“A sculpture is not an object. It is an inquiry, a question, an answer. It is something that cannot be completed or perfected.”

(Alberto Giacometti)

Some of you may have set eyes on lumpy, curvy, massive rock-like objects, some drilled with huge holes in the middle, that could only belong to Henry Moore; or suspended metallic mobiles of colorful reds, yellows and blues, as imagined by Alexander Calder; or robust, voluptuous and often humorous human bodies by Fernando Botero. Above them all, no one could mistake those ultra-slim bronze figurines—so thin they stand like a single sheet of paper—and only a unique artist such as Swiss-born Alberto Giacometti could create such stoic yet imaginative pieces.

The National Art Center in Tokyo is currently hosting a full-scale retrospective of Giacometti’s works in “Alberto Giacometti—Collection Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght” till the 4th of September this year. Giacometti’s first encounter with the art dealer Aimé Maeght began in 1951 when the sculptor launched his solo exhibition at the Maeght Gallery in Paris. Maeght persuaded Giacometti to produce a book of lithographs of his human figures. Their personal and working relationship continued to blossom, consequently leading to Maeght’s wife, Marguerite, purchasing most of the artist’s works. In 1947, Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght opened in Saint-Paul de Vence, south France, sponsoring roughly more than 130 sculptures and drawings by Giacometti, most of which can now be admired at the National Art Center in Tokyo.

It would be noteworthy to single out the ex-Surrealist Giacometti’s special relationship with the Japanese philosopher, Isaku Yanaihara, who became a regular model for the artist during the mid-1950s. Yanaihara then, arrived in Paris to attend the University of Paris in Sorbonne as a research fellow. On one occasion, he handed an essay (about Giacometti) written by poet Usami Eiji to the artist, who in turn, was apparently attracted by Yanaihara’s Oriental features, tall and lanky posture and deep intellect, that Giacometti persuaded the Japanese thinker to postpone his return trip to Japan so that he could commission him to sit for him regularly. Yanaihara naturally accepted, and sat for nearly twenty oil portraits and two sculptures.

“After spending more and more time with Giacometti I came to understand the true job of the artist. I also came to understand the true freedom of human beings.”

(Isaku Yanaihara, citation from “Alberto Giacometti—Collection Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght”, National Art Center in Tokyo)

Giacometti, who reached middle age during the Second World War, often worked on pieces from his memories of the subconscious, dreams, and sometimes, violent scenes. As an existentialist, he was obsessed with portraying humans as they appear, in relation to the distance that breathes between them. Thus, by combining a minute statue on an exaggeratedly huge pedestal, he believed that he could achieve this hidden field of vision.

Likewise, the debonair Yanaihara joined the existential minds of Jean-Paul Sartre (and was also his translator) and Simone de Beauvoir, and absorbed Giacometti's ideology of spatial dimension. The profound exchanges between the two men during the drawing sessions sealed their mutual intimacy and fondness for each other, igniting, therefore, the inspiration for a large bulk of Giacometti’s creations, many of which can be seen in the exhibition at the National Art Center in Tokyo: “Head of Yanaihara” (1956-61, Ballpoint pen and blue in on paper napkin, The Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura & Hayama (ancienne collection Yanaihara) in several versions; and “Yanaihara Leaning on His Elbows” (Stylo à bille et encre bleue sur page de carnet, The Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura & Hayama, ancienne collection Yanaihara).

“With a large head, strong jaw, broad, high forehead, and small but piercing eyes in well-defined sockets, he was handsome but not imposing. As a model he came close to being ideal, because in addition to the striking singularity of his features and the lively concentration of his gaze, he was capable of remaining for long periods absolutely motionless. The essential aspect of his suitability was friendship, as Giacometti needed the emotional participation of his model in an act which called for extraordinary unselfishness but offered a rare measure of intimacy.”

(James Lord, Portrait of Isaku Yanaihara)

Apart from works inspired by the philosopher Yanaihara, Giacometti also experimented with the spatial relations among figures, and the visual effect is quite extraordinary. In “The Glade, Square, Nine Figures” (Bronze, 1950, Archives Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul de Vence, France), “The Forest, Square, Seven Figures and a Head” (Bronze 1950, Archives Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul de Vence, France) and several others with three figures on a pedestal reflect Giacometti’s random observations of people in the streets, doing different things, facing various directions from certain distances among each other. He called it the “mythic dimension”, positioning his friends on a plaza to study the effect of the varying heights against their distances from each other. He developed a compulsion for grasping the totality of body and space by distancing himself from a viewpoint and using the pedestal to unite the division and differences among the subjects.

“Every moment of the day people come together and drift apart, and approach each other again to try to make contact anew. They unceasingly form and reform living compositions of incredible complexity. What I want to express in everything I do, is the totality of this life.”

(Alberto Giacometti, “Repressed Spaces: The Poetics of Agoraphobia” Paul Carter, Reaktion Books, 2004)

From Giacometti’s early years, his flight into Cubism and Surrealism, his portrayal of standing women, dogs and cats, till the last remaining 40 years of his life in his atelier in Montparnasse, Paris, the “Alberto Giacometti—Collection Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght” beautifully encompasses the depth, unique creative approach and exemplary vision of the artist’s monumental life.