett in 1961, providing the decor for a production of Waiting for Godot. Studying the literature of the time will throw up links with Giacometti's work. Among his contemporaries in the visual arts, there are similarities in their ways of working - for instance Giacometti's constant re-modelling and the action painting of Jackson Pollack.

Giacometti's need to push his work to its limits often meant his work was spoilt or destroyed: in this he was similar to Francis Bacon.

James Sharp is art co-ordinator at Elmhurst primary school, Newham

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today