‘As for the sculpture of the pointing man of 1947,’ said Alberto Giacometti, ‘I wanted from the start to make a composition of two figures but when the first was made it was entirely impossible for me to make the second. It was not until 1951 that I had the urge to try and make it and the plaster figure was exhibited at Maeght’s in my exhibition of 1951. It was not what I wanted and immediately after the exhibition I destroyed the plaster figure which was never cast in bronze, it therefore no longer exists… therefore the first figure, the pointing man, will remain on its own.’
L’homme au doigt stands with superb self-assurance, dominating the space around it with its commanding gesture, defying the indomitable press of mortality. Head held high, the figure turns in the direction of the pointing finger, as if to obey its signal by gazing outward, onward.
‘Unprecedented in sculpture,’ Valerie Fletcher has written, ‘this stick figure suited the zeitgeist of the war’s aftermath — perhaps a positive metaphor for civilisation emerging from the years of physical and psychic horror. The pose arouses speculation: is he merely giving directions to a passer-by, or might he be signalling the path to some brighter future or great beyond?’
In the post-war era, Giacometti had made it his challenge and task to reinvent the very idea of sculpture, breaking through traditional conventions of modelling to find a truly personal way to express his vision of reality. Yet his figures were not without vital and important precedents in the history of art. L’homme au doigt takes as one point of departure the great bronze Poseidon or Zeus from Cape Artemision, poised to hurl a trident or a thunderbolt, caught at the moment of pause in the full potentiality of his coming action. The figure’s gesture also harks back to the classical pose of oratory, that of the statue from Prima Porta of the Roman emperor Augustus addressing his troops, for instance, and Rodin’s St John the Baptist preaching — gestures of leader and of seer.
Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), L’homme au doigt, 1947. Bronze with patina and hand-painted by the artist. Height: 69 7/8 in. (177.5 cm.) Estimate on request. This work is offered in Looking Forward to the Past — A curated Evening Sale on 11 May in New York
By his own account, Giacometti created L’homme au doigt in a single phenomenal night. His show at Pierre Matisse’s gallery in New York was scheduled to open in January 1948, and time was running short. ‘I did that piece in one night between midnight and nine the next morning,’ Giacometti said. ‘That is, I’d already done it, but I demolished it and did it all over again because the men from the foundry were coming to take it away. And when they got here, the plaster was still wet.’
‘In 1945 I swore to myself that I didn’t want to let my figures get smaller and smaller, not even by an inch,’ Giacometti later recalled. ‘But now the following happened: I could maintain the height, but they started to get narrow, narrow, tall… and thin as a thread,’ he continued. ‘You don’t feel your weight. I wanted to reproduce this lightness, and that by making the body so thin.’
By 1947, Giacometti had fully realised his new approach to sculpture, which gave permanent form to his visual experiences.
In this single, wondrously productive annus mirabilis, he created the first of his many walking men and the boldly gesticulating L’homme au doigt, all life-size. These new sculptures were without precedent or parallel, unless one went back to the most primitive works of ancient man. L’homme au doigt, James Lord wrote, is ‘widely and rightly considered to be one of the artist’s most important and evocative works’.
The present cast entered the collection of Dr Fred Olsen of Connecticut in 1953. It is believed to be the only bronze L’homme au doigt that Giacometti painted by hand to heighten its expressive impact, a treatment that he accorded to a select few of his sculptures. He had long appreciated the fact that figures sculpted in antiquity, particularly in ancient Egypt and in Europe during the medieval period, were typically painted to project a startling, life-like effect.
‘Giacometti first coloured some of his pieces while in Bourdelle’s class, where he became impatient with monochrome sculpture,’ David Sylvester has noted. ‘About 1950 he began to paint some of the bronze casts completely, chiefly at that time and then when he painted them on site at the Venice Biennale in 1962, and again for the opening of his exhibition at the Fondation Maeght at Saint-Paul-de-Vence in 1964. He certainly believed that in principle his sculpture ought to be coloured.’
As he worked on his subsequent multi-figure groups, L’homme au doigt was never far from Giacometti’s mind. In 1949, the Tate Gallery purchased a bronze cast of the sculpture directly from the artist, the very first of his works to enter a European museum. In 1951, the adventurous American collector Saidie May, an early patron of the Abstract Expressionists, bequeathed another of the bronze pointing men (there are seven casts in all) to the Baltimore Museum of Art; three years later, Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller donated her cast of the sculpture to the Museum of Modern Art, ensuring it a permanent place in the cultural consciousness of avant-garde New York.
Giacometti welcomed the perceptive attention of poets, playwrights and philosophers, but he did not want his work to be viewed merely as reflecting fashionable polemics about estrangement, irrationality and despair, and he refused to be held up as the avatar of the topical Post-War Existential mindset in modern sculpture and painting. To him, this was a distraction from what really mattered; he wanted to make clear that it was far more important to understand the essential physicality of his sculptures, the fact that they connected with the art of the most distant past, and at the same time that they were deeply embedded in our experience of modern life.