Giacometti’s Self-portrait with Brush (1918)

Alberto Giacometti was only 17 years old when he drew this self-portrait in the mirror but, even then, he knew more about art than the critics and historians. It was not innate knowledge but learnt through looking at art, even at reproductions. If he knew the basics by that age, Renaissance artists when young would have known them too, through originals or prints.

In this image Giacometti draws himself in the mirror, his unseen paper somewhere below the lower edge to the left. The fact that the entire sheet is a mirror is significant because so many world-class masterpieces are mirrors too from Raphael's La Fornarina (1518-20) to Velazquez's Las Meninas (1656) to Manet's Olympia (1863). And only true artists and you know that.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Giacometti, Self-portrait with Brush (1918) Ink on paper. Private Collection1

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And just as I have shown that many great artists construct compositions out of the letters of their name so, it appears, did Giacometti. Enlarge the image at left by clicking on it and you will see an upper-case G above his left eye and several lower-case g's on the right-hand side of his Swiss Afro. i's, o's and t's can be seen scribbled in his hair in many places but also (see diagram) an m and an a, thereby including all the letters of his name. Yet he took advantage of his curls to include other images too.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Diagram of Giacometti's Self-portrait with Brush (1918)

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In red in the diagram at left you should see outlined a nude female torso with large hips and full-frontal breasts, a kind of prehistoric fertility figure in his mind. Below that is a hanging phallus with testicles and pubic hair above. They not only convey that conception (the mental conception of the image) takes place in his head but that his mind is androgynous with both male and female characteristics. Both these ideas have never been recognized as important features of great art.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail and diagram of Giacometti's Self-portrait with Brush (1918)

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Now note how the space below his little finger forms an eye with a large pupil, signifying that his vision and craft (the hand) are united. A large button to the left on the other side of his jacket suggests a second eye. Hidden "eyes" like these are often placed at the lower edge of an image to suggest that what takes place above is in the artist's mind. I have shown similar "eyes" in works by several artists, including in Dürer's Self-portrait as Christ (1500).

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Giacometti's Self-portrait with Brush (1918) 

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While Giacometti's real paper is out-of-sight he holds his brush as though he may be drawing the very image we see. In fact, if you take a careful look at the right margin, you will see how the back-and-forth shading of his shadow continues over his shoulder. This suggests, perhaps, that the "sheet" we see and that he appears to be drawing on is largely blank except for the shadow down the right-hand side. In the mirror of his mind Giacometti imagines himself drawing his shadow on an upright sheet of glass in front of him. The 17-year old Giacometti is "drawing" his psychic shadow.

Captions for image(s) above:

Giacometti, Self-portrait with Brush (1918)

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More Works by Giacometti

Notes:

1. Sold at Christie's London, 5th February 2008, lot 570.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 17 Nov 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.