Giacommetti's Walking Man II: A Haunting Figure
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
Today, we are in Denmark, and I want to talk to you about a modern piece of work: Giacometti’s 'The Walking Man II' (also known as 'L’Homme Qui Marche II').
Today, one of the bronze casts stands in Louisiana, the Museum of Modern Art in Denmark.
There are a further eight casts of this figure in different locations around the world. The original plaster is now in Paris, in the collections of the Alberto and Annette Giacometti Foundation.
The spindly, withered figure was executed in 1960 by the Swiss sculpture and painter Alberto Giacometti while he was in France. It is made of bronze. This skeletal figure is 189 cm tall; it towers over its viewers.
The first time I saw this sculpture in person, I was fascinated by the effect that it had on me. I was arrested by this vulnerable yet incredibly intense figure with its elongated limbs, its corroded and mottled surface. I was perplexed that such a simple and recognizable pose, that of a man walking, could be made to look so unrecognizable and foreign.
The location of the Walking Man II in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art is particularly interesting. The green and the brightness of the nature outside seem to intensify the figure’s dark and mottled surface. The stark contrast of the two colours seems to draw out from the sculpture all it desires to express.
Now, I have to be honest, it is not a particularly pleasurable experience looking at this emaciated and gaunt figure, quite the contrary. But that’s one of the reasons why I love this work; because of the intense feelings and reactions that it provokes in me. Looking at 'The Walking Man II', I actually feel discomfort and uneasiness; something that quite rarely happens with sculptures. I remember the very first words that flew through my mind when I first saw this figure in person; starvation, illness, suffering, helplessness, fragility, but most of all loneliness, isolation. In short, this sculpture seems to embody all the negatives a human being can experience. Its disturbing form is haunting.
What is it about this work that incites such a strong reaction?
Giacometti actually sculpted a number of similar figures in his lifetime, and the 'Walking Man II' was not one of his first. During the Second World War when he was in Switzerland, he actually began making miniature versions of them, no bigger than the size of a matchbox. Now, the fact that they were made during the Second World War, has suggested that these figures were meant to depict the suffering of people that were sent to concentration camps, which is completely valid. I would like to add to this. Why is it that we feel so uncomfortable and alienated in the presence of this sculpture?
This is where the initial size of the figures becomes quite significant. Giacometti claimed he wanted to depict human beings as seen from a distance. It is true that when seen from a great distance, people obviously look smaller, they appear thinner and more slender; their edges become smudged, almost slightly erased, especially if the sun is blazing above the – the play of light can distort our sight. The air seems to press around them suggesting a sense of loneliness, even though that may not be the case.
In 1946 when Giacometti resolved to enlarge his initial miniature figures into life-size and larger than life sculptures something dramatic occurred. All that was embodied in the small figures, this sense of thinness and loneliness and silence, became intensified, creating an unnatural figure. The air seems to be pressing into and almost suffocating this figure, muffling him so that we can almost hear the deafening and palpable silence radiating from this figure. This seems to emanate an overpowering sense of isolation. But more than anything else, we can feel the distance between us and this sculpture. Giacometti has done something incredible here in every sense of the word. He has brought a figure that is meant to be seen at a great distance to a great closeness to us. His facial features are indistinguishable and his expression is indecipherable just like that of a human at a great distance from us. We therefore establish a superficial intimacy with this 'man', as no matter how close we are to him, we can always feel this incredible distance that stands between us. As a result, the figure seems to both demand and reject attention from the viewer simultaneously.
Now let’s look at the actual pose of this figure; one that seems both familiar and yet completely alien. The pose is obviously of a man striding forward. However, such a pose would normally emanate a sense of determination, of purpose. This pose however, projects a different image. Although, the strong diagonal created by this figure when seen in profile suggests a sense of direction and determination, it seems to be an exhausted determination. Although this man is trying to move; he seems to be caged by the oppressive air around him which seems to be sucking out the life of this man, corroding his surface. The figure seems to be withering on the spot, like a tree losing its leaves and becoming barren. The lack of any musculature on the figure of this man portrays his weakness and fragility; he has literally been stripped to the bone. In addition, his unusually large and heavy feet seem to melt into the ground, rooting this man to the spot and keeping him a prisoner. Despite the man’s effort to move forward as can be seen from his clenched fists, he is unable to. It is almost a 'doomed walk'.
It is important to mention here that Giacometti was very concerned with depicting reality; in fact he wanted to project the truth about human nature. So, what is he trying to imply here?
This pose is not only identifiable today, but also be traced back to around 2000 BC in Egypt. Giacometti loved Egyptian art; he himself once said that “until now, and I think I will not change my mind, the most beautiful sculpture that I have found is … Egyptian…The Egyptian sculptures have a grandeur, a rhythm of form, a perfect technique which no one has achieved yet”. He made many sketches of Egyptian art during his life time. Looking at Egyptian sculpture, we can see where Giacometti may have derived his inspiration or this figure, as the poses are incredibly similar. In both cases the figures stand in the act of motion, looking straight ahead with their legs opened and forming a triangle. They both stand upright, and have their fists clenched and by their sides. Their feet are rooted to the ground and they stand on identical blocks.
There is one stark difference though; their surface.
The deliberately and insistently prodded surface of the 'The Walking Man II' can actually be linked to another Egyptian art; a mummy. Just like a mummy is trapped in a tomb, Giacometti’s 'Walking Man II' is trapped by the air around it. This curious and ironic combination implies the meaning of Giacometti’s sculpture. By incorporating the strength and power associated with the poses of Egyptian emperors and sphinxes, with the emaciated form of a mummy in one sculpture, Giacometti could be portraying the futility of human fortitude. No matter how we aspire to be great like the Egyptians did, we will inevitably end up corroded and exhausted, like a mummy. Although there is a faint sense of endless resilience coming from this man, it is buried under the oppressive force of the difficulties and enormity of the world, and the inevitability of his fate. He seems to project forward an omnipresent anxiety about his existence. Giacometti is depicting what might have been his 'vision of reality'; the world as he saw it today and the nature of humankind. A world in which man is constantly restricted and held prisoner by difficulties, expectations, laws… In my opinion, it is this image, a man’s grim determination and endless struggle against an unforgiving world which makes 'The Walking Man II' so powerful and impacting.
Whoo, that was intense. Feel free to make of this sculpture what you will! You might have a completely different reading, and that's fine!
For a full virtual tour of this haunting work of art, click here: https://youtu.be/fl3iXGgniYg
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Lanchner, Carolyn. "Alberto Giacometti: Painter and Sculptor." MoMA 4, no. 7 (2001): 6-9.
Mathews, Timothy, and Alberto Giacometti. Alberto Giacometti: The Art of Relation. London: I.B. Tauris, 2014.
Peppiatt, Michael, Alberto Giacometti, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, and Fondation de l'Hermitage. Alberto Giacometti in Postwar Paris. New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press in association with the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 2001.
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