NEW YORK - The stars are aligned this season as two magical idols come to auction: Amedeo Modigliani’s Tête and Alberto Giacometti’s Chariot. Created nearly 40 years apart, these extraordinary works and the dialogue they create tell the story of modern sculpture. Each is the finest example of its kind remaining in private hands and both, remarkably, will be presented in Sotheby’s Evening sale of Impressionist and Modern Art on 4 November in New York.
As he carved his exquisite Tête on the eve of the Great War, Modigliani dreamed of a “divine temple of beauty.” Illuminated by flickering candles and the light of the full moon in his open-air studio in Montparnasse, this sculpture took centre stage at one mid-summer smoke-and-spirits-infused bacchanalia in honour of the Roman goddess Diana. “The stone heads affected me strangely,” said Augustus John, the British artist who acquired this sculpture from Modigliani in 1912. “For some days afterwards I found myself under the hallucination of meeting people in the street who might have posed for them. Can Modi have discovered a new and secret aspect of ‘reality’?”
Decades later, Giacometti also had a transcendental moment that would presage a new reality for the postwar world. In 1938, while dreaming of his lover Isabel, the artist was struck by a car next to the gilded bronze statue of Joan of Arc in Paris. He marvelled at the “tinkling pharmacy carts” during a subsequent hospital stay that marked a turning point in Giacometti’s creative vision. Years later, the memory brought an epiphany: the composition of Chariot, fully formed in his conscious mind. “In 1947 I saw the sculpture before me as if already done,” Giacometti would tell his dealer Pierre Matisse, “and in 1950 it was impossible not to realise it, although it was already situated for me in the past.” Chariot came to be recognised as a profound image of healing and hope for the postwar generation. The exceptional cast at Sotheby’s is distinguished by a beautifully painted surface.
Modigliani and Giacometti were steeped in art history, and both artists looked to antiquity for inspiration, especially in Greco-Roman and Egyptian imagery. Like the Sphinx and the great Egyptian divinity figures in the Louvre that Modigliani adored, Tête was carved from limestone. As for Giacometti’s creation, the wheels of Chariot are an interpretation of an Egyptian example that he saw at a museum in Florence, and his figure suggests the bronze cast of a noble Delphic charioteer.
The works reflect the divergent courses of 20th-century sculpture – each artist’s approach could not have been more different. Modigliani’s Tête is the ultimate product of reduction. The form is carved from a single block of stone in an attempt to liberate his composition from within, much the way Michelangelo carved his marble Slaves. Giacometti’s Chariot, on the other hand, is the consolidation of an idea and its gradual accumulation into form by the process of modelling in clay. Despite his contrasting approach, Giacometti could not have had more respect for the example of his predecessor. Nearly half a century after Tête was created, Giacometti claimed that “Modigliani was the last great Promethean hero,” evoking a comparison with the mythological anti-establishment Titan, who defied the orthodoxy of Zeus and the gods of Mount Olympus. Giacometti would of course take his place alongside Modigliani as a Titan of modern art, and ultimately the two works share a quality that is true of only the greatest sculptures: they possess a magic that profoundly alters how we see the world.
Elizabeth Gorayeb is Senior Vice President and Senior Specialist in the Impressionist & Modern Art department at Sotheby’s New York.