Plaster and Other Materials
Traditionally, sculpture uses two techniques: carving, from a hard material like stone, and modelling, from a soft material such as clay. Alberto Giacometti is known primarily as a modelling sculptor. While it is true that the bronzes that dominate our image of his famous mature period of creativity are made out of a hard material, the majority of them were based on a soft, hand-shaped form made of clay or sometimes Plasticine; from this – via a plaster cast – a metal version was eventually made. Giacometti is much less known as a sculptor in the narrower sense – i. e. someone who carves or chisels a form from marble or another type of stone. Indeed, only a few of his works are made out of stone.
The picture becomes more nuanced, however, if one includes the artist’s original plasters: many of them bear traces of interventions after the cast had been made and the plaster had already hardened. In some cases, this was simply the customary preliminary working of fresh plaster casts, for example to remove the casting seams or generally to smoothen the surface. But there are also many plasters, not least those from Giacometti’s mature period, that have been much more extensively and visibly worked.
Here we find evidence of scrapings, scratches, indentations or even places where the plaster has been more deeply gouged out, often with a penknife. These must be understood as an actual ‘sculpting’ of the object in question, and it is this further working that makes each plaster cast unique. This property becomes all the more relevant in plasters that were not used to make casts for bronzes.
The worked plasters are different from Giacometti’s bronzes in many respects, not least in their fragility and their characteristic play of light and shadow. Another important difference is that, whereas in the bronzes all the various features of the models – at whatever point they may have come into being – become synchronised in the final form, on the worked original plaster the actual sequence of the various alterations remains visible. Through its combination of modelling and sculpture, the worked plaster communicates the various stages of its material and conceptual creation with much greater immediacy; it is, so to speak, its own history, while the bronze reproduces the moment when the final touch was put to the sculpture.
Plasticine, which Giovanni Giacometti allowed his children to use in his studio, is a characteristic material of Alberto Giacometti’s early sculptural oeuvre. His very first work, Head of Diego (c. 1914), depicts the person who became Giacometti’s most important model by far, his brother Diego. The smooth surface and stylistically confident reduction in the modelling of the head interact perfectly with the cube of the plinth. The artist kept this work for himself until the end of his life.
Giacometti went on using Plasticine even as an adult, particularly in Val Bregaglia, where clay was hard to come by. Indeed, his fondness for this material continued even in the difficult period from 1935 onwards when he made a new start after deciding to sculpt directly from nature, and it lasted well into the 1940s.
All in all, Giacometti produced far more works in clay, particularly – as many photographs and even film sequences (like those by Ernst Scheidegger) show – in his mature period. Clay was Giacometti’s classic modelling material and corresponded ideally with his impetus to model rather than carve sculptures. Giacometti primarily used unfired clay, which meant that the resulting works were impermanent, because as a rule they were used to produce a plaster. The unfired clay model was generally damaged when the plaster cast was removed, and therefore not preserved. The most impressive clay work from the pre-war period that was researched for this exhibition is Tête de Maria Fasciati (Head of Maria Fasciati, c. 1934, possibly somewhat later), now privately owned, which was never cast.
For the ‘modelling sculptor’ Alberto Giacometti, stone (granite or marble) was not a material of primary significance, though he did himself carve a small number of heads, figurations and reliefs in the late 1910s and the 1920s.
From autumn 1929 onwards, however, Alberto enlisted the assistance of his brother Diego and as a rule delegated the execution of stone versions of his works to him. This applies, for instance, to Tête qui regarde (Gazing Head), the plaster version of which was first exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris in January 1929 and of which Diego then produced marble versions in 1929 and 1930.
But Alberto Giacometti did not take the chisel in hand himself very often. An early work that occupies an important place in his oeuvre is the marble relief The Artist’s Mother, which is apparently based on a drawing by Giovanni Giacometti executed between 1908 and 1910.
While Alberto and Diego Giacometti were still collaborating on a large stone sculpture for the Vicomtesse de Noailles in 1932, Alberto conceived what was probably his last work in stone: the gravestone for his father, who died in 1934, at the cemetery in Borgonovo.
Wood was a particularly important material for Giacometti in 1931/32, when he initiated the production of a larger group of Surrealist objects out of wood to which Fleur en danger (Flower in Danger) and Main prise (Caught Hand), both from 1932, belong. The artist did not realise these pieces himself, however, but commissioned a cabinet maker to make them.
Only in exceptional cases did the artist make works out of wood by his own hand. In the wooden version of Rita displayed in the exhibition, the head and plinth are made out of a single piece of wood (unlike the plaster versions). The artist used the fact that wood could be painted to apply pencil marks and lineaments which emphasise the plastic elements of the head, but may also be seen as the continuation of sculpture by graphical means.
The two little wooden figures Figurine and Petite figurine (Small Figurine), both dating from c. 1935, are noteworthy, since this is the first time we encounter the characteristic elongated body in Giacometti’s work. The artist intended both figures as mirror handles and hence as objects of everyday use.
Until the end of the Second World War, plaster was by far the most important material in Alberto Giacometti’s oeuvre. This is true even if one includes the bronzes, which, not least for financial reasons, remained few in number until the beginning of his mature period.
The vast majority of Giacometti’s sculptures made by his own hands before about 1947 are thus from plaster. But even after that, plaster remained an essential material, and it became more important still after Giacometti stopped producing stone sculptures. In a whole series of post-war works – including the particularly important large figures of the so-called Chase Manhattan group – Giacometti even worked directly in plaster, building figures without using a preliminary clay model, in some cases applying pieces of gauze soaked in plaster directly to metal reinforcements.
Ernst Scheidegger’s photographs of Giacometti at work on these famous plasters continue to influence our image of the artist even today. A selection of photographs is included in the exhibition.
However, the artist continued to exhibit plasters until the end of his life. He placed plasters and bronzes opposite one another antithetically, both those from his avant-garde and Surrealist periods and those of the late busts and heads. He thus explicitly regarded plaster and bronze as two equally valuable vehicles for artistic expression.
The plasters also remained crucially important for the creative process itself. Alongside the more immaterial quality of plaster that was so important in the late works, the possibility of being able to remodel the works at any time played a major role. Plaster can be changed radically by smoothing it, making incisions or scratches, performing major alterations with a knife and finally by painting it. Giacometti’s direct working of the plasters, documented from roughly the mid-1920s onwards, included all of these techniques.
Giacometti first began painting plasters in 1925, inspired by the painting on traditional Japanese sculptures.
The artist’s decision to paint a bronze seems to have been connected with the great value he attached to the particular aesthetic qualities of the light-coloured plaster. Indeed, in certain cases his intention in painting a bronze seems to have been to transfer the aesthetic of plaster to the metal version of a work – and hence to lend it the more immaterial character of plaster.
The change in the aggregate state of his sculptures from soft clay or Plasticine to hard plaster was of fundamental significance for Giacometti. Although he soon gave up working in stone, the smoothing, scratching and scraping techniques that working with a hard material involved were essential experiences for him as an artist. The plaster offered the necessary resistance and enabled him to make incisions, but at the same time it was easier to work than stone. The plasters show that Giacometti was a sculptor who used a dual approach: for him the reducing, ‘destroying’, aggressive aspect of sculptural carving fundamentally belonged alongside the constructing aspect of sculptural modelling. In this respect, plaster was for Giacometti the quintessential medium of sculpture, which is why the plasters have such an important role to play in his oeuvre.
Particularly in the late work, sculpting was supplemented by colouration, adding a new, immediately perceivable element of vitality to the soft initial treatment and hard sculptural interpretation of the plastic mass.
Why not come and witness this for yourself at the exhibition? Given how fragile these works are, it will never be possible to present the subject in the same depth and quality anywhere else.
The exhibition, curated by Philippe Büttner, traces the entire life and career of the celebrated artist Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966), focusing on the creation of his sculptural models but additionally including several reminders of his talent as a painter. Also on show are paintings by Giacometti’s father Giovanni (1868-1933) and a sculpture by Rodo von Niederhäusern (1863–1913).
Alberto Giovanni Giacometti was born on 10 October 1901 in Borgonovo, a village above Stampa in the alpine valley of Val Bregaglia (Switzerland). He was the first child of Giovanni Giacometti (1868–1933), a well-known Post-Impressionist painter, and Annetta Stampa (1871–1964). The family moved to Stampa in 1904.
Giovanni allowed his children free access to his studio, providing them with all the materials needed to express their creativity. Alberto soon displayed a natural talent for drawing.
Around 1914, he produced his first sculpture, Head of Diego, a portrait of his brother made from Plasticine supplied by his father. In the autumn of 1915, he began to attend the Evangelical Secondary School in Schiers, a town near Chur. The school allocated him a small room to use as a studio. He made sculptures of his schoolmates, some of which he kept for the rest of his life. He continued to be taught by his father during the school holidays, studying the works of Ferdinand Hodler, Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin.
During this time, Giacometti made more Plasticine and clay sculptures – portraits of his brother Bruno and of his mother – as well as two stone medallions as presents for his mother and his sister Ottilia and carved three stone portraits of his teachers.
In April 1919, he decided to leave Schiers without completing his exams and went back to Stampa to work as an artist alongside his father. By September 1919, he was in Geneva, where he lived for six months. He attended the École des Beaux-Arts for a short while. Dissatisfied with the ambiance, he enrolled at the École des Arts et Métiers. He did not enjoy his time in Geneva, loathing the city and the teaching and feeling extremely homesick. He acquired a marble slab on which he carved the relief Ritratto della madre (The Artist’s Mother).
Giacometti left Geneva for Stampa in late March 1920. Lengthy periods of study in Italy followed. He spent three weeks in Florence, where he particularly admired a sculpture conserved in the city’s Egyptian Museum (National Archaeological Museum). He was also enthralled by Rome’s artistic heritage and fascinated in particular by Ancient art, the Baroque and mediaeval mosaics. The artist produced two sculptures, a Head of Ada and a Head of Bianca.
Back in Stampa, he started working with his father again and gradually came to the decision to become a sculptor. By 9 January 1922, he was in Paris, studying sculpture under Émile-Antoine Bourdelle at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. He liked to attend the Academy in the mornings, working on clay sculptures from models, and spent the afternoons drawing or sculpting in his studio. Deeming it experimental, Giacometti destroyed all the work he did during these early years.
In February 1925, Giacometti was joined in Paris by his brother Diego. He exhibited a first version of Torse (Torso) and a head, possibly a portrait of Diego, at the Salon des Tuileries at the invitation of his teacher Bourdelle, one of its vice-presidents. He then took part in all the following Salons from 1926 to 1928 and also exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants from 1926 to 1929. He met up with a group of Italian friends with whom he took part in various exhibitions. He also made the acquaintance of Ossip Zadkine, Constantin Brancusi and Jacques Lipchitz, the artist who influenced him most during this period. He studied Post-Cubist sculpture and developed an interest in the Mexican and African cultures. On 1 December 1926, he rented the studio at 46 Rue Hippolyte Maindron, which he would keep for the rest of his life. In his Paris studio he worked with clay on naturalistic figures and heads and on compositions similar in style to that of the Post-Cubist avant-garde; he made plaster casts of many of these for public exhibition.
Inspired by Japanese art, he began to colour some of his plaster works. He also created works in terracotta and marble during this period. During his sojourns in Stampa, he developed an interest in the local stone and made several granite heads. In summer 1927, he produced a very important series of heads of his father, employing a number of different materials: clay, plaster, granite and marble. In February 1928, he exhibited seven plaster sculptures at the exhibition Les Artistes Italiens de Paris. He also produced Tête qui regarde (Gazing Head), the first in a series of flat sculptures known as Plaques.
In 1929, his friendship with André Masson became deeper, and he began to get to know the group of dissident Surrealists: Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris, Robert Desnos and Raymond Queneau. In late May 1929, he exhibited two sculptures, one of which was Tête qui regarde, to great acclaim at Massimo Campigli’s art show at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher. Vicomte Charles de Noailles bought a second plaster version of Tête qui regarde, serving to draw the attention of le tout Paris to the young artist. In November 1929, he met the art critic and publisher Tériade, who invited him to take part in the Exposition Internationale de la Sculpture he was organising at the Galerie Georges Bernheim. Giacometti presented Homme, now in the Musée national d’art moderne (MNAM) in Paris, and the bronze of Trois personnages dehors (Three Figures Outside, 1929), now in the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. He received several private commissions for the dining room in the apartment belonging to the banker Pierre David-Weill, executing a bronze relief – the plaster cast of which hung above the bed in his studio for many years – and two andirons for the fireplace in the shape of two dogs or ferocious beasts.
He produced another bronze relief for Georges-Henri Rivière’s dining room. In November 1929, the Vicomte and Victomtesse de Noailles commissioned a large stone sculpture for the garden of the family’s summer residence at Hyères, in the South of France, on which he worked until the summer of 1932. In order to keep up with all these commissions, Giacometti asked his brother Diego to work for him. Diego agreed and became his assistant as of 1930, helping him with his sculptural work. Giacometti’s contract with Pierre Loeb provided for the bronze casting of several existing works, and numerous one-off pieces were created. No further sculptures by Giacometti were cast in bronze until 1935; the artist appeared to prefer marble and wood for his Surrealist works.
André Breton and Salvador Dalí saw the first plaster version of Boule suspendue (Suspended Ball) at the exhibition Mirò, Arp, Giacometti at the Galerie Pierre. They invited Giacometti to join the Surrealist movement, and Giacometti accepted. During this period, he was largely focussed on sculpture, painting only when at Stampa, where he made portraits of his sister Ottilia, his father and his cousin Renato Stampa. With the help of his brother Diego, he began to produce decorative objets d’art for the interior decorator Jean-Michel Frank, continuing with this work until the outbreak of war. Giacometti designed a large number of lamps and vases made out of plaster or coloured plaster, often also cast in bronze, and was involved in major interior decoration projects, making bas-reliefs, chandeliers, fireplaces, mirrors, consoles, medallions and other decorative features. The materials he favoured were bronze, plaster, gilded plaster, stone, marble, terracotta and alabaster.
In January 1931, he asked Ihitsague, a carpenter of Basque origin, to make wooden versions of Boule suspendue, which was later to belong to André Breton and is now in the MNAM, and Homme, femme et enfant (Man, Woman and Child, c. 1931), now in the Kunstmuseum, Basel. He was pleased by the result, and other Surrealist plaster sculptures went on to be translated into wood as unique pieces.
He also experimented with Surrealist constructions using wood and colours during his summer break at Maloja; none of these has been conserved. Marble was another material favoured for his sculptures.
Inspired by the large sculpture he made for the Vicomtes de Noailles, which was completed in June 1932, he created other large-scale works for outdoor exhibit.
Of the six pieces from this period that were kept in his studio for a longer time, just one, Cône (Cone) was saved from destruction.
In May 1932, he held his first solo show at the Galerie Pierre Colle in Paris. He exhibited fifteen sculptures, some older and several more recent, making up a brief retrospective.
The moulage of his sculptures was not carried out by Diego, but by a professional, Louis Mazuet.
He produced a large version of Cage in wood and plaster for the Surrealist exhibition at the Salon des Surindépendants in autumn 1933. This work was given to Max Ernst and accidentally destroyed. Other works from this period include Cube, of which two plaster casts are known, Tête-crane (Head-Skull), of which several different versions exist in plaster, terracotta and marble, and Objet invisible (Invisible Object).
Giacometti held his first solo exhibition in New York at the Julien Levy Gallery in December 1934. He designed his father’s tombstone in 1934, or possibly the following year, for which he used a large local stone. A final plaster sculpture, 1 + 1 = 3, an unfinished female figure, concluded his Surrealist phase.
Giacometti’s decision to make figurative heads triggered his expulsion from the Surrealist group on 14 February 1935. He worked every day in his studio d’apres modèle on heads of Diego and of Rita Gueyfier, a professional model. He also used Plasticine and had plaster casts made of some of his works, on which he often used a penknife or made pencil marks. Isabel Delmer, to whom he was romantically attached, also posed for two head sculptures. Several versions of the first, made in 1936 and inspired by Egyptian artworks, are known. Maria Fasciati-Maurizio, a young woman who helped his mother with the domestic chores, posed for a head at Stampa.
In 1935, Giacometti commissioned the first bronze casts of his work since 1929: two or three versions of Mère et fille (Mother and Daughter). In November 1936, the art dealer Pierre Matisse, son of the famous painter, acquired the Marianne vase and the plaster of Femme qui marche II (Walking Woman II, 1932). Giacometti made new friendships, mixing with Balthus, Francis Gruber, Tal Coat, André Derain, Samuel Beckett, Pablo Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. He became interested in Merleau-Ponty’s studies into the phenomenology of visual perception.
On 11 October 1937, his sister Ottilia died just a few hours after giving birth to her first child. Giacometti made a head of his sister d’après memoire, his first significantly smaller-scale sculpture.
In 1938/39, he worked on two important commissions for Jean-Michel Frank: the first was for Nelson Rockefeller’s apartment and the second for Jorge Born’s villa in Buenos Aires.
In 1941, Peggy Guggenheim acquired the plaster of Femme qui marche II from Pierre Matisse. In December of that year, Giacometti applied for a Swiss visa in order to visit his mother and nephew Silvio in Geneva, where they were then living. He left Paris on 31 December, leaving Diego to watch over the studio. Denied a French re-entry visa, Giacometti spent the entire war period in Switzerland.
He met Annette Arm (1923–1993), whom he married in 1949 and who posed patiently for a great many paintings, sculptures and drawings. His sculptures steadily diminished in size almost to vanishing point. A unique, singular exception was Femme au chariot (Woman with Chariot), a plaster executed at Maloja, over one and a half metres high. In October 1943, he embarked on a plaster sculpture, Silvio debout (les mains dans les poches) (Silvio Standing [Hands in Pockets]), and two of his Plasticine heads, for which his nephew also modelled. Giacometti returned to Paris on 18 September 1945, legend has it, with six matchboxes containing all the sculptures he had made in Geneva. He continued to focus on sculpture.
With the aid of drawing, Giacometti developed his elongated figures, a fundamental feature of his mature style.
In December 1946, his article Le Rêve, le Sphinx et la mort de T. was published in Labyrinthe(The Dream, the Sphinx and the Death of T.). 1947 was a year of great activity in terms of drawing, sculpture and painting. Giacometti worked directly in plaster, Diego helping him by preparing the wire armatures. He produced Femme debout, Homme qui marche, Le nez, Tête sur tige, La main and L’homme qui pointe. Pierre Matisse, favourably impressed by these works, offered him a solo show at his gallery, which opened in January 1948, his first in New York since 1934.
Pierre Matisse became Giacometti’s American agent.
His second exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in November and December 1950 cemented his success. The exhibition featured bronzes of his most important works of the time, including Femme debout, Trois hommes qui marchent, Place, Homme qui marche sous la pluie, La cage, Le chariot, La forêt, La clarière, L’homme qui chavire, Figurine dans une boîte entre deux boîtes qui sont des maisons and Quatre femmes sur socle.
In June 1951, he held his first exhibition at the Galerie Maeght, where he showed a number of bronzes in addition to the plasters of Femme debout, Le chat, Le chien and Buste de Diego, as well as paintings and drawings. Aimé Maeght continued to act as his European representative until 1964. His period of great sculptural and pictorial creativity continued, as he made numerous busts of Diego and of Annette, who also posed standing up for full-length figural sculptures. Giacometti preferred to work in clay, so Diego took over the plaster casting of the sculptures and was also responsible for applying the patina to bronze sculptures, becoming known as ‘the ace of patina’. Giacometti often liked to enliven his plasters with strokes of black or red paint.
In 1955, several bronze editions of his sculptures were produced for three major retrospectives: at the Arts Council of Great Britain in London, the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Krefeld and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. In 1956, he worked on a standing female figure in clay, Diego subsequently making a cast each time Giacometti declared himself satisfied with the result. This method produced fifteen or so plaster versions, nine of which were later cast in bronze. Invited to exhibit in the French Pavilion at the Venice Biennale that year, Giacometti presented six of these plasters, accounting for the fact that these sculptures are all known as Femmes de Venise; their numbering reflects the order in which they were cast, rather than the order in which they were made.
In October 1956, he met Isaku Yanaihara, a Japanese professor of French philosophy, who became his model, and who returned during the summers of 1957, 1959, 1960 and 1961 to pose for a series of portraits in oil and two clay sculptures, of which the moulds for the plaster casts remain. His difficulties in rendering Yanaihara’s Oriental features caused Giacometti to reconsider his theory of visual perception. During this period of uncertainty, his paintings, known as ‘têtes noires’ (black heads), became increasingly monochrome.
Giacometti took part in a competition to design a monument for the Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza in New York. He worked directly in plaster, creating seven figures: four standing women, two men walking and a large male head. None of these works was submitted to the committee, however, although all were cast in bronze in 1960.
In March 1961, he created a slender tree for the set of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. His fourth exhibition was held at the Galerie Maeght, and in December the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York held another solo exhibition. Giacometti’s work with Yanaihara caused him to perceive sculpture as a mirrored double of reality. The model’s gaze became the focal point of the artist’s study, and he concentrated on portraits of those closest to him, namely his wife Annette, his brother Diego and Caroline (his lover). He worked incessantly and for lengthy periods on clay busts and portraits, from sitters or working from memory. He made numerous busts based on Diego’s physiognomy and a series of nine busts of Annette, the last executed in 1964.
Only one sculpture of Caroline exists, made in 1962. In 1964, Giacometti worked on two clay busts d’après memoire in Stampa. On the recommendation of Severino Corbetta, Italo Rizzi took on the duties usually carried out by Diego, who had remained in Paris making the plaster casts of two sculptures entitled Chiavenna I and Chiavenna II. Giacometti also produced a Standing Woman: the clay and a bronze were given to Rizzi, while the plaster and another bronze were offered to Corbetta. In 1965, he made two male busts for the New York exhibition, entitled New York I and New York II, two portraits from memory of his brother Diego.
He received great international recognition during the last years of his life, attesting to his fame. In 1961, the Carnegie Institute of Chicago awarded him its sculpture prize for Homme qui marche (Walking Man) at the International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture. The February 1962 edition of the magazine Du was entirely devoted to his work. The Venice Biennale invited him to exhibit in the Central Pavilion and awarded him the Grand Prix for Sculpture. While the exhibition was being set up, Giacometti painted several bronzes with oil paint. A major retrospective was held at the Kunsthaus Zürich the same year.
On 6 February 1963, Giacometti underwent surgery for stomach cancer in Paris.
While in Paris, he met Eli Lotar again, a Romanian photographer who had been much in demand during the Surrealist period but by then was at a loose end. Lotar was to be the model for three of his sculptures (a head and two busts), the last of which was also the final piece on which Giacometti worked before his death. On 25 January 1964, his mother Annetta died aged ninety-three. The Marguerite and Aimé Maeght Foundation opened in Saint-Paul de Vence on 28 July, to which Giacometti donated numerous works. As in Venice, Giacometti again painted some of his bronzes, the group of sculptures conceived for the Chase Manhattan Plaza in particular. Major retrospectives were held all over the world in 1965, and Giacometti made up his mind to visit them all. He went to the Tate Gallery in London, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
On 20 November, he received the Grand Prix National des Arts in Paris, and the University of Bern awarded him an honorary doctorate. The Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung was set up in Switzerland on 16 December, after much controversy. Feeling increasingly weary and ill, Giacometti left Paris on 5 December and checked into the Cantonal Hospital in Chur. He died of heart failure on 11 January 1966. His funeral was held at Stampa on 15 January, and he was buried in the cemetery of Saint George’s church in Borgonovo, close to other family members. Diego returned to Paris, where he made the plaster cast of the clay sculpture Lotar III, his brother’s last work.
A total of 75 plasters were examined, conserved and restored over a four-year period. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that many of them were not only damaged in various ways but also displayed traces and evidence of different work processes. Working traces had to be distinguished from actual damage in order to decide on the best conservation approach.
During the analysis phase, the research team focused on art technological research, the analysis of casting techniques and an assessment of the status quo. This, along with analyses of materials and objects as well as literature and archival research, formed the basis for deciding which conservation measures would be most appropriate. In the second phase, the team devoted itself to conserving and restoring the plasters.
Under the stereomicroscope, the team was able to identify a large number of different traces and materials and to interpret and ascribe them to a specific process. Thus, a piece of plaster stuck in the cavities of a sculpture indicated that it had been produced using a negative plaster mould. In other words, the small piece of plaster might constitute evidence that a sculpture had been directly cast from an initial clay or Plasticine model. Additional investigations, for example under ultraviolet light, also revealed some things that were not normally visible. In order to verify the assumed materials and processes, external specialists performed material analyses, 3-D scans and X-ray tomographies.
Digital and mobile 2-D radiography was a standard process used on all of the plasters to help identify materials with varying specific densities, such as cast plaster or newly applied plaster, the position of the armature, or ‘hidden dangers’ such as cracks, hollow spaces and older repairs. These images were particularly useful for the second phase of the project, especially given that some of the objects may travel in the future. They help in assessing their fragility and hence optimising their handling and transport.
The main team was assisted by a group of consultants consisting of art historians, conservators and plaster and casting specialists.
All information was recorded in a database especially created for this purpose. Thanks to these investigations, the Kunsthaus Zürich now has a wealth of information about the materials used and material traces that will play a crucial role in answering questions about the creation and function of the plasters. This additional detailed information about the various working methods also provides new insights into the placement of the works within Giacometti’s oeuvre. A plaster proven to have been painted by the artist, for example, was no longer seen merely as a functional object, namely the preliminary stage of a casting, and was instead elevated to the status of a completed work of art in its own right.
The conservation concept was presented to an international colloquium at the Kunsthaus Zürich in 2012, where it was critically discussed, and later adopted by the Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung in Zurich. What are the results?
Two thirds of the plaster models were moulded at least once in order to cast them in bronze or in a few cases as a second plaster. For this purpose, the surface had to be prepared for the moulding process, covered with a special sealing layer and coated with a release agent. This explains why the plasters, as we find them today, vary so much in colour. At this point in the process, an artist or caster can choose from at least three different moulding techniques: using a gelatine mould, a sand mould or a plaster piece-mould. Since the late 1970s, silicone moulds have also been used.
The following traces suggest gelatine moulding: incisions (sharp, almost V-shaped), pieces of gelatine, clay residues in the form of coils or position markers on the underside. Shellac, oil and savon noir are the typical sealants and release agents used in the gelatine moulding process. It is these that give the plaster its characteristic colour. When the casting is carried out with sand, on the other hand, one finds scratches – softer than the incisions and U-shaped – as well as residues of moulding sand and white talcum powder A silicone cast can often only be detected if there are silicone rubber residues.
The plasters that were cut into several pieces provide an entirely different kind of clue: Homme qui marche I (Walking Man I) and Grande femme III (Tall Woman III), for example, had to be cut up to make the bronze cast and continue to exist in their disassembled state today. These traces tell us that many of the plasters were cast in bronze more than once and at different points in time. Quite often, it was possible to identify as many as three different techniques on one object. When the same plaster was used for both gelatine and sand casting, this often indicates a change of foundry, whereas the silicone moulds indicate later casts commissioned by Giacometti’s widow, Annette, after his death in 1966.
With the assembled knowledge about production and casting processes, it is now clear in almost every case how the plaster was made and whether and how it was further used. After the conclusion of the project, these findings made a systematic comparison with the documentation in the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris possible.
In discussions about the aim and extent of the conservation treatment of the plasters, the necessity of taking the most urgent measures was never a question, e. g. interventions to secure and stabilise the sculptures. Aesthetic interventions were much more controversial. Questions were raised such as: Should brown shellac coatings be retained as part of the history of the work? Can they be reduced or even removed? How far should and can a restoration go, and should the sculptures cut into pieces in the foundry as casting models for the bronzes be left in this state or reassembled to create a state that had never previously existed in the history of the work? The project team’s view was that the plasters should be left in pieces, and the traces of their function – their use as templates – should be respected as part of the history of the work.
Not only because of the important role of Giacometti’s plasters in the history of twentieth-century art, but also because any conservation treatment is obliged to respect the intention of the artist, the project team attached greater importance to the aesthetic conservation procedures than to the preservation of traces reflecting the object’s history in cases where their readability and comprehensibility had been severely compromised. The team was anxious to avoid creating new ‘hybrid states’ that would represent neither the work’s original appearance nor its evolved state and that – through the loss of authenticity – could prove counterproductive for understanding the works. Particularly intensive discussions were conducted about those works where the conservators had misgivings about restoring them to their ‘original’ state – for instance, by removing the shellac or reassembling plasters that had been sawn into pieces.
Following extensive testing of the possibilities for gluing, stabilising, filling and retouching the plasters, the measures decided upon could finally be carried out.
Because they are so fragile, not all of the 75 plasters from the Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung’s collection featured in the exhibition can be permanently on show in the Kunsthaus or transported to other exhibition venues. However, their preservation – along with the valuable findings from analysing them – is secured for decades to come.
The actress Isabelle Menke reads from Bonnefoy’s monograph on Alberto Giacometti as well as selected poems from the 1950s and 1960s.
In German and French.
Thursday, 12 January 2017, 6.45 p.m.
Admission included in exhibition ticket
German: Wednesdays and Thursdays at 6 p.m., Fridays at 3 p.m. and Sundays at 11 a.m.
English: Sunday, 13 November at 4 p.m. and Saturday, 3 December at 1 p.m.
French: Saturday, 26 November at 1 p.m.
Available in various languages by prior arrangement.
Each drawing on our own personal perception, we discuss the layers of meaning in selected pieces from the exhibition. With Sibyl Kraft
Thursday, 24 November, 6.15–7.45 p.m.
CHF 25 / members CHF 10
Discover Alberto Giacometti’s masterworks in plaster, sketch them and try modelling in plaster for yourself. Work clothes required, prior knowledge optional! With Barbara Brandt
Sun 27 November, 10.30 a.m. – 12.30 p.m.
Adults CHF 10 / children and young people CHF 5 / families CHF 25
Please register for these events in advance by calling 044 253 84 84 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue with historical and theoretical articles by Philippe Büttner, Casimiro Di Crescenzo, Catherine Grenier, Christian Klemm and Stefan Zweifel as well as technical analysis by Kerstin Mürer and Tobias Haupt.
Published by Scheidegger & Spiess in English, French and German, the 240-page catalogue contains around 270 illustrations, including new photographs, and presents the Kunsthaus Zürich’s complete collection of plasters by Alberto Giacometti in one place for the first time. It is available for CHF 59 in the Kunsthaus Shop and from bookshops.
Kunsthaus Zürich, Heimplatz 1,
Phone +41 (0)44 253 84 84,
Fri–Sun/Tue 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Wed/Thu 10 a.m. – 8 p.m., public holidays: see www.kunsthaus.ch
CHF 22 / CHF 17 for concessions and groups
Combined tickets for collection and exhibition: CHF 25 / CHF 18 for concessions and groups (Free admission for children under 16).
Please note that new admission prices will apply from 1 January 2017.
SBB RailAway combined offer with discounts on rail travel and admission: at the station or from Rail Service on 0900 300 300 (CHF 1.19/min. from landlines),
P.O. Box, CH-8024 Zurich
Philippe Büttner, Casimiro Di Crescenzo, Kerstin Mürer
Björn Quellenberg, Kristin Steiner
Alberto Giacometti, Works 1949-1965, Kunsthaus Zürich, Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung. Photo: Dominic Büttner
All works © Succession Alberto Giacometti / 2016 ProLitteris, Zurich
All rights reserved. Any reproduction or other use without the consent of ProLitteris – with the exception of individual downloads for personal viewing – is not permitted.
Please include the source in printouts.
© Kunsthaus Zürich 2016