The series of four tall standing women that Giacometti executed in 1960, each titled Grande femme debout with numbers I through IV, are the largest sculptures he ever made. The present version, Grande femme debout II, actually holds the distinction of the being the largest of all: her height exceeds that of her next tallest sister in the sequence, no. IV, by a couple of inches; she is three inches higher than no. I, and a full sixteen inches more than no. III. In the sheer scale of their conception these four giantesses stand at the other extreme from the tiny sculptures that Giacometti brought back with him from Switzerland when he returned to Paris after the Second World War; the latter were so miniscule that they fit into matchboxes he carried in his pockets, but they soon grew into the definitive and famous elongated figures of the late 1940s. "In fact, while he was fascinated by tiny sculptures all his life," Yves Bonnefoy has observed, "he also felt up until the end the need to challenge the darkness outside with these tall protective presences, either new versions of the Walking Man in 1959-60, of the Women of Venice of 1956, or the four Large Standing Women of 1960... Such works are indeed the deities that must protect the pyramid." (op. cit., p. 338).
Giacometti executed the Grande femme debout sculptures in response to a commission which--had he completed it--would have certainly been the crowning achievement of his career and his most famous public work. Giacometti was in his family home in Stampa, Switzerland, when he received word in December 1958 that Gordon Bunshaft, the chief architect and designer for the firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, wanted him to consider taking on a project for a building whose construction would soon get underway in the Wall Street district of Manhattan. Bunshaft's client was the Chase Manhattan Bank, one of the world's largest financial institutions. The sixty-story glass and steel tower that he was designing at 18 Pine Street would serve as the company's world headquarters. A large public plaza would adjoin the building, and Bunshaft, one of America's leading proponents of the International style, wanted to install there the first example of monumental public modernist art ever to be seen in the Wall Street vicinity. To choose candidates for the job, Bunshaft headed a committee composed of leading museum curators, including Alfred H. Barr, Jr., and Dorothy Miller (The Museum of Modern Art), James Johnson Sweeney (The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum), Robert Hale (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Perry Rathbone (The Boston Museum of Fine Arts). They considered the work of Giacometti, Calder and Noguchi, and then finally decided to ask Giacometti to submit plans for a project. They hoped that Giacometti would come to New York, examine the site, and meet with them.
James Lord, Giacometti's biographer, has pointed out that the sculptor "had never set foot in New York, and knew nothing about life in a rapidly evolving metropolis. Nor had he ever laid eyes on an actual skyscraper. Moreover, he had a fear of heights, of empty space, of the void. He liked to keep his feet planted firmly on the ground. But he was immediately responsive to the American proposal... Alberto wrote his mother of the project. It interested him passionately, he said" (in Giacometti: A Biography, New York, 1986, pp. 331-332).
For nearly 25 years Giacometti had harbored a strong desire to create a work for a public square. Two earlier works suggest models of how he might consider placing elements or figures in a piazza environment (see lot 32). The surrealist poet Louis Aragon recalled a discussion he had with Giacometti in the late 1940s concerning the idea of a sculpture in a public space: "At that time that meant a small figure, standing directly on the pavement where people walked, a very small figure with a wide space around it. [Giacometti] explained why: the smaller the figure was, the larger the square would seem--'larger than the Place de Concorde, no?'" (quoted in R. Hold., Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1998, p. 160). Dieter Honisch has explained, "Giacometti felt that there was something imagined, rather than seen, about figures that approached life size, and he criticized this feature not only in the sculpture of Rodin and Houdon, but also in the paintings of Cézanne, Courbet and even Titian. For Giacometti, it was more important, and also more realistic to work in terms of how an object appeared to the eye--and the more surrounded by space it was seen to be, the smaller it had to be and the more energy and concentration it had to have--than in terms of what one knew about it and what connected it with models in nature" (in "Scale in Giacometti's Sculpture," Alberto Giacometti, Munich, 1994, p. 67).
Giacometti nevertheless realized that figures placed in close proximity to very tall buildings needed to be much larger than anything he had done previously. Bunshaft had suggested that he simply take one of his table-top sized figures and make it thirty times as large. However, Giacometti did not want the figures to dominate the square or completely dwarf passersby. Most of all he did not want to create a tall sculpture that impressed solely through its sheer size. The appropriate scale of the figures would continue to vex him. Although it would have been helpful to visit the Chase Manhattan Plaza site, Giacometti decided he would not go to New York. He was normally averse to long-distance travel and, besides, he had an oil portrait of his wife Annette in progress and wanted to start a new bust of his brother Diego. Neither the importance of his corporate client nor expectations of the celebrity the project would likely bring his way seemed compelling enough to cause him to disrupt his dedicated and long-established work regimen. Bunshaft instead sent Giacometti a small scale model of the building and the plaza; the sculptor was accustomed to working in miniature. On 17 March 1959, Giacometti wrote Pierre Matisse, his dealer in New York: "I work on my project almost every day, and I am eager to take it up again tomorrow. In any case, and whether or not it's what the architect wants, it's of enormous help to me in all my work and I am delighted to be doing it" (quoted in J. Russell, Matisse Father & Son, New York, 1999, p. 332).
By May 1959 Giacometti's conception of the project had crystallized in his mind. He would use the three main elements in his figural repertory. As in City Square II (lot 32) there would be at least one standing woman and a walking man. In keeping with his current interest in working from the model, as he created his superbly characterized busts of Diego, he furthermore incorporated into his plan a large male head. Véronique Wiesinger has noted, "The upward motion of the woman corresponded to the horizontal motion of the man, and both were articulated around a fixed point of the head resting on the ground" (in The Women of Giacometti, exh. cat., PaceWildenstein, New York, 2005, p. 26). Giacometti started by making three tiny maquettes (fig. 1), and then quickly translated these ideas into full-size figures which he modeled in plaster (fig. 2). He wrote to Pierre Matisse, revealing the astonishing pace of his recent efforts: "Since I came back to Paris, I've worked all the time of the same big figure. On Monday next week, I shall start the other figures for the square. I want to have them all three done during the next week, directly and quite big, to see how they look, with their bases. Foinet is going to find me somewhere--maybe a courtyard--where I can set them up. It has to go very fast, or not at all. But I need another eight days for work on the big figure, and maybe on a head of Diego that I began before leaving. This is the first time since 1947 that I have been able to start again, all over--something I'd hoped to do for a long time" (quoted in ibid., pp. 332-333).
By the end of April 1960 Giacometti had completed the plaster models for four standing women, two walking men and two large heads (fig. 3). He then had the female and male figures and one of the heads cast in bronze. Giacometti told David Sylvester, "The two walking men are the only two remaining ones out of at least forty which were neither better nor worse... The four women too were the only remaining ones of ten; the others were destroyed." He explained to Sylvester that the figures were done "in a sort of nostalgia for large outdoor sculpture. Anyway I had always wanted to know how large a piece I could do [this] was a good way of settling the question. I'm absolutely against the current practice of making small sculpture and enlarging it mechanically. Either I can make it big as I want or I can't And I should be interested to discover the maximum height that I could do by hand. Well, maximum height, that's precisely what the tall women are. They're already almost beyond all possibility, and in that case we're talking about something completely imaginary. But then it would become easy again!" (in Looking at Giacometti, New York, 1994, pp. 136-137).
In contrast to many of his standing women, and specifically to six of the nine Femmes de Venise cast in bronze four years earlier, Giacometti opened up the space between the arms and torso in each of the Grande femme debout figures, allowing him to articulate a classic feminine silhouette, albeit in the sculptor's characteristic manner with a very narrow waist and wider but still attenuated lower abdomen and hips. The pelvic region as seen here is roughly ovoid, and taken together with the figure's pendulous breasts, Grande femme debout II is as close as Giacometti comes in his work in creating a gigantic fertility fetish. Note the abbreviated gaps between the figure's legs, echoing the open spaces in the upper figure, which create an almost unbearable sense of tension in the lower part of the figure.
These sculptures were a remarkable achievement. Giacometti, an unrelenting and compulsive perfectionist, was nevertheless dissatisfied with the results. Their scale had confounded him. They required a new way of working in the confines of his small and cramped studio that was unfamiliar and uncomfortable for him. James Lord has written, "It is true that large sculpture ideally pleads for unlimited space in which to hold its own. No sense of space entered Giacometti's studio. It was barely large enough for him to work and breathe in, barely, that is to say, life-size. Clambering up and down his stepladder as he worked, the sculptor could not possibly have had the same physical relation to them that he had had with all his other works. So long as he had his feet on the ground, it seems he was able to keep his sculpture where he wanted it, but it got away from him when he had to get up in the air to come to grips with it. The four women are not possessed of the same remoteness or surrounded by the same numinous aura as the majority of their smaller sisters These four are excessively present in their presence" (op. cit., p. 419; fig. 4). Giacometti wrote to Pierre Matisse, "I've spent more than a year on them. I dropped everything else and kept at them. I have never worked so hard." He then made a telling admission: "The dimensions were totally confused. What I had seen as small, I mistakenly tried to enlarge. There were many other complications--far too many for a single year--quite apart from the fact that one can't possibly make anything for a given site without seeing the sculptures in place" (J. Russell, op. cit., p. 334). He later told Sylvester, "I haven't solved the problem and I gave up the whole idea when I saw that if I was ever going to realise them I would have to devote myself to it for years" (quoted in D. Sylvester, op. cit., p. 137).
Giacometti did not submit these sculptures for Bunshaft's approval. He decided on his own that he could not fulfill the Chase Manhattan commission. These commanding sculptures, however, took on a new life of their own, apart from their original purpose. Giacometti arranged a grouping of the male head, two walking men and two standing women in his pavilion at the 1962 Venice Biennale (fig. 5). He placed the same figures somewhat differently in an installation at the Fondation Maeght in Vence two years later. John Russell has pointed out that "He did not see the project as a setback, or as a failure, but as a liberation. And the project even had, in a limited sense, a happy ending, in that casts were made of more than one version of the Big Woman, the Walking Man, and the Big Head. They do not call out for the Chase Manhattan building, but nowhere could they look better than in galleries of the Fondation Beyeler building that was designed by Renzo Piano and opened in 1997 in the outskirts of Basel (op. cit., pp. 335-336).
The Chase Manhattan tower and plaza were completed in 1964 without its modern sculpture. Giacometti eventually made his first trip to New York, on the occasion of his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in June-October 1965. He and his wife Annette sailed on the liner France, in the company of Pierre and Patricia Matisse (fig. 6). James Lord has written: "New York aroused him less to surprise than to excitement and curiosity. In the desire to orient himself as rapidly as possible, he bought a map of the city and studied it with care. In the taxi he wanted to make a detour to see the Chase Manhattan Plaza. When he found himself suddenly at the base of that tall, smooth, severe façade, he was at once excited by the prospect of trying to create a sculpture which would be powerful enough to maintain its presence there. He walked with long strides in every direction back and forth trying to determine what would be the best site for such a sculpture. The more he gazed at that wide empty space in front of the building, the more excited he became. That same evening, about midnight, he insisted on returning to the plaza with his wife and a friend. He spent an hour there in the cold, deserted square trying to judge various locations and dimensions for the piece, asked his friend to stand motionless here and there to gauge the effect. Several times during the following day he discussed the matter with the architect, Gordon Bunshaft, returning once again to the site, and he talked often about it in New York and later in Paris" (op. cit., p. 190).
Giacometti now envisioned for the Chase Manhattan Plaza a single standing female figure at least 23 feet in height. He had Diego prepare an armature, but his work on progressed no further, because in late 1965 he became critically ill. Giacometti died in January 1966. Four Trees, a painted aluminum sculpture by Jean Dubuffet that measures 42 feet in height was finally installed in the plaza in 1972. While the lively organic shapes of Dubuffet's arbor contrast whimsically with the surrounding architectural grid, those who Giacometti's project might well imagine his tallest standing women, the walking man and the great head in its place, or to ponder how a single figure nearly two stories high, the sculptor's final conception, would have looked. No doubt, as purely a matter of size, anything Giacometti placed there would have been dwarfed by so much glass, steel and concrete, but the great woman would have dominated the space emotionally with heroic and monumental humanity. Dieter Honisch has written: "The sense of personal exposure; the meaninglessness of individual existence and in spite of that, its dignity, the unrelatedness of human beings, their isolation and their aimlessness; the inability to believe and accept ideals; the desire to survive, to find one's place--all this is especially forcefully expressed in the figures created in connection with the group envisaged for the Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza, the only larger than life-size figures of his entire career. If Giacometti himself saw a meaning in this enlargement of scale, we can only assume this to have been the desire to create a monument that was not a memorial in the traditional sense: not an exaltation of the victors, but the victims, the maltreated and the nameless" (op. cit., p. 68).
A-Unnumbered artist photo fig:
Alberto Giacometti outside his studio at 46, rue Hippolyte-Maindron, Paris, in 1961. The plaster model of Grande femme debout IV is in the background. Photograph by Jean Mounicq/A.N.A. BARCODE 26015651
(fig. 1) Alberto Giacometti, Three Small Figures (Design for the Chase Manhattan Plaza), 1958-1959. Private collection. BARCODE 26015644
(fig. 2) Plaster models in progress of Grande tête and Homme qui marche I and I, in the artist's studio, 1960. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger. BARCODE 26015590
(fig. 3) Plaster versions of a Grande têtes, Grande femme debout II and IV in the artist's studio, 1960. Photograph by Patricia Matisse. BARCODE 26015637
(fig. 4) Alberto Giacometti with the plaster version of Grande femme debout IV in the courtyard of his studio, summer 1960. Photograph courtesy of the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti. Paris. BARCODE 26015620
(fig. 5) Alberto Giacometti arranging his pavilion at the 1962 Venice Biennale. The sculptures include two bronze versions of Grande femme debout, both versions of Homme qui marche, and Grande tête. Photograph by Ugo Mulas, Milan. BARCODE 26015606
(fig. 6) Alberto Giacometti arriving in New York about the S.S. France, October 1964. Photograph by Patricia Matisse. BARCODE 26015613