Jan Krugier, Geneva
Private Collection (sale: Sotheby's, New York, 20th May 1982, lot 161)
Galerie Maeght, Paris (purchased at the above sale)
Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Zurich
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Buste of 1949 is one of the haunting portraits that Giacometti executed in Paris shortly after the war. The composition is among the Giacometti's most enigmatic, influenced by the post-war Existentialist movement and the artist's own reworking of themes from his Surrealist past. Like an apparition in the darkness, the slender outline of the figure emerges through a haze of grey and white paint. The model for this picture was probably his brother Diego, posing in front of the bedroom door that appears in many of the compositions from this period. But Giacometti has entirely de-contextualised these elements in order to create this provocative, ghostly image. The picture captures a particular sentiment that the artist once expressed in a Surrealist prose poem: 'The human face is as strange to me as a countenance, which, the more one looks at it, the more it closes itself off and escapes by the steps of unknown stairways' (quoted in Alberto Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden & San Francisco, Museum of Art, 1988-89, p. 37).
Valerie Fletcher has commented on the use of the framing device seen in this work and in many of Giacometti's paintings of this period: 'Giacometti's fascination with distorted space partially accounts for the frames he painted or drew around nearly all his images. He had begun this practice as early as 1917-18, but after 1946 it became almost standard. Recalling the Renaissance definition of a painting as a window on the world, this framing device opens up and encloses an imaginary three-dimensional reality. By isolating the figure in a remote and uncertain environment, Giacometti marks off the figure's space as distinct from our reality. When asked why he used these framing outlines, he replied: "Because I do not determine the true space of the figure until after it is finished. And with the vague intention of reducing the canvas, I try to fictionalize my painting... And also because my figures need a sort of no man's land"' (V. Fletcher in ibid., pp. 47-48).
This painting was executed at the beginning of the artist's mature period, when his work was impacted by his interactions with the prominent intellectuals of post-war Paris. Most notable among them was the Existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre, whom Giacometti had met in 1939. After the war, the two men engaged in long discussions about the philosophical dilemmas of existence in the modern world. Along with Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus, Giacometti incorporated these existentialist concerns into his art. Valerie Fletcher described the extent to which these philosophical underpinnings transformed Giacometti's creative vision during these years:
'Giacometti did not evolve his postwar figurative art with the deliberate intention of creating an Existentialist art; his motivations were personal, instinctive, and aesthetic. Nonetheless Existentialist interpretations of Giacometti's art, although somewhat facile, are substantiated by the artworks themselves, especially those from 1946-52. A number of sculptures and paintings depict figures whose frail proportions and solitary stance within a large, often desolate space connote the essential isolation of the individual. In addition to such iconographic connections with Existentialism, Giacometti's art involved a profound philosophical investigation of the nature of the self. For Sartre and Giacometti, being is neither defined nor fully revealed by its apparent manifestations, it transcends description, although it is not separate from its phenomena, and so human consciousness remains always in flux' (ibid., p. 35).
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