Annette d'après nature was conceived in 1954, during the period when Alberto Giacometti was gaining increasing recognition for his unique and idiosyncratic investigations of the human condition. It was only recently, on his return from a self-imposed exile in Switzerland during the Second World War, that he had begun to develop the distinctive aesthetic that would result in his most recognised and celebrated sculptures, those showing elongated, even emaciated, figures, capturing the mood of existential angst so prevalent during that period. During this time, Giacometti used only a handful of models, usually limiting himself to depictions of his brother Diego or his wife Annette. She became, during this period, a form of template for his sculptures of women, always presented static, with a directness embodied in their gaze and frontality, rooted to the ground as opposed to the striding men.
This harked back to the tradition of the ancient Greek kouros and kore, where the Archaic sculptures of the men were shown in motion while the women were still, each with their cryptic grins on their faces. Giacometti presented the world with a new equivalent that tapped into the Zeitgeist. This link between the artist and the existentialists of the day was cemented during 1954 when his friend Jean-Paul Sartre himself wrote the introduction for the catalogue to Giacometti's first major exhibition. In a sense, it was less to the Greek precedents than to the hieratic Egyptian tomb sculptures and the tribal art of places such as the New Hebrides that Giacometti had been looking, seeking both to capture the timelessness and stillness of the former and the intense gaze of the figures of the latter. For Giacometti, the face was the key to his sculptures. They are intended as entities in their own rights; we are not supposed to empathise with them, but instead to interact with them, to respond to the questioning million mile stare in the woman's face. 'The head is what matters,' Giacometti himself explained. 'The rest of the body plays the part of antennae making life possible for people and life itself is inside the skull' (Giacometti, quoted in Y. Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of His Work, trans. J. Stewart, Paris, 1991, p. 377).
Before his return from Switzerland in 1945, or rather before a crucial epiphany in 1946, Giacometti had had several female models, not least his mother Annetta and his lover Isabel. However, from that point onwards, most of his female figures clearly derived from his wife, Annette, as is the case in Annette d'après nature, as is corroborated by her distinctive hairstyle, perceptible in many of the sculptures and paintings from the Post-War period. Annette, who was younger than Giacometti, aged only 31 at the time that Annette d'après nature was originally modelled, had become more and more a part of the artist's life during his time in Switzerland. She soon joined him in Paris, and they married in 1949. The importance of her personality in suggesting the frontality and rootedness of sculptures such as Annette d'après nature is indicated by the recollections of Giacometti's friend Jean Starobinski: 'When Annette appeared at his side in Geneva, I said to myself that she was expected: a young woman who faces one directly, who looks and speaks and behaves directly, infinitely frank and infinitely reserved, with wonderful straightforwardness' (J. Starobinski in ibid., p. 356). These character traits appear to inform this sculpture; it is clear why Giacometti found in her his perfect Muse.
David Sylvester, in his book Looking at Giacometti, which was in part the result of his own long conversations with the artist, said that Giacometti made one model of Annette directly from life in 1953, and that many of the subsequent works were created from memory, implying that this was the case with the clay original for Annette d'après nature. Giacometti found that there were advantages and disadvantages alike to working directly from life and indirectly from memory. In a sense, the distance that the latter situation allowed him an objectivity, a better perspective from which to analyse his subject.
This distance had become crucial to Giacometti during the Post-War years. He had originally travelled to Switzerland for a brief stay, intending to visit his mother and then return. This stay stretched for several years as he found himself facing an artistic crisis during which he would whittle away the clay of his sculptures, reducing them to an intense kernel of truth that ended up being miniscule. Indeed, apart from one larger work completed during that period, he carried the sculptures that he had created during his time in Switzerland back to France in a handful of matchboxes. However, in 1946 he had an epiphany that allowed him to create larger and larger sculptures. This was prompted in part by the death of his concierge, which brought back memories of the earlier death of a good friend of his; however, it culminated at a cinema in Montparnasse, when Giacometti was no longer able to relate the projected image on the screen with the world around him:
'That day, reality took on a completely new value for me; it became the unknown, but an enchanted unknown. From that day on, because I had realized the difference between my way of seeing in the street and the way things are seen in photography and film,- I wanted to represent what I saw. Only from 1946 have I been able to perceive the distance that allows people to appear as they really are and not in their natural size' (Giacometti, quoted in D. Honisch, 'Scale in Giacometti's Sculpture', pp. 65-69, Alberto Giacometti: Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, ed. A. Schneider, Munich & New York, 1994, p. 65).
It was with this in mind that Giacometti created his sculptures in a range of scales: he was capturing the 'real' distance of the subject from the artist or the viewer. It is telling that Giacometti himself said of women that, 'The nearer one gets, the more distant they are' (Giacometti, quoted in D. Sylvester, Looking at Giacometti, London, 1994, p. 30). The height of Annette d'après nature, and therefore the sense of distance it introduces, is an integral component in its relationship with the world around it.
So too is its surface: the way in which the traces of Giacometti's workings in the clay maquette are still evident after the casting process. The variegated surface allows the sculpture to have unclear boundaries: Annette d'après nature bleeds into the air surrounding it, absorbing and being absorbed by the universe beyond it. At the same time, it appears to be dissolving, shimmering like a mirage, yet retaining some final central core of substance through this deliberately-maintained surface rougness.
Giacometti's modelling in three dimension has been compared to drawing, and here it is clear why: he has arrived at this final form only through continued attempts, continued exploration and investigation. The process is a part of the sculpture. At the same time, these lumps show the artist wilfully abandoning traditional notions of sculptural beauty, resulting in a gnarled aesthetic that is perfectly suited to the world after the War, after the Holocaust, after the realisation that the human condition had depths and heights that had still not been discovered.