NEW YORK - In the early decades of the twentieth century, the medium of sculpture provided a vital platform for the genesis of Modernity in art. Young artists of the avant-garde began to challenge the naturalistic traditions so favoured by sculptors of earlier centuries and pushed figural depiction to the edge of abstraction.

Alberto Giacometti sculpting a bust in his studio.

One of the most iconic sculptures on offer in Sotheby’s upcoming Impressionist & Modern Art Day sale is Alberto Giacometti’s Buste d'homme sur socle, a richly modeled example of Giacometti’s most iconic subject, the solitary man. This bronze reflects a dual focus in his oeuvre during the late 1940s and early 1950s. On the one hand, there is the increasing emphasis on the reduction of the human figure, which was honed down to an essence to correspond with the artist’s vision of reality; on the other, there is the creation of modulated surfaces that inflect and manipulate the light cast upon them, thus fashioning a powerful sense of theatre.

As Henry Moore once wrote, “A sculptor is a person who is interested in the shape of things, a poet in words, a musician by sounds.” Perhaps no other sculptor of his generation could imbue a figure with such force, which in his own words is “pressing from the inside, trying to burst or trying to give off the strength from inside itself.” This inherent power is immediately palpable in the presence of his Two Seated Figures Against Wall, a large-scale bronze which explores a new theme that emerged in his work of the 1950s, that of the “seated figure,” as opposed to the “reclining” or “standing” figure.

Henry Moore’s Two Seated Figures Against Wall, conceived and cast in 1960. Estimate $200,000–300,000.

Alongside Moore, Barbara Hepworth was a leading pioneer of the Modern British movement. The two established a friendly professional rivalry during their studies at the Leeds School of Art, and indeed it was Hepworth who first inspired the pierced figurines on display in Moore’s Two Seated Figures Against Wall. Just as Hepworth’s art influenced Moore, his art, and particularly his monumental sculpture, motivated and inspired her, as did the organic and elegant stone carvings of Brancusi and Arp. 

Hepworth's interest in pagan ritual and totemic forms of her native England influenced much of her sculpture, and Makutu provides evidence that this interest extended even further afield. "Makutu" is the word used by the Mauri people of New Zealand to describe sorcery. In ascribing that name to this bronze ovoid form, Hepworth has cast it as an object with mystical power, possessing a distinct beauty and sense of timelessness in its solidity and curvilinear formation.

(left) Barbara Hepworth. (right) Barbara Hepworth’s Makutu. Estimate $600,000–800,000.

Sculptures on offer by Alexander Archipenko exemplify his inventive use of line and plane in defining the human figure. These bronzes underscore the versatile range of aesthetics he explored in his efforts to reduce any form or figure to the very last degree, a process he described as crystallisation. He once wrote, “There is a lyrical line in my style which may be compared to the long sound of one string on a certain Japanese instrument called a suma-koto. Such a line is totally different from the nervous zigzag of Peruvian textile designs which are comparable to jazz music."

Other sculptures on offer by Jean Arp epitomise the biomorphic forms that pervade his most celebrated Dada output, which had a profound influence on the art of the Surrealists and subsequently that of the Abstract Expressionists. His carefully considered surfaces and smooth, rounded forms blend human anatomy with elements of nature. The artist once said, “Sculpture should walk on the tips of its toes, unostentatious, unpretentious, and light as the spoor of an animal in snow. Art should melt into and even merge with nature itself.”

Alberto Giacometti's Buste d’homme sur socle, conceived circa 1947 and cast posthumously in edition of 8; this example cast in 1990. Estimate $500,000–700,000.
Alexander Archipenko’s Femme Debout, conceived in 1916. Estimate $70,000–90,000.
Alexander Archipenko’s Torse de Femme, conceived circa 1948–51. Estimate $50,000–70,000.
Jean Arp’s Chapeau-foret, conceived in 1960, this example cast in 1960–62. Estimate $40,000–60,000.
Jean Arp’s Figure Récueille, conceived in 1956, this example cast in 1962. Estimate $100,000–150,000.