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Places of Cycling: The Landscapes of Alberto Giacometti

Borgonovo lies in the shadow of dramatic Alpine peaks

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A few kilometers from the border with Italy, the tiny Swiss hamlet of Borgonovo lies in the shadow of dramatic Alpine peaks. Its valley is verdant in the summer, deep in snow in the winter. Anyone traveling from Como and the Italian Lakes towards St. Moritz will likely take the road through Borgonovo. Most travelers, surely, will not be aware that an artistic genius grew up in the hamlet over a century ago.

Swiss sculptor, painter, and graphic artist Alberto Giacometti at his studio in Paris, France 1962. (Photo: Wolfgang Kuhn/United Archives via Getty Images)

Alberto Giacometti was born in October 1901 in Borgonovo. Art was present in his life from the start. His father was a Post-Impressionist painter and his father’s second cousin, Augusto Giacometti, was an important Symbolist painter. When the family moved to the nearby town of Stampa, five-year-old Alberto established a studio for himself in a shed. He sketched and painted, regularly sending pictures to his godfather, the Fauvist painter Cuno Amiet. At the age of thirteen, he tried sculpting in plasticine. Though Stampa was bigger than Borgonovo, the town was still very much dominated by its surroundings. The Giacometti children (by 1907 Alberto had two brothers and a sister) spent their free time exploring the meadows and deep forests, climbing over the huge boulders that littered the landscape, and in the autumn they waited for the snow that would bury everything. Life in the Giacometti household was ordered, quiet, and cultured. The children posed for their father’s portraits played games and learned to play musical instruments. It was a harmonious childhood for young Alberto, and the combination of his father’s art and the wild landscape fired his imagination.

After studying painting in Geneva in his late teens, Giacometti spent most of 1920 traveling around Italy, deepening his knowledge. He visited Venice for the Biennale and to see the work of Tintoretto. In Padua, he experienced Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes. In Florence, he was taken with the Egyptian exhibits in the Archeological Museum. Just before Christmas, he wound up in Rome, where he was taken in by the family of another of his parents’ second cousins. There, over the course of a year, he explored the museums and palaces, studied the Old Masters, took a studio for his own work, and explored nearby Naples and Pompeii. By this time, his ambition brimming, Giacometti knew that if he was serious about art there was only one place to go. Paris.

Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti presents three of his bust sculptures at 31st Art Biennale Exposition in Venice, 1962. (Photo: Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images)
  1. Giacometti has just returned to Paris, having spent the war in neutral Switzerland, where he met Annette Arm, the woman who was to become his wife. During the two decades before the war, Giacometti had lived in Paris and focused on sculpture, mainly of the human form. His obsession with artistic perfection pushed him to fatigue, terror, and near-madness. Some of his works started big and were gradually whittled down to the size of a finger as he tried to find the aesthetic result he was searching for. During those heady years in Paris, Giacometti worked frantically, but he did not hide away. He moved among the artistic circles that have since become famous to the point of cliche – drinking with Picasso, Man Ray, and Andre Breton, among others. Surrealism pulled him in; in the early thirties, he signed Surrealist pamphlets and supported the left-wing politics of the movement. But the death of his father in 1933 prompted Giacometti to turn away from the Surrealists. For the rest of his career, he would never firmly be a part of any artistic movement. Much like his famous walking figures, Giacometti moved alone, enigmatic and determined.

Just south of Le Jardin du Luxembourg, on Paris’s south bank, the Boulevard du Montparnasse is a bustling tree-lined thoroughfare that cuts diagonally through a maze of smaller streets. It was here, in 1945, that Giacometti had a moment of revelation. As he came out of a cinema and walked along the boulevard he saw the world anew. He had been working, he realized, in a manner that was too photographic. The reality was altogether different. In a daze, he went to his usual cafe, the Brasserie Lipp, and saw the people there in a new, detached way. The transformation led him to work on larger pieces in which the human body became long and slim, with clumsy big feet and sharp faces. His new direction made him famous, and eventually wealthy. Yet he went on striving to achieve a vision that was always just out of reach, constantly reworking pieces, repeating himself endlessly, and destroying work he wasn’t happy with. As his friend Samuel Beckett wrote, ‘Fail again. Fail better.’