Giacometti modeled this plaster figurine around 1955, about a year before he created his famous series of Femmes de Venise. Formed on a wire armature with wet white plaster, which the sculptor modeled with his fingers and a knife as it dried, this small almost pencil-thin sculpture, like a pale, floating apparition, is a reminder of the unprecedented attenuated figures that Giacometti began to create almost exactly a decade earlier following his return to Paris after the end of the Second World War. At that time he resolved that the miniscule figures that he had been making for the previous five years must get no smaller, and suddenly they began to spring up in height, but they became excruciatingly thin in the process. These became the iconic elongated figures, also worked in plaster and then cast in bronze, in Giacometti's visionary, weightless style, for which he became internationally famous following his 1948 solo exhibition, his first then in almost fifteen years, at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York (see note to lot 1).
During the early 1950s Giacometti shifted his priorities; he was now more interested in creating portraits of his wife Annette, his brother Diego and a few friends with a more weighty volumetric presence, as real figures perceived in space. Even his standing women began to put on weight, as they developed heavier breasts, bulging abdomens and broader hips. Giacometti executed Femme de Venise I in this manner (see Christie's New York sale, 9 May 2007, lot 6), and thereafter a seemingly inevitable process took over, in which the women grew thinner once again. Even as he created heavier women, he made thin ones as well, as seen here, as if he were caught up in an unrelenting cycle of give and take, addition and subtraction, building up and breaking down. James Thrall Soby, the director of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, recalled a visit to Giacometti's studio in 1955 to see a large standing woman that he heard was in progress:
"It lay in crumbled fragments of plaster on the floor, and Giacometti explained calmly that he had destroyed it in a moment of impatience with some minor detail... 'I am used to beginning again,' he said quietly. And all the time we were talking he kept returning to a small clay figure, modeling it with such deft pressure from his extraordinary fingers and giving the impression that if he let it alone, it would soon expire for lack of breath. Even when he stopped working long enough to bring out some of his latest paintings and to blow from them clouds of plaster dust, he looked back at the sculpture anxiously" (quoted in R. Hohl, Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, Osfildern-Ruit, 1998, p. 150).
We do not know if this small clay figure survived, or if like the large sculpture that Soby had hoped to see, it perished in a heap of shavings and dust. For each sculpture that Giacometti preserved, he destroyed countless others. The fact that this small, fragile plaster figurine exists today may have been the consequence of a fortuitous visit to Giacometti's studio by Dr. Charlotte Weidler, who acquired it from the sculptor. Dr. Weidler (1895-1983) studied history, archeology and philosophy, and received her doctorate from the University of Vienna. She worked on the staff of Walter Gropius' Bauhaus in Weimar, and then as an art critic for newspapers in Berlin. She represented the Carnegie Institute in Germany, and emigrated to the United States in 1939. She became a close friend and advisor to G. David Thompson, the Pittsburgh steel magnate and collector who amassed a vast number of works by Giacometti during the 1950s and had his portrait twice painted by the artist. The Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung in Zurich acquired a large part of the Thompson collection in 1965. It was through her work with Thompson that Dr. Weidler became friendly with Giacometti. She made the photograph of Giacometti's studio reproduced here in May 1958. The present owner was a close friend of Dr. Weidler, and acquired this sculpture from her.
(fig. 1) Photograph of Giacometti's Paris studio taken in May 1958 by Dr. Charlotte Weidler, the first owner of this sculpture. BARCODE 25013030A