A practicing physician, Dr. Théodore Fraenkel was closely involved with members of the Dada and Surrealist movements active during the 1920s in Paris. Upon meeting André Breton in high school, the two bonded over their shared love of poetry and later attended medical school together. While not on active medical duty during World War I, Fraenkel would frequently collaborate with friends including the Dada artists Louis Aragon, Francis Picabia and Tristan Tzara (see fig. 1).
Fraenkel would become one of Alberto Giacometti’s closest friends for over thirty years, as well as his trusted physician. Like many of Giacometti’s intimate acquaintances, Dr. Fraenkel began sitting for the artist and often modeled for his paintings and sculptures. Writer James Lord explained “Fraenkel was exceptionally timid, and would sometimes sit for hours without uttering one word. Alberto gave him confidence, drew him out, enabled him to become expansive and talk about himself. The tonic effect was the basis of the friendship between the artist and the doctor, who was more than ready to repay the kindness with advice and medicine when necessary, which was rather often. Despite Fraenkel’s failure in 1930 to have diagnosed an obvious case of appendicitis, Alberto continued to believe in his competence and proclaimed him the very best doctor in Paris. A perceptive observer might have concluded that such enthusiasm on Alberto’s part could suggest that he was one of the worst!” (James Lord, Giacometti, A Biography, New York, 1983, p. 275).
As in many of the sculptures and painted portraits of his brother Diego and wife Annette which Giacometti executed at this time, Dr. Fraenkel exemplifies the artist's fascination with the emotive qualities of the sitter's face. The artist executed these works with the matière pétrie, or kneaded method, that heightened the expressiveness of the figure and subsequently enhanced the realism of the sitter’s face by working with a knife. Nevertheless, the artist primarily worked with his hands, restlessly pinching and smoothing the surface—a physical act that hinted at the quiet intimacy Giacometti shared with his sitters not only in his private life but also during his constant reworking of these busts in the solitary darkness of his studio. Discussing the sculptures executed during this period, Yves Bonnefoy wrote: "These sculpted faces compel one to face them as if one were speaking to the person, meeting his eyes and thereby understanding better the compression, the narrowing that Giacometti imposed on the chin or the nose or the general shape of the skull. This was the period when Giacometti was most strongly conscious of the fact that the inside of the plaster or clay mass which he modeled was something inert, undifferentiated, nocturnal, that it betrays the life he sought to represent, and that he must therefore strive to eliminate this purely spatial dimension by constricting the material to fit the most prominent characteristics of the face" (Yves Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti, A Biography of His Work, Paris, 1991, pp. 432-36).
A superior example of the sculptural busts that are so emblematic of Giacometti’s oeuvre, Dr. Fraenkel is distinguished by the artist’s haunting rendering of a subject so cherished by the artist, as well as by the intimate and complex relationship the two individuals shared.