Giacometti was a nocturnal creature. He preferred to rise around noon, if not later, and work in the afternoons and evenings—sometimes into the early morning hours. Much of his time in the depths of the night, however, was spent outside the studio, in restaurants, bars and maisons closes. One of his preferred watering holes was an elegant establishment stylized with Egyptian-themed interiors and adorned with murals by Kees van Dongen, a maison close called The Sphinx. During the 1930s and the early 1940s, a large number of similarly-purposed establishments operated legally in Paris. The Sphinx was one of the most luxurious of these businesses and featured a large downstairs area which functioned as a nightclub. Aside from Giacometti, “Its habitués included many artists and intellectuals such as Samuel Beckett but also Simone de Beauvoire and Jean-Paul Sartre. Giacometti was a stalwart and found the forced closure of this ‘most marvelous of places’ so ‘intolerable’ that he even wrote about it in a seminal post-war text, The Dream, the Sphinx and the Death of T…. published in 1946 in the journal Labyrinthe” (Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), Tate Modern, London, 2017, p. 25). It was in 1946, just a year after Giacometti’s return to Paris, that the Loi Marthe Richard took effect, closing the nearly 180 maisons closes which had operated legally in the capital for decades and in some cases for over a century.
In the first years of the nineteenth century, state-controlled maisons closes were legalized in France. Credited representations of these spaces by known artists, however, were slow to appear. Toulouse-Lautrec created intimate scenes of these establishments and after Edgar Degas’s death a large number of monotypes of brothel interiors were discovered in his studio (see fig. 1). It was perhaps not until Picasso’s radical Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, however, that a direct and essential image emerged. This seminal painting, for a variety of reasons, proved problematic and was not recognized as a masterpiece until long after its creation (see fig. 2). The radical social changes of World War I and World War II made such images far less shocking; Giacometti’s explanation behind the four figures in this bronze would have caused much less indignation in 1950 than Manet’s Olympia faced when it was exhibited in the Paris salon of 1865—not least because the subject matter was infinitely less apparent without Giacometti’s explanation of context.
The Sphinx’s closure so affected Giacometti that he not only wrote about it in the aforementioned essay, he also painted, drew and sculpted myriad recollections of his time there after the 1946 closure. Before a related bronze was exhibited at Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1950, Giacometti wrote that the inspiration behind the sculpture was “several nude women seen at the Sphinx while I was seated at the end of the room. The distance that separated us (the polished floor), which seemed impassable despite my desire to cross it, impressed me as much as the women did” (quoted in Alberto Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles & San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, 1965-66, p. 60). In the present work the tall pedestal the sculpture is set on conveys the “impassable” distance between the artist and the women, while the sloped trapezoid beneath their feet represents the vertiginous “polished floor” which further emphasized this dislocation of space and remoteness of the subjects.
Giacometti had first approached this subject in a 1950 bronze, a plaster and an oil (see fig. 3). In Au Sphinx a group of figures are presented in the maison close's abstract interior. Here the male figures stride across the room while the females are static—these respective gender identities of active male and passive female would carry forward in Giacometti's work from the 1940s onward. His evolution on the Quatre figurines theme continued; fifteen years after Quatre figurines sur piédestal was first cast in bronze, Giacometti fundamentally rethought the female figures presented atop their pedestal. Frances Morris examines this evolution in the recent exhibition catalogue from the Tate Modern: “Four Figurines on a Stand (Quatre figurines sur piédestal), 1965, is one of a number of works that exists in various different guises. It was made while preparing for his retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1965 and was a reworking of a sculpture from 1948-50 of four tiny, skeletal female figures mounted on a slab-like base supported on a tall stand. Giacometti was given a basement space at the Tate in which to remodel the figures in plaster. Unhappy with the plaster, he sent for another version of the sculpture that he had made in Chur in Switzerland that same year. After the exhibition the plaster was cast in bronze in Paris and later acquired for the Tate’s collection. This kind of time frame—the long duration of a work evolved over fifteen years, of making, unmaking and remaking, as well as destroying or ‘undoing’—needs to be set alongside the narrative of Giacometti’s practice centered on an unvarying daily encounter between artist and model. The genesis for the four figures of 1950-65 lies, specifically, as Giacometti explained in a letter to his New York gallerist Pierre Matisse in 1950, in a vivid experience of coming across four prostitutes at the Sphinx, the famous Parisian nightclub…. With their hieratic pose, arms by their sides, and the exaggerated bulk of their feet, the figures in Four Figurines, like many of Giacometti’s standing women, evoke the poise and posture of Egyptian sculpture” (Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), Tate Modern, London, 2017, p. 12).
During his time in Switzerland during World War II, Giacometti had been wrestling with increasingly miniaturized figures; this was the reason he was able to bring back three years of work in six matchboxes. The finished works were tiny, not to mention that many had been destroyed by the process of creation, as the artist molded and whittled them down to their core. In the late 1940s and early 1950s as he actively pushed himself to make larger figures, these bodies elongated and became increasingly skinny. This collapse of scale followed by a stretching to a figure’s thinnest extent all informed Giacometti’s preoccupation with governing the feeling of size and separation between the viewer and the artwork. Markus Brüderlin succinctly explains Giacometti’s ability to control the optics of his figures: “First, he discovered the optical trick of controlling distance via size. Second, he discovered emptiness as a powerful presence and entity. The dwindling of the figures increased the real emptiness of the space surrounding them, and could be felt as an important ‘raw material’ of sculpture. And third, he learned to control space via these two observations. This was one of the artistic consequences of the observation that there is no space, and that the sculpture has to create it for itself. Giacometti had discovered that these selfsame small figures, whose totality can be taken in with a single glance, have room-dominating potency—in other words, monumentality does not depend on size. ‘I think,’ he said to Nesto Jacometti, ‘if that can be achieved, then you’ll see that my little figure, whatever size it’s done, will take on the shape of a deity’” (Alberto Giacometti The Origin of Space (exhibition catalogue), Kunstmuseum, Wolfsburg & Museum der Moderne Mönchsberg, Salzburg, 2010-11, p. 19; see fig. 4).
Quatre figurines sur piédestal (Figurines de Londres, version A) and its counterparts were not the only works by the artist to take the Sphinx as its subject. It has been suggested that the couple in La Cage (première version) and their indistinct interaction to that of a prostitute and her client, perhaps modeled on Giacometti’s own experiences at the Sphinx, whose denizens featured as subjects in both paintings and sculptures of this period. Meanwhile, the scholar Reinhold Hohl maintains that the work can also be viewed as a metaphor for the distance between the sexes and the impossibility of their reconciliation after being banished from paradise, and has also suggested that the bust may be a self-portrait of the sculptor himself. By framing such a scene, Giacometti creates a theatrical setting that is enhanced by the woman’s outstretched arms which appear to draw back the stage curtains as she projects her silent soliloquy, molded with an immense sense of hieratic power. Her prominence is also enhanced not only by her size in comparison to the profile head of the male, but also by her position on a pedestal. As she grabs the cage, the scene is made increasingly uneasy.
The female form had long been a favorite subject of Giacometti over the course of his career, but it is in the works of the 1950s that the dramatic potential of this motif is most ambitiously interpreted. No longer interested in re-creating physical likeness in his sculptures, the artist began working from memory, seeking to capture the identity of his model beyond the physical reality for the human form. His figures underwent a process of reduction, an obliteration of the physical material which allowed him to grasp his subject and place it in space without being distracted by innumerable facial and body details. In this work, the haunting isolation of these women, a motif that Giacometti would explore repeatedly throughout the 1950s, is explored ensemble and without compromising the striking, visual impact of each figure.
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