From Da Vinci to Giacometti – Why Artists are Obsessed with Cats
Alberto Giacometti's Le Chat, which sold for £12,642,000 at the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale in London, is one of the most recognisable 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 marvelled, observing his brother Diego’s cat, whom Alberto admired for its litheness to pass between objects without ever touching them.
By 1951, when Le Chat was created, Giacometti had developed the motifs that he used in both painted and sculptural work. Only a few bronzes, however, represent a departure from the artist's usual themes of male and female figures, and all were supposedly executed in plaster during the course of a single day: Le Chat, and two other depictions of animals, Le Chien and Deux chevaux. 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.
It was also in 1951 that Giacometti had his first solo exhibition at Galerie Maeght in Paris, which included the plaster cast of Le Chat. The exhibition was a great success and helped propel Giacometti to his status as one of the foremost avant-garde artists working in Paris.
Giacometti was very interested in exploring the human condition in his various works, and he returned time and again to the themes of solitude, strength and vulnerability. This sentiment is perhaps most powerfully expressed in Giacometti's image of a falling man, L'Homme qui chavire. 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.
The image of the cat can also be interpreted as a symbolic representation of the artist himself, who, after meeting the writer Jean-Paul Sartre in 1939, was influenced by the core tenants of Existentialism, and the artist expressed this by reducing his forms, both human and bestial, to their essential shapes.
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.
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 decorate the furniture he began to produce in the 1950s. 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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