Galleria d'Arte Galatea, Turin (acquired by 1962)
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner by 1971
Zurich, Kunsthaus, Alberto Giacometti, 1962-63, no. 147
Florence, Palazzo Strozzi, Mostra mercato nazionale d'arte contemporanea 2, 1964, no. 2, illustrated in the catalogue
Il collezionista d'arte moderna 1963, Turin, 1963, illustrated in colour p. 105 (titled Busto di donna and as dating from 1954)
Portrait de femme (Annette) of 1959 is a stunning composition emblematic of the haunting portraits that Giacometti executed in post-war Paris. Like an apparition, the outline of a dark figure emerges through a haze of grey paint. Setting his subject within an empty painted frame, Giacometti has entirely de-contextualised the background in order to focus on the sitter, resulting in a provocative, almost ghostly image. The picture captures a particular sentiment that the artist once expressed in a Surrealist prose poem: ‘The human face is as strange to me as a countenance, which, the more one looks at it, the more it closes itself off and escapes by the steps of unknown stairways’ (quoted in Alberto Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. & San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, 1988-89, p. 37).
The subject of the present oil is Annette, a young woman whom Giacometti met in Geneva shortly after moving to Switzerland in 1942. Four years later, following the end of the war, Annette moved to Paris with Giacometti. She would soon become his wife and, besides his brother Diego, his principal model for the rest of the artist’s life. While several strong women provided inspiration for Giacometti, it was Annette who had the most profound and long-lasting effect on his œuvre. The intense rendering of the sitter in the present work calls to mind the words of the philosopher Jean Starobinski, who commented on meeting Annette: ‘She was a young woman who stood up "facing you", who watched, and spoke, and met life "head on", infinitely candid and infinitely reserved, in a wonderful frontality’ (quoted in Veronique Wiesinger, The Women of Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), Pace Wildenstein, New York, 2000, p. 18).
This painting was executed during the artist's mature period, when his work was influenced by interactions with the prominent intellectuals of post-war Paris. Most notable among them was the Existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre, whom Giacometti first met in 1939, and who subsequently wrote about Giacometti’s art. Along with Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus, Giacometti incorporated existentialist concerns into his work. Valerie Fletcher described the extent to which these philosophical underpinnings transformed Giacometti’s creative vision: ‘Giacometti did not evolve his postwar figurative art with the deliberate intention of creating an Existentialist art; his motivations were personal, instinctive, and aesthetic. Nonetheless Existentialist interpretations of Giacometti’s art, although somewhat facile, are substantiated by the artworks themselves […]. A number of sculptures and paintings depict figures whose frail proportions and solitary stance within a large, often desolate space connote the essential isolation of the individual. In addition to such iconographic connections with Existentialism, Giacometti’s art involved a profound philosophical investigation of the nature of the self. For Sartre and Giacometti, being is neither defined nor fully revealed by its apparent manifestations, it transcends description’ (V. Fletcher in Alberto Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., 1988-89, p. 35).
Giacometti’s paintings and sculptures were an important influence on a number of American artists, particularly Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Rothko would have seen the exhibition Giacometti and Dubuffet held at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York in 1968, and Giacometti’s ideas of the void, of the distance between the image and the spectator and the dichotomy between presence and nothingness certainly had a strong resonance with his own philosophical and artistic position. Jeffrey Weiss wrote: ‘In speaking of Giacometti’s paintings, Sartre conceives pictorial space as a means with which to address the very nature of being, allowing that the canvas can be interpreted as portraying both fullness and void. Initiated at roughly the same moment that Giacometti began to produce the paintings and sculpture to which Sartre refers, Rothko’s mature painting is related to this idiom, which was otherwise defined in terms of representation. In this regard it should come as no surprise that Rothko’s work reveals rather explicit evidence of an interest in Giacometti […]. In addition to similarities of palette and format […], Rothko and Giacometti also share the pictorial element of the internal margin or frame, which is often uneven and brushed over. […] For both artists the device was both an enclosure and a threshold, serving spatially to fix the image and distance it from the viewer’ (J. Weiss in Mark Rothko (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998-99, pp. 325-328).
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