Giacometti's extraordinary ensemble, Trois hommes qui marchent II, is an instantly recognisable icon of Modern art. Captured in mid-stride, the figures personify the theme of being alone in a crowd, as they narrowly pass each other in disconnected paths. The psychological isolation of each figure is underscored by the weighted feet, firmly rooted to their base and mobilised as their heels lift off the ground. Giacometti's creation of this sculpture at the end of the 1940s coincided with his production of other career-defining bronzes, all featuring his signature attenuated figures, either standing or in mid-stride across a plaza. But this image of the psychological isolation is perhaps Giacometti's most literal attempt to personify his own existential preoccupations in the years following the war. And to the Existentialist philosophers themselves, this very image became the clear and undisputed signifier of the exasperating uncertainty that defined an entire generation.
In the late 1940s, Giacometti was fascinated by spatial relationships and the concept of movement within a single work, and began to create sculptures which employed multiple figures on a common base. The present composition was undeniably conceived in an urban context – the platform on which the figures are placed is derived from the notion of a city square and its juxtaposition of striding figures, suggesting the way in which isolated city dwellers pass without stopping or interacting. Referring to the new perception of people and the space surrounding them that informs the present composition, Giacometti recounted that, upon leaving a cinema in 1945, he suddenly felt that 'people seemed like a completely foreign species, mechanical... mindless machines, like men in the street who come and go... a bit like ants, each one going about his own business, alone ignored by the others. They crossed paths, passed by, without seeing each other, without looking... In the street people astound and interest me more than any sculpture or painting. Every second the people stream together and go apart, they approach each other to get closer to one another. They unceasingly form and reform living compositions in unbelievable complexity... The men passed each other without looking. Or they stalk a woman. A woman is standing and four men direct their steps more or less toward the spot where the woman is standing... it is the totality of his life that I want to reproduce in everything I do' (A. Giacometti, quoted in Pierre Schneider, 'Ma longue marche par Alberto Giacometti', in L'Express, Paris, 8th June 1961, pp. 48-50).
For the present work, Giacometti has heightened the complexity of the scene by mounting his figures on an elaborate base. According to Valerie Fletcher, 'Giacometti's aim may have been to create the phenomenological illusion of distance, but in putting the anonymous figures on a significant base he raised them above mundane existence, like the heroes of countless public monuments' (V. Fletcher, op. cit., p. 138). On the other hand, this solitary man, in his many incarnations throughout Giacometti's production, can be understood to be the artist's self-portrait. The likeness is readily visible in Homme traversant une place par un matin de soleil and L'Homme qui marche (fig. 2), which the artist admitted were representations of himself. In all their various forms, the walking men were the embodiment of the isolation and anxiety symptomatic of post-war Europe, and the present work in particular proved to be a fertile source of inspiration for artists for many years after its creation. Frozen in time yet gesturing towards the future, alone yet unable to escape the obstacles of the urban throng, this solitary figure has come to symbolise the great existential dilemma of the 20th century.
The idea for Trois hommes qui marchent first appeared in a drawing sketched in a letter that Giacometti wrote to his dealer Pierre Matisse, depicting three men on a raised platform, walking in different directions. The present work is the second of two versions of the subject. In this second version the figures are grouped more closely together. Between 1947 and 1950 Giacometti made several sculptures centred on the figure of the walking man, alone or in a small group, sat on a platform suggestive of a city square, such as the present work. Other sculptures from this period, now widely recognised as the pinnacle of his œuvre, include Homme qui marche sous la pluie (fig. 4) and La Place II.
Trois hommes qui marchent II epitomises Giacometti's mature style, developed during the years immediately following World War II and characterised by the tall, slender figures for which he is best known. No longer interested in recreating physical likenesses in his sculptures, the artist began working from memory, seeking to capture his figures beyond the physical reality of the human form. Giacometti elongated the vertical axis while reducing the thickness of his sculptures: the men in the present work are thus composed of thin lines, lending the composition a weightless, almost impalpable quality. The image of a man can be interpreted as a symbolic representation of the artist himself and, in a wider context of the post-war period, as a reflection of the lonely and vulnerable human condition, a theme that very much preoccupied the artist at this time.
Occasionally Giacometti would enhance the patinas of select casts by applying paint directly onto the bronze or chemically manipulating the patination process to produce a varying tonality of the bronze. The latter technique highlights the surface of the present work, which is characterised by a beautiful modulation of gold and amber against the darker brown base-tone. The practice was also an allusion to the polychrome funerary figures of ancient Egypt, whose elongated proportions Giacometti also reinterpreted in the present sculpture. Although allusions to the past were common in Giacometti's work, his aesthetic was undeniably modern. The figures themselves are a simple assemblage of a few connected lines, yet Giacometti is able to portray the kinetic physicality of his 'men' with just a few simple gestures. With the support of a small armature, Giacometti first created this work in clay, moulding and pinching his forms to achieve highly tactile final figures. Next, he relied on his brother Diego to supervise the casting of the work in bronze, preserving every nick and impression that he had created in the original clay. This splendid cast, which was made during the artist's lifetime, bares all the markings and fine details of this hands-on process.
Other casts of Trois hommes qui marchent II are at the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the Art Institute of Chicago, Dallas Museum of Art and the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris.
Fig. 1, Alberto Giacometti, L'Homme qui chavire, 1950, bronze. Sold: Sotheby's, New York, 4th November, 2009
Fig. 2, Alberto Giacometti, L'Homme qui marche I, 1960, bronze. Sold: Sotheby's, London, 3rd February 2010
Fig. 3, Giacometti in his Paris studio with a cast of Trois hommes qui marchent II, circa 1950
Fig. 4, Alberto Giacometti, Homme qui marche sous la pluie, 1948, bronze, Alberto Giacometti Foundation, Kunsthaus, Zurich
Bronze with rich brown patina
Executed in 1948 and cast in bronze in an edition of 9. The present work was cast in 1948.
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Alberto Giacometti, 1985, no. 27
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon: Isabel and Other Intimate Strangers, 2008, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
New York, Eykyn Maclean, In Giacometti's Studio: An Intimate Portrait, 2010, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Height: 76.2cm. 30in.
Palma Bucarelli, Giacometti, Rome, 1962, no. 33, illustration of another cast
Peter Selz, Alberto Giacometti, New York, 1965, illustration of another cast p. 55
Gothard Jedlicka, 'Begegnung mit Alberto Giacometti', in Neue Züricher Zeitung, 16th January 1966
M. Ragan, 'Alberto Giacometti peintre et sculpteur', in Jardin des Arts, January 1968, no. 158, illustration of another cast p. 7
Franz Meyer, Alberto Giacometti: Eine Kunst existentieller Wirklichkeit, Stuttgart, 1968, illustrations of another cast pp. 158 & 160
Carl Huber, Alberto Giacometti, Lausanne, 1970, illustration of another cast p. 77
Bernard Lamarche-Vadel, Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 1984, no. 183, colour illustration of another cast p. 129
Valerie J. Fletcher, Giacometti, Hong Kong, 1988, no. 42, illustration of another cast p. 138
Tahar Ben Jelloun, Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 1991, no. 305, illustration of another cast p. 333
David Sylvester, Looking at Giacometti, London, 1994, illustration of another cast p. 192
James Hyman, 'Giacometti', in The Royal Academy Magazine, London, Autumn 1996, illustration of another cast p. 35
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York (1965)
Private Collection, USA (sold: Christie's, New York, 11th May 1988, lot 54)
Private Collection, Europe (purchased at the above sale)
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2005