The search for existential meaning in Giacometti’s elongated figures

September 22, 2017

If I take one thing from studying the works of Alberto Giacometti it is this: never think your life’s work is complete. There is always room to progress and develop; to understand more than before.

Just as his iconic stick figures, seemingly in perpetual motion, their feet becoming one with the earth, Giacometti spent a life moving forward artistically. The Swiss artist felt his constant recreation of the same figures, faces and portraits was an important journey. “The more you fail, the more you succeed,” he said. “It is only when everything is lost and – instead of giving up – you go on, that you experience the momentary prospect of some slight progress. Suddenly you have the feeling – be it an illusion or not – that something new has opened up.”

Giacometti, who is the subject of a new exhibition at Tate Modern – the UK’s first major retrospective of his work for 20 years – never stopped working on his figures. Having mastered the ability to recreate the human form perfectly at quite a young age, he spent most of his life on a more metaphysical quest. He was struggling to make sense of humanity. His sculptures became a personal search for meaning.

I think this is a journey we must all go on as we inevitably query our existence and spiritual purpose. Whether you work out your concerns through art or writing, or through prayer and meditation, it ought to be a comforting process. It is one all humans share – whatever our faith or background. 

Thinking about the meaning of life also provides a good chance to think about other people. If we are only on this earth for a short time, what should we be doing? 

Leo Tolstoy suggested the sole meaning of life “is to serve humanity”. Albert Camus, on the other hand, preferred to live for the moment. He warned that too dedicated a search left no space to be happy. 

And I think that is important, too. It is good to be mindful of the transience of human existence, but also important not to be overwhelmed by it. We can be conscious of our lives and work, and find a little time for fun as well. 

Giacometti was known to be a good listener and a lively conversationalist. Best of all, his biographer James Lord said: “Giacometti had a sort of Charlie Chaplin side to him, a quirky and acute sense of humour.”

It’s good to think that even a man like Giacometti – whose art reflected a life-long existential quest – also knew how to enjoy the moment. Sometimes there is merit in simply being alive.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation