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Details & Cataloguing

Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale

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Alberto Giacometti
1901 - 1966
CHARIOT
Inscribed with the signature A. Giacometti, with foundry mark Alexis Rudier Fondeur Paris and numbered  2/6
Painted bronze on wooden base
Height: 57 in.
144.7 cm
Conceived in 1950 and cast in 1951-52.
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Provenance

Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York (acquired from the artist)

Mr. & Mrs. Charles Zadok, New York (acquired from the above in 1952)

Galerie Beyeler, Basel

Acquired from the above in 1973

Exhibited

Paris, Musée d’Art moderne, Alberto Giacometti, 1969-70

Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Highlights, 1972, no. 8, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Literature

Lionel Abel, Lettre à Pierre Matisse, Alberto Giacometti, New York, 1950,  pp. 3, 12

Christian Zervos, Cahiers d'Art, 26e, Paris, 1951, illustration of another cast p. 79

Jacques Dupin, Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 1962, p. 57

Franz Meyer, Alberto Giacometti: Eine Kunst existenstieller Wirklichkeit,. Frauenfeld/Stuttgart, 1968 p. 104, 173

Carlo Huber, Alberto Giacometti, Zürich, 1970, p. 68

Carlo Huber, Alberto Giacometti, Zürich, 1971, p. 142

Reinhold Hohl, Alberto Giacometti: Sculpture, Painting, Drawing, Stuttgart, 1972, p. 133

Michael Francis Brenson, The Early Work of Alberto Giacometti: (1925- 1935) Ph D. Diss. Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1974, p. 167

Bernard Lamarche-Vadel  Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 1984, p. 132

James Lord, Alberto Giacometti, A Biography, New York, 1985, discussed p. 305

Valerie J. Fletcher, Alberto Giacometti, 1901-1966, Washington, D.C., 1998, discussed p. 148; illustration of another cast p. 149

Yves Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 1991, no. 125, pp. 98, 362

Laurie Wilson, Alberto Giacometti: Myth, Magic and the Man, New Haven, 2003, discussed pp. 259-261, illustration of the plaster cast p. 260

Angel Gonzalez, Alberto Giacometti, works, writings, interviews, Barcelona, 2006, illustration of another cast p. 94

Timothy Matthews, Alberto Giacometti, The Art of Relation, London, 2014, illustration of another cast in color on the cover

Catalogue Note

Giacometti's extraordinary Chariot is his masterpiece and ranks among the definitive achievements of 20th century art.  With its painted surface and rich, golden patina, the present sculpture is perhaps the most important bronze that the artist created. His biographer James Lord, while discussing what is considered Giacometti’s "great period" of the late 1940s and early 1950s, identified Chariot as his finest accomplishment: "There are many extraordinary sculptures of 1949 and 1950," he wrote. "Among them all, however, there is one, perhaps, more extraordinary than the others by reason of having required him to be extraordinary. It asks the beholder to be extraordinary, too" (J. Lord, Giacometti, New York, 1985, p. 304). 

Chariot had a profound personal significance for Giacometti, reflecting an epiphany in his creative development. The image came to him in a memory from his Surrealist period of the late 1930s. Like other sculptures from those years, it was a product of his unconscious mind, an “automatic” image that arrived fully-formed and unmediated.  In accounts of its origin, the artist explained that Chariot derived from his souvenir of 1938 when, recuperating in Bichat hospital after an accident, he had "marveled" at nurses’ pharmacy wagons with their "tinkling" bells.  This sensory image stayed with him, and he drew several sketches that would lead ultimately to the present work.  As he explained in a letter to his dealer Pierre Matisse, “In 1947 I saw the sculpture before me as if already done, and in 1950 it was impossible not to realize it, although it was already situated for me in the past” (A. Giacometti, 1950, quoted in J. Lord, ibid., p. 306). 

When cast in bronze in 1950, Chariot would become a heroic emblem of Post-War renewal. Locked in place despite the large apparatus of propulsion, the figure is Giacometti's attempt to crystallize the Existentialist philosophy which dominated Post-War Paris. His charioteer exists in a state of perpetual immobility yet her strength remains intact.  She raises her arms in a commanding gesture, much like that of the gleaming sentinel in front of the tomb of King Tutankhamun.  A figure of perseverance and a beacon of hope, she stands for all eternity upon her chariot, steadfast in her mission. The spirit of victory prevails over adversity and with this glorious sculpture Giacometti made his triumphant mark on history.

The genesis of the sculpture was in fact more complex than Giacometti implied. His hospital stay resulted after injuring his foot in a late-night traffic accident beside the gilded sculpture of Joan of Arc in the Place des Pyramides.  It was perhaps his remembrance of looking up at the image of the saint that inspired him to create this sculpture in gold. As Laurie Wilson points out in her biography, "gold was the substance of the magically alive mechanical servant girls of Vulcan who helped the lame smithy walk."  Wilson continues to describe Giacometti's work on this sculpture, which she likens to that of a goddess figure for the artist: "Implying movement in the charioteer cost Giacometti much effort, and he repeatedly revised the position of her arms. By raising her above the multitude, Giacometti made the woman of the Chariot into an object of worship.  She stands in direct contrast to his numerous immobile or encaged women of that year who were simultaneously enticing and threatening.... Giacometti momentarily triumphed over death with his contemporary image magic, just as ancient Egyptians believed that the shining sun triumphed every day over the darkness of night and death.... in 1950, at the height of his powers he could afford to carry out a project that secretly celebrated one of his profoundest fantasies – an apparently inanimate creature could be seen as vital" (L. Wilson, op. cit. p. 261).

Scholars also note that Giacometti’s Chariot draws its formal inspiration from several art historical precedents.  Most obvious of these, according to Reinhold Hohl, is the Egyptian chariot that Giacometti saw at the Archeological Museum in Florence.  Another possible source, given his fascination with classical statuary, is the Delphic charioteer whose hands extend to hold the reigns in a manner similar to the figure in the present sculpture.  The idea of the obsolete wheel also invokes Marcel Duchamp’s famous Bicycle Wheel, which challenged the fundamental role of a utilitarian object.  But the most direct antecedent is Giacometti’s own Femme au chariot I, a 1942 sculpture of a woman standing on a small-wheeled dolly.  While the woman in that sculpture could not control her mobility, the rotating wheels of her cart could be moved by an exterior force.  For his 1950 Chariot Giacometti grossly enlarged the proportion of the wheels and precluded their motion entirely.  The woman on this chariot is going nowhere, yet she is a harbinger of times to come.  Over the following years, motionless women and aimlessly walking men became the main characters in Giacometti’s drama of humanity, and his identity as an artist became inextricably linked with these images. 

James Lord suggests the following interpretation in his biography on the artist: "Like a dream, the Chariot moves inward upon itself even as it seems to rush ominously forward, and in our perspective this motion signifies that the sculpture was not created by accident.  Art uses life, and the extent of the use gives the moral of the work. The Chariot leads us to look more closely than usual at this interaction. It is fascinating but frightening.  Where first there was nothing, suddenly there is everything" (J. Lord, op. cit., p. 307).

The present cast of Chariot is among the rare sculptures that Giacometti painted meticulously to enhance the textural quality of the bronze, adding precise details of to the face, lips and body. This technique alludes to the polychrome empyreal funerary figures of ancient Egyptian statuary, whose timeless stance Giacometti also invokes. Only the present work and another in the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, are treated in this unique way. Perhaps inspired by the gilt of Joan of Arc, Giacometti favored an unusual golden patina for this composition. James Lord argues that this appropriate since “Chariot called for association with the metal most prized by man, the first to be worked in the pre-dawn of history, the one most often used to make or enrich the effigies of heroes, saints and deities (J. Lord, ibid., p. 306).

The scale of his sculptures was an important component of Giacometti's creative vision and one that he discussed frequently with his companions.  Sculptures that were too big "infuriated" him because they relied too much on imagination rather than on existential experience.  On the other hand, he found works that were too small to be "intolerable" because they were difficult to handle and materially unsustainable.  The present work, standing about a meter and a half high, was purely a concrete object in a clearly defined space, relatable in scale to its viewer.  With its connotations of stoicism, resilience, strength, vulnerability, perseverance and stasis, it calls to mind a passage from Samuel Beckett's classic of Existentialism, Waiting for Godot: "Why are we here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come."

Referring to the cast in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, curator Anne Umland has written about the significance of Chariot in relation to the Existentialist philosophy popular among intellectuals within Giacometti’s circle. “Giacometti was preoccupied with the elusiveness of contour, with the uncertain boundary between the object and the space that surrounded it. Jean-Paul Sartre influentially wrote about figures such as this as existing in some liminal state between being and nothingness. The figure's arms are tentatively outstretched; she diminishes as your eye travels up her rail thin legs to a slight swelling of the hips, to small breasts and head. No matter how close you get to her, she is always going to retreat thanks to the play of light and touch across the mottled, gnarled, knotty surface…. The pencil-thin woman is frozen in position, balanced on a platform attached to the axle of a chariot whose wheels are raised on tapered blocks. Yet her stance, with arm extended, looks unstable, raising the likelihood of sudden movement. But in which direction? Our uncertainty is heightened by the disparity in size between the figure and the huge wheels and pedestal. Looking at her, it's not clear if she's about to come toward us, or to move away. Paradoxically, the woman's reduced dimensions only add to her stature. We are drawn to her vague features. But no matter how carefully we look, we cannot quite make them out” (excerpt fromwww.moma.org).

Chariot was cast in a bronze edition of six numbered 1/6-6/6, according to the Fondation Giacometti in Paris.  Of these six, only two bronzes, including the present work, remain in private collections.  The four other casts are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung, Kunsthaus, Zurich; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, MO.

Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale

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New York