Private Collection, Paris
Sale: Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 19th June 1995, lot 15
Jeffrey Loria, New York (purchased at the above sale)
Acquired from the above by the present owner
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Nude, 2016, illustrated in colour in the catalogue (titled Figure Moyenne II)
‘These fine and slender natures rise up to heaven, we seem to have come across a group of Ascensions, of Assumptions; they dance, they are dances, they are made of the same rarified matter as the glorious bodies that were promised us. And when we have come to contemplate this mystic thrust, these emaciated bodies expand, what we see before us belongs to earth. This martyr was only a woman. But a woman complete [...], a complete woman, in danger on this earth, and yet not utterly of this earth, and who lives and tells us of the astonishing adventure of the flesh, our adventure. For she, like us, was born’ (Jean-Paul Sartre, Alberto Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1948).
Giacometti’s women have a remarkable presence that captures something of the enduring dignity and grandeur of ancient sculpture. They also have a remoteness and anonymity that speak to the modern age and seem to offer a commentary on the fragile nature of the human condition; they are among the artist’s greatest contributions to modern art. Conceived on an impressive scale and coloured in a lambent golden hue, Grande figure is a pivotal work in Giacometti’s œuvre and marks the beginning of the most significant period of his working life.
The year 1947 was of crucial importance for Giacometti and many of his most celebrated creations such as L’Homme qui marche and L’Homme au doigt (figs. 1 & 2) date from that period. His experimental masterpiece Le Chariot (fig. 3), although not executed until 1950, was first envisaged in 1947. After years of self-imposed exile in his native Switzerland, in 1945 the artist had returned to his spiritual home, Paris. He had spent the preceding years working on an ever-smaller scale as he attempted to render the perspective of distance in sculptural form. It was a period of intense frustration and of destruction as well as creation; when he arrived in Paris he carried an entire three years’ worth of work in six match boxes. Back in the city he had so loved before the war, his spirits were buoyed by the discovery of his old studio, preserved by his brother Diego. The two brothers soon took up their old routines, with Alberto rising at midday and then working late into the night before going out to one of the cafés or bars that he had frequented before the war. His energy was further rejuvenated by the arrival of Isabel Rawsthorne – who was briefly his lover and would later become Francis Bacon’s friend and muse – and then, more significantly, with the arrival of Annette Arms in the summer of 1946.
This new environment and personal contentment heralded a striking change in direction, with his sculptures growing increasingly in stature as well as taking on the more elongated physiognomy that would become the artist’s hallmark. Pierre Matisse, who had been distinctly underwhelmed when he visited Giacometti’s studio the previous year, was persuaded to return and finding himself deeply impressed by the works he saw, entered into an agreement to represent the artist. Plans were made for a major solo exhibition in New York that would be the artist’s first one-man show in America and his first significant exhibition in ten years. This provided further impetus for the artist and precipitated a period of intense productivity as well as a clarification of his artistic vision. As David Sylvester observed, this was the moment that ‘the style of his mature work was crystallised’ (D. Sylvester, Looking at Giacometti, London, 1994, p. 149).
During this period Giacometti developed what would come to be seen as the eponymous themes of his work: the walking man, the bust, and the standing woman. A rare, unique work, Grande figure relates closely to the other tall figures of 1947 and is among the earliest examples of the slender, elongated female figures that anticipate the iconic later series of women including the Femmes de Venise (1956) and the Grandes femmes (1960). Throughout the previous decade Giacometti had made regular studies of Egyptian statuary, both in person at the Louvre and working from reproductions, and these became an important source of inspiration in the creation of his frontal female figures (fig. 4) and must have influenced his decision to create the present work in a tenebrous gold. His belief that attempts to mimic reality through techniques like contrapposto preserved an untruth, led him to the deliberately hieratic forms of ancient sculpture which preserved a truthfulness; as he once proclaimed, ‘The works of the past that I find the most true to reality are those that are considered the least, the furthest from it’ (quoted in Herbert & Mercedes Matter, Alberto Giacometti, New York, 1987, p. 211).
David Sylvester explored the nature of this influence in Giacometti’s work further, writing that he ‘chose to work as if under the kind of restrictions imposed upon artists by civilisations such as Egypt and Byzantium – not only the demand for adherence to stereotypes, but the insistence that the pose be formal, compact, impassive, frontal. It was not that he was aiming to create an impersonal kind of art: the nervous, agitated surfaces of the sculptures and the paintings are imprints of the gestures that made them […]. The point of the rigid stereotypes could only have been that here again he felt most free to act when operating, ritualistically, within a firm, constant, repetitious framework’ (D. Sylvester, op. cit., p. 121).
This preoccupation with the art of the past and with a quasi-formulaic methodology was essential to Giacometti’s conception of his own work which was pursued with a relentless intensity and a complete focus on the process of creation. The figures that reoccur in his œuvre were often worked and re-worked, with Giacometti sometimes stripping a model back to the armature in order to build it up again; many works were destroyed, or existed simultaneously in different forms, the ‘complete’ work an anathema in a quest that was ongoing. It was through these repetitions that he was able to perceive the elusive reality he sought and achieve a timelessness that spoke to the continuity of the human condition.
This timelessness can be measured against Giacometti's distinctive handling of the medium; he paid significant attention to the modelling of his works, and Grande figure exhibits the vibrancy and vitality that is unique to his sculpture. As Valerie Fletcher writes: ‘Giacometti’s postwar sculptures have roughly modelled surfaces that descend from the late nineteenth-century Romantic aesthetic of the sketch – works not overly finished but capturing the spontaneity and personal touch of the artist during the creative process. Extensively developed by Rodin and other early modern sculptors, such active surfaces lend a vitality to the sculptures. Their variegated rhythms and the changing play of light and shade caused by the blobs and recesses of bronze suggest fleeting impressions and give the figures expressive power’ (V. Fletcher, in Alberto Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 1988-89, p. 42).
This expressivity is the great strength of Giacometti’s work in that it provides an immediacy that operates tangentially to the enduring nature of his forms. As Fletcher observes, he was working in a tradition that began with Rodin – whose own sculpture of the same name was an inspiration for L’Homme qui marche – but the pervasive modernity of his works is peculiar to the post-war generation’s compulsion to reach a new artistic truth in their work.
Viewing Grande figure exactly seventy years after its conception, we are privileged with a perspective that allows us both to consider its past and envisage its future. In doing so we can appreciate more intimately the delicate balance between the figure’s ancient, hieratic grandeur and its humanity. It is this dialogue in his work – the ability to render the reality not of a fixed moment, but of the object/human in the truer reality of timeless space – that remains the ultimate achievement of Giacometti’s sculpture.
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