One of the first sculptures ever exhibited by Alberto Giacometti, Le Couple debuted a career in the plastic arts that would fundamentally change the concept of the sculpted figure. Le Couple and another piece, Femme cuillère, were displayed in the 1927 Salon des Tuileries alongside the works of Constantin Brancusi and Ossip Zadkine. This pairing of Giacometti's works was recreated in 1988 when the present cast was exhibited at the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. (see fig. 1). Writing to his family in Stampa on April 28, 1927, Giacometti described the gallery at the Salon des Tuileries where Le Couple and Femme cuillère were exhibited: “I was very happy to see that they had given me just the spot I wanted, and it is a very good one, even though I had not said a word [about it] to anyone. I am in the most modern room of the salon, which they have put at the center this year, next to the big room of sculptures. To me, it is the most interesting room, the one that produces the best overall effect. At the center there is a sculpture by Brancusi made of polished metal, [with] Zadkine on one side and me on the other. And in between there are big paintings by Léger, Gleizes and some others…. This is the only place where one can really speak of sculpting and here there are [only] three of us. Zadkine tries his best, but this time he is not as strong and a little bit lost, but still interesting. Brancusi (an older sculptor with a white beard) has a perfect work, but it is a little too important, the pretty metal shines like a mirror. Still, it is a beautiful thing and pleasing to the eye, the only [object] at this salon that has turned out well. It is the only [work] that I find truly better than my own at this salon. Meanwhile, my sculpture has attracted interest and many people like it, they have to admit. I could have sent something else as well, but it is alright as it is. Zadkine congratulated me and others have also said [the sculpture] is very beautiful. All in all, they have given me a nice spot…. In sculpting there is everything yet to be done and few are doing it” (reproduced in Alberto Giacometti, Pionier der Moderne/Modernist Pioneer (exhibition catalogue), Leopold Museum, Vienna, 2014-15, p. 17).
Giacometti had moved to Paris from Switzerland some five years prior, setting up his first studio on rue Froidevaux, where he worked alongside his brother Diego. In December of 1926 a new space at no. 46 Rue Hippolyte-Maindron would become their joint studio space. They would remain there for the rest of their lives, Alberto’s sculptural style evolving from totemic, Cubist and Surrealist idioms to the existential isolation of his post-war period, while Diego would fully embrace the decorative arts, crafting delicate tables, light fixtures and the like for his select collectors’ interiors both in Paris and further afield. One of the first works Alberto created in this new space was Le Couple, a powerful evocation of a standing male and female figure influenced both by a desire to strip down the sculpted human form to its most essential structure as well as the strong focus of ethnographic artworks and the cubist movement in Paris at this time (see fig. 2).
In his studio on the Rue Hippolyte-Maindron, Giacometti surrounded himself with diverse imagery and objects. A photograph taken around 1927 shows the artist seated in a chair by a small table (see fig. 4). Various images are tacked on the wall, while a pot of flowers appear to wilt. At right proudly stands a Bakota Reliquary figure, whose structure bears a striking resemblance to the female figure in Le Couple, which he had purchase from the artist Serge Brignoni. Brignoni “was of the opinion that it [the Bakota figure] had affected the form of the female half of The Couple. This opinion is supported by the evidence of a now-lost plaster figure which forms a transition between the Léger-inspired Cubist works of 1925-26 and The Couple [see fig. 3] (indeed, Diego Giacometti has confirmed that the lost plaster immediately preceded The Couple)” (Primitivism in 20th Century Art (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1984, p. 528).
By the early 1920s when Giacometti arrived in the French capital, Cubism was well established. Initially represented in subdued coloration on paper and canvas by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, by the early 1920s abundant color and three dimensional applications to canvas, paper and free standing sculpture had been seized on by an increasing number of artists. At the same time, the work of Constantin Brancusi from the previous decade continued to loom large, bridging the gap in many of the same ways between fashionable ethnographic sculpture and a proto-Cubist idiom (see fig. 5). Soon after his arrival to Paris, Giacometti’s began taking classes at the studio of Émile-Antoine Bourdelle, who was originally a protegé of Rodin. There Giacometti and other students studied from life in multiple media, with a primary focus on sculpture, but the limitations of working from a living model began to frustrate the young artist. In a letter to Pierre Matisse from 1947, Giacometti wrote of his early ambitions and frustrations: “If…one began by analyzing a detail, the end of the nose, for example, one was lost. One could have spent a lifetime without achieving a result. The form dissolved, it was little more than granules moving over a deep black void, the distance between one wing of the nose and the other is like the Sahara, without end, nothing to fix one’s gaze upon, everything escapes. Since I wanted nevertheless to realize a little of what I saw, I began as a last resort to work at home from memory. I tried to do what I could to avoid this catastrophe. This yielded, after many attempts touching on cubism, one necessarily had to touch on it (it is too long to explain now) objects which were for me the closest I could come to my vision of reality” (as quoted in Alberto Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1965, p. 15).
Nothing is more symbolic of Giacometti’s oeuvre than the full length male and female figure; Giacometti would spend the decades following the creation of Le Couple taking these two iconic images to their limit, reducing hand, arm, leg and torso to their wiry essence.
This cast of Le Couple was acquired by the present owner in 1979 from Thomas Gibson, who had in turn acquired the piece that year from Annette Giacometti. Alberto Giacometti and Annette Arm were married in 1949. Together since World War II, they met in Switzerland when Annette worked for the Red Cross. Settling permanently in Paris after the war, Annette became Giacometti’s principal female model, appearing in paintings, drawings and sculpture for the remainder of Giacometti’s life (see fig. 6). After Alberto’s death, Annette worked tirelessly to preserve his legacy, protect his works, and assemble his archives. Her careful tending of Giacometti’s legacy has found full expression in the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti and the Giacometti Institute.
The original plaster model of Le Couple belongs to the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti in Paris, while The Museum of Modern Art houses an early lifetime bronze cast by the Valsuani Foundry. Other casts from the Susse Foundry edition, from which the present work comes, now belong to the renowned collections of the Alberto Giacometti Stiftung in Zurich and the Art Institute of Chicago. Two later versions of Le Couple were authorized specifically for artist foundations, with one cast during Giacometti’s lifetime for the Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght, and another work cast posthumously in 1980 for the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti in Paris; bringing a satisfying finality to the series with the initial plaster work and the latest bronze cast both belonging to the artist’s foremost authority. The present work, numbered 0/6, was cast by the Susse Foundry just prior to the 1980 iteration for the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti. This is the first time a cast of Le Couple has ever been offered at auction.
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