Alberto Giacometti was 20 years old when he settled in Paris in order to pursue the career of a sculptor. He studied classical sculpture and the predominant Cubist idioms, but it was not until he began to interpret “primitive” objects that he was able to liberate himself from the influence of his teachers. Spoon Woman, one of the artist’s first mature works, explores the metaphor employed in ceremonial spoons of the African Dan culture, in which the bowl of the utensil can be equated with a woman’s womb. But Giacometti’s life-size sculpture reverses the equivalence. As the art historian and theorist Rosalind Krauss has noted, “By taking the metaphor and inverting it, so that ‘a spoon is like a woman’ becomes ‘a woman is like a spoon,’ Giacometti was able to intensify the idea and to make it universal by generalizing the forms of the sometimes rather naturalistic African carvings toward a more prismatic abstraction.”
Giacometti joined the ranks of the Surrealists in 1929, only to break with them acrimoniously six years later, when he decided to work from models rather than strictly from his imagination. Yet even in Nose there is something of the Surrealist tendency toward the fantastic in the incredible proboscis. In this work, Giacometti suspended a head from a cross bar in a rectangular cage, thus implying that the pendant head could be prodded to swing, the nose further extending beyond the confines of its prison. There is a vague threat in the shape of the head: the configuration of nose, skull, and neck recalls the barrel, chassis, and handle of a gun. However, the wide-open mouth suggests a scream of anguish, and the cord attaching it to its cage evokes the gallows. Nose should be seen within the context of postwar existential angst that was voiced by Jean-Paul Sartre, a friend of the artist.
In Diego, a painting of his brother, Giacometti continued in this vein, insinuating the loneliness caused by each individual’s isolation within his own existence. Like the head in Nose, the solitary Diego is presented in the confines of a cagelike structure of lines denoting the architecture of the room. The atmosphere of melancholy is further suggested both by the artist’s muted palette that seems to drain life from the sitter, and the figure’s near-transparency in a haze of reworked paint.