Isamu Noguchi, Kouros and Alberto Giacometti, Three Men Walking II

Isamu Noguchi, Kouros and Alberto Giacometti, Three Men Walking II

Kourous is a sculpture by Isamu Noguchi that he made between 1944 and 1945. The sculpture is more than nine feet tall, pink; made of interlocking marble slabs and its specific dimensions are 117″ h. x 34″ d. x 42″ w. The technique used was carving in the round. He used marbles because of its availability and low cost. His works dating from the 1940s are figurative and biomorphic and Kourous is no exception. Kourous is a name from biomorphic vocabulary devised by Noguchi to portray the human form as fragmented and having bonelike elements. This work was similar to biomorphic abstractions by Surrealist artists like Matta, Jean Arp, Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso and Yves Tanguy. Noguchi, who was born in Japan though he got most of his education from the USA, said that his inspiration was traditional Japanese arts and crafts floral arrangements and samurai swords. Noguchi once worked with Constantin Brancusi in Paris, who was a sculptor and a Surrealist and could have been inspired by him too[1].

For five months, he worked as Constantin’s office assistant and learnt how to analyze simple organic shapes and the figurative associations they evoked. He went further to acquire carving skills and used them, employing traditional methods and materials. He did not use adhesives and for Kourous he assembled pieces of carved stones, notched and slotted them together. In doing so, he considered the weight of each marble and the potential engineering problems he would encounter in carving Kourous. On this he said, “You have to consider the weight of the material, the forces that conspire to hold up the figure engineering problems, essentially. Everything I do has an element of engineering in it particularly since I dislike gluing parts together or taking advantage of something that is not inherent in the material … there are no adhesives of any kind only the stones holding themselves together.” (Noguchi 66).

The fragmented figure shows Noguchi’s feelings about the period after the second world war, which he refers to as “the encroaching void.” In an exhibition in Museum of Modern Art he said, “If I say that growth is the constant transfusion of human meaning into the encroaching void, then how great is our need today when our knowledge of the universe has filled space with energy, driving us toward a greater chaos and new equilibriums.” (Noguchi 85).

This statement brought out his feelings on World War II and his quest for a change that would stop wars. Other Abstract Expressionists used similar terms to “the encroaching void” to describe this period that had caused so many deaths and yet nothing had been accomplished. It therefore brought the mood of the time, the pains, the broken bones and the weakening of the human body. Being a Biomorphic hence an advocator of the power of life, he sought to show the importance of human life. When giving his reasons for using the marble in his work, Noguchi said, “…must be approached in terms of absolutes; it can be broken, but not otherwise changed…. The very limitations of the medium imposed a kind of honesty; to find the minimum means for construction and expression rather than the myriad possibilities that metal welding soon came to involve…I took a peculiar satisfaction in its fragility, arguing the essential impermanence of life, much as in a Japanese poem. Like cherry blossoms, perfection could only be transient-a fragile beauty is more poignant.” (Noguchi 84). Before the First World War Noguchi’s sculptures touched on the society’s needs for example, his portrait on Ruth Parks who was a poor waitress, but later after the Second World War he addressed personal matters mostly borrowed from his First World War experience. These matters were on the loss of morals in the world that lead to gross animosity and many deaths.

I believe it was an effort by the artist to portray the human form as weak, in a quest to stop the massive killings and injuries. If the governments could visualize the hard times every one was going through, then they would have considered ending the war to spare the weak human structure from further damage. In his decision on not to use addictives, he wanted to show that people cannot be brought back to life once they are gone since they are not like other materials that can be easily brought back to use by using adhesives on them. Kourous was critiqued by the Americans because though some of their artists were Surrealists, they did not understand Noguchi’s work. Noguchi’s work was viewed as scary because of their incapacity to connect to the sculptors’ feelings hence understanding his work from his own point of view. Though he combined both Japanese and Western concepts and used fragility to show the Japanese take on the ephemeral nature of every thing and the American existential ethos that was dominant after the World War II, the Americans did not fully understand him (Grove 1985).

Some critics insisted that there was no need for Noguchi to call his sculpture Kourous if it was an exploration of the pure form of humans rather than a real representation of a youth since in Greek, it meant a young male. Some argued that an artist’s work was not to explore the form of human nature but to deal with things that were important to humans.

Alberto Giacometti carved “Three Men Walking II” in 1949. Its dimensions are 30 1/8 x 13 x 12 3/4 in. (76.5 x 33 x 32.4 cm) and he used grey and beige on bronze patinas platform. The sculpture is of three thin men who appear weightless, vertically stretched, remote and unaware of each others existence. Their strides are also broad and there feet look oversize. Giacometti was a Swiss who came from a background of sculptors and his category is that of expressionist sculptors. The shades of grey and beige and touches of pink and blue on the brown patina is used bring out an eerie environment. To bring out his technique more clearly, he goes further to use make the brown patina rough. The base serves as a dual purpose; one to create an illusion of distance and two by putting the unknown figures on a raised base. He gives them an illusion of heroes, as is the case in public monuments. The men look like a tree that has shed its foliage in winter. Giacometti’s theme was of the walking man, the nude woman and the standing man and all the three had their bust joined.

Giacometti had studied cubism and surrealism and was even regarded as the most renown surrealist sculptor. His associates were Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst and Balthus. There are two versions of “Three Walking Men” with the first figure having the men wider apart and on a larger base. This cast is found in the Museum of Modern Art with two other collections in New York. The second version is called the “Three Men Passing” since the figures are closer to each other and when viewed from a certain angle it appears as though two heads are overlapping and becoming one giving the illusion that the figures are interchangeable. This version belongs to Dallas Museum of Art and another sample of this is under private ownership in Switzerland. When asked about his sculptures Giacometti said “In the street the people astound me and interest me more than any sculpture or painting. Every second the people stream together and go apart, then they approach each other to get close to one another…. They unceasingly form and reform living compositions in unbelievable complexity.” (Giacometti 138).

His other motivations were in his early childhood eerie experiences. Concerning this experiences he said “The form undid itself; it was little more than specks moving in a deep black void.”[2] He was also inspired by Tintoretto’s figures that were emphasized by the dissolution of mass into light and space and supported elongation of figures to show tension. This method of dissolving went further to separate the figures from their space and normality. Giacometti preferred to use clay in his sculptures to bring out the historical bit of everything and demonstrate the nature of humans to be just as that of clay that can be molded to anything and fragile. In “The Walking Man”, it can be seen as Giacometti’s own life as he struggles to move forward in every aspect of his life especially as an artist. The men are walking as if they are taking their first steps and are therefore unsure of what is happening in their lives. This uncertainty is further emphasized by their slim figures and an illusion that they are disappearing into thin air. The weightless forms were Giacometti’s way of showing a need for a fresh start after the Second World War. Just like the figures seemed to be dissolving, so should the heartaches of the war and most of all, the causes of the war, so that in the future there would be peace[3]. There is also tension on brown patina base, which shows how they try to show their dignity and yet are vulnerable and how eventually they end up falling. There are many things in the people’s lives that bring them down and no matter how they try to remain calm, cool and collected to keep their good names, they will eventually bring them down. This could also be connected to the war times where the causes of war were deeper than many people knew. These causes were built up over time and had been swept under the carpet giving an illusion that everything was okay but they came out at last causing World War II.

Giacometti’s line of thinking is seen in the elongated female figures and “The Walking Man”, where the woman is portrayed as an unfit companion for the man. The man’s gait is Giacometti’s and he remarked that in “Man Walking in the Rain”, he was the man. It was difficult to show the space between the women than the men but his theme was that of alienation and he still brought it out by emphasizing on the space between individuals. Giacometti was inspired also by memories of Surrealists models that showed people stretching out in streets and for long, he had tried to bring out the appearance of a person seen from a distance[4]. Until the carving of “Three Walking Men”, he had not been able to achieve this effect. Just like the city had struck him as a place where there are several configurations and everyone minding their own business, which is unlike his mountain village where everyone greeted each other as they passed by, this is what he brought out in his sculpture.

Giacometti tried to balance modern society’s concerns with those of the historical society and harmonize specific views with universal ones. Many people have seen his sculpture to bring out the bad experiences of the Second World War with emphasis on the eerie experiences. The sculptures have a connection with the Egyptian burials and early Greek korai. The universality of the sculptures is brought out by the space between the men as each walks away from the other. It shows the modern world where everyone minds his or her own business therefore creating a communication gap. The gap shows how humans go about their activities with each minding his or her own business and failing to know of the others well being. It is therefore clear that Giacometti had all the three times in mind as he carved this sculpture[5].

William Barrett in “Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (1962)” said that Giacometti’s sculptures showed the 20th century modernism and existentialism, which was empty therefore having no meaning. Having shown the dangers of hidden agendas and the effects of wars particularly the Second World War, Giacometti is known to be a sculptor who expresses his thoughts and feelings through his sculptures.

Noguchi and Giacometti have a lot in common in that both of them were inspired by Picasso, the used elongated forms, were Surrealists and were also inspired by their personal experiences of the Second world war when coming up with there sculpture. They had a common theme of showing the cruelty of war and focusing on a new beginning that would be based on truth and optimism. There is also emphasis on how sacred life is as they all view it as fragile therefore showing it as something that should be taken care of. There message is focused on there individuals and the government with an aim of creating a better world.

Work Cited

Barrett, William. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962. Print.

Fletcher. Alberto Giacometti, 1901-1966. Washington, D.C: Published for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden by the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988. Print.

Giacometti, Alberto. “Modern Masters.” Artnews. 95.3 (1996): 59. Print.

Grove, Nancy. Isamu Noguchi: A Study of the Sculpture. Outstanding Dissertations in the Fine Arts. New York, NY: Garland Pub, 1985. Print.

Hale, Robert B. “The American Moderns.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. 16.1 (1957): 18-28. Print.

Lanchner, Carolyn, and Christian Klemm. Alberto Giacometti. New York, NY: The Museum of Modern Art, 2001. Print.

Wilson, Robert, and Isamu Noguchi. Isamu Noguchi, Sculptural Design. Weil am Rhein, Germany: Vitra Design Museum, 2001. Print.



[1] Wilson, Robert, and Isamu Noguchi. Isamu Noguchi, Sculptural Design. Weil am Rhein, Germany: Vitra Design Museum, 2001. Print

[2] Giacometti, Alberto. “Modern Masters.” Artnews. 95.3 (1996): 59. Print

[3] Giacometti, Alberto. “Modern Masters.” Artnews. 95.3 (1996): 59. Print

[4] Lanchner, Carolyn, and Christian Klemm. Alberto Giacometti. New York, NY: The Museum of Modern Art, 2001. Print

[5] Fletcher. Alberto Giacometti, 1901-1966. Washington, D.C: Published for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden by the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988. Print

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