“Devoting his efforts with equal intensity to sculpture, painting, and drawing,” Valerie Fletcher writes, “he believed that the active interrelationship among the different media was essential to the fullest development of his art…. Stylistically, this cross-fertilization led to his sculpture being pictorial in conception, that is, frontal, intended to be seen from a predetermined distance, often with lines incised into the surface. In general, the nervous energy of his painting and drawing sustained his work in the more intractable materials of sculpture, and the tactile forms of sculpture eventually lent a degree of solidity to the heads of his late paintings” (Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966 (exhibition catalogue), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden & San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1988-89, p. 39). The present plaster, along with the bronze and ink drawing, grants an incredible insight into Giacometti’s artistic process. Giacometti's continued focus on this subject and on its endless refinement is demonstrated in his further attention to another plaster of the Quatre figurines which he worked on in a makeshift studio space in the basement of the Tate Gallery in London in 1965. Overseeing the installation of his retrospective exhibition there, Giacometti further modified the figures, inserting a plaster into the bronze base of Quatre figurines sur piédestal (see fig. 1).
The medium of plaster served Giacometti twice over: one purpose was completely practical in the artist’s process, used (most frequently by his brother Diego) to create the first cast of a clay work. These plaster casts would then be used to create molds for the subsequent bronzes. The other usage was completely artistic and from here the present work derives. In his studio Giacometti used clay and plaster for his most direct, hands-on work. These two media allowed him the greatest expression with texture and surface work, where each knead, cut and scratch is visible. Once he finished molding and shaping a work in plaster, he would often paint the surface to further formalize and refine the piece. In Quatre figurines he uses a brush to add highlights on the faces where each figure’s eyes star out, and to delineate right leg from left leg and arms from torso.
Plaster could also serve to capture the progress of a particular sculpture. When working his Femmes de Venise series for the French pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Giacometti purportedly worked on the same sculpture in clay for an extended period. He had his brother Diego cast the work at various stages until he was "satisfied" with the sculpture. Six of these sister-plasters were exhibited at the Biennale in 1953, painted, gouged, carved and totemic (see fig. 2).
Throughout his career, Giacometti occasionally painted his sculptures, in order to enhance their individuality and expressiveness. In his early period, the artist had painted some of his plasters, and from the 1950s started applying paint to bronzes as well. In an interview with David Sylvester, Giacometti discussed his painted sculptures: “Not long after I'd begun to do sculpture I did paint a few, but then I destroyed them all. I repeated this at times. In 1950 I painted a whole series of sculptures. But as you paint them you see what's wrong with the form. And there's no point in painting something you don't believe in..." (quoted in D. Sylvester, Looking at Giacometti, London, 1994, p. 218).
Throughout the previous decade Giacometti had made regular studies of Egyptian statuary, both in person at the Louvre and working from reproductions, and these became an important source of inspiration in the creation of his frontal female figures (see fig. 3). His belief that attempts to mimic reality through techniques like contrapposto preserved an untruth led him to the deliberately hieratic forms of ancient sculpture. As he once proclaimed, “The works of the past that I find the most true to reality are those that are considered the least, the furthest from it” (quoted in H. & M. Matter, Alberto Giacometti, New York, 1987, p. 211).
David Sylvester explored the nature of this influence in Giacometti’s work further, writing that he, “chose to work as if under the kind of restrictions imposed upon artists by civilizations such as Egypt and Byzantium—not only the demand for adherence to stereotypes, but the insistence that the pose be formal, compact, impassive, frontal. It was not that he was aiming to create an impersonal kind of art: the nervous, agitated surfaces of the sculptures and the paintings are imprints of the gestures that made them…. The point of the rigid stereotypes could only have been that here again he felt most free to act when operating, ritualistically, within a firm, constant, repetitious framework” (D. Sylvester, op. cit., p. 121).
Discussing his sculptures he explained to Yvon Taillandier: “In short, if I compare modern sculptures (those that are abstract, or tending towards the abstract) to prehistoric objects, it seems to me that they are not 'descended' from the first sculpture to represent a woman, but rather from prehistoric axes. And, in this way, they pass from one domain to another, and become objects. Now, in my view, an object ceases to be a sculpture. For me, a sculpture must be the representation of something other than itself. A sculpture only truly interests me to the extent that it is, for me, the means of rendering the vision that I have of the external world ... Or, further still, a sculpture is for me today merely the means of discerning this vision. To such a point that it is only through working that I know what I can see” (A. Giacometti, Je ne sais ce que je vois qu'en travaillant, as told to Yvon Taillandier, Paris, 1952).
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