Alberto Giacometti's Le Chat is one of the most recognisable and profound compositions of his post-war production. Slinking along, with its body in perfect alignment, this graceful creature possesses elegance akin to the artist's elongated female nudes of the period. Giacometti was fascinated by the dexterity and anatomical pliancy of the animal, which in its very nature embodies the illusionistic properties of so many of his narrow busts and standing figures. 'A cat is narrow and can pass between two very close objects,' Giacometti once marveled, observing his brother Diego’s cat, whom Alberto admired for its litheness to pass between objects without ever touching them. Observing how the animal could defy the boundaries of form and space, the writer Jean Genet once observed that Giacometti's sinewy cat could even 'pass through a mouse hole' and that 'his rigid horizontality perfectly recreates the form of a cat, even when curled up in a ball' (J. Genet, L'Atelier d'Alberto Giacometti, 1958, reprinted in Alberto Giacometti: Sculptures, peintures, dessins (exhibition catalogue), Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, 1991-92, p. 232).
By 1951, when the present work was created, Giacometti had formulated the iconography that he used in both painted and sculptural work. Until the end of his life, he focused on elaborating his established subject matter more than on the invention of new themes. Only a few bronzes, however, represent a departure from the artist's usual themes of male and female figures and depictions of his studio, all supposedly executed in plaster during the course of a single day: the present work - Le Chat - and two other depictions of animals - Le Chien (figs. 1 & 3) and Deux chevaux (fig. 6). The latter, however, never came to fruition, as the life-size plaster casts were too big for Giacometti’s cramped studio and dissolved outside in the rain.
As Yves Bonnefoy commented when discussing this period: 'There are many studio interiors [...], and there are, of course, many portraits, in pencil, in oils, in clay or in plaster [but] there are still a few imaginative works during these months, for instance [...] in 1951 The Cat and The Dog which suggest the neighbouring streets and courtyard' (Y. Bonnefoy, op. cit., p. 368). Referring to its companion sculpture Le Chien, Giacometti told the writer Jean Genet: 'The dog is myself. One day I saw it like that in the street. I was that dog' (quoted in ibid., p. 50). In 1964 he expounded upon its origin, reflecting to James Lord: 'For a long time I'd had in mind a memory of a Chinese dog I'd seen somewhere. And then one day I was walking along the rue de Vanves in the rain, close to the walls of the buildings, with my head down, feeling a little sad, perhaps, and I felt like a dog just then. So I made that sculpture. But it's not really a likeness at all. Only the sad muzzle is anything of likeness' (quoted in Reinhold Hohl (ed.), Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1998, p. 135).
The image of the cat can also be interpreted as a symbolic representation of the artist himself and, in a wider context, of the post-war period, as a reflection of the lonely and vulnerable human condition, a theme that very much preoccupied the artist at this time. The authentic experience of selfhood, freedom of choice and ownership of individual ethics - the core tenets of Existentialism—were at the forefront of Giacometti’s mind, and the artist expressed them by reducing his forms, both human and bestial, to their essential shapes. Giacometti explored this austerity through repetition of multiple and conflicting thematic connotations of stoicism, resilience, passivity, solitude, strength and vulnerability.
In the treatment of the animal's body, Le Chat is closely related to Giacometti's lean, wiry figures that reached their apex during this period. This sentiment is perhaps most powerfully expressed in Giacometti's image of a falling man, L'Homme qui chavire (fig. 4). Both Le Chat and L'Homme qui chavire were executed at the beginning of the artist's mature period, when his work was impacted by 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 1946-51. A number of sculptures and paintings depict figures whose 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' (V. Fletcher in Alberto Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. & San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, 1988-89, p. 35).
It was in 1951, the year he executed Le Chat, that Giacometti had his first solo exhibition at Galerie Maeght, Paris. The show, which included the plaster cast of Le Chat, was a tremendous success and helped propel Giacometti to his status as one of the foremost avant-garde artists working in Paris. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York staged a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1955, and in the following year he exhibited a now celebrated group of large female figures at the Venice Biennial. Despite his growing success, Giacometti remained true to his working ethic and his profound material simplicity, retaining his small studio and returning every year to his native Stampa to visit his mother who would serve as his model. Writing about his personality and his disregard for conventions, Bernard Lamarche-Vadel recounted an anecdote: when asked whether in a burning house, he would save a painting by Rembrandt or a cat, Giacometti said that he would save the cat, an answer that reflects his personality better than any analysis (B. Lamarche-Vadel, op. cit., p. 143). It is this sense of humanity, coupled with the philosophical undertones so poignant in this era, that Le Chat so powerfully embodies.
Subsequent to the creations of the plaster casts for Le Chat, Le Chien and Deux chevaux, then the bronze renditions of Le Chat and Le Chien, Alberto never again sculpted animals, in effect ceding this domain to Diego, who developed a variety of his own delightful animal motifs, which he used to whimsically decorate the furniture he began to produce in the 1950s. Several other casts of Le Chat are in major public collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, The Berggruen Museum in Berlin and the Stiftung Alberto Giacometti in Zurich.
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