"I can consider separately from the tree itself this wavering branch," wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, "but I cannot think of an arm rising, a fist closing, apart from a human agent. A man raises his arm, a man clenches his fist; man is the indissoluble unity and the absolute source of his movements." He made this statement in The Search for the Absolute, his introduction to the catalogue accompanying the exhibition of Giacometti's sculptures at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, in 1948 (exh. cat., op. cit., p. 3). A bronze cast of La Main was included in this show (fig. 1). The hand is our prime intermediary between the mind and the world, it allows thought to act upon and transform the world. The outstretched hand expresses the human need to grasp, to reach out towards the world and to aspire within it; the hand enables us to realize our potential in accomplishing all things. In the face of another, the hand may embrace in love or ward off in fear, extend itself in joy or lamentation. No part of the human body, except for the head itself, is a more potent symbol for the totality of the human endeavor. Giacometti's La Main, as fragile as it may appear, carries the emotional and symbolic weight of all these gestures.
Giacometti created three sculptures during 1947 that represent parts of the human body--La Main, Le Nez (The Nose; fig. 2) and Tête sur tige (Head on a Rod; fig. 3)--as he set out to work on the first of the famously thin, elongated signature sculptures Christian Klemm has called his "ethereal, weightless figures." He also conceived a fourth piece, Le Jambe (The Leg), but did not advance the plaster to a state that was ready for casting until 1958 (fig. 4). In making these sculptures Giacometti returned to the lessons he had learned as a young man while studying in Bourdelle's Académie de le Grande Chaumière, at a time when "Giacometti found it easier to form individual parts than whole figures," as Klemm has noted;"acting on that inclination in his first works in many years to approach life size, he opted for the fragmentary" (exh. cat, op. cit., 2001, p. 146). The artist commented, "All I could do was to make a part which would stand for the whole, and that, moreover, was the way I saw things" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1996, p. 161). In his standing figures Giacometti preferred to avoid particular gestures; only in L'homme au doigt (Man Pointing; fig. 5); executed in the same year as La Main, does the sculptor draw attention to the hand as it is engaged in a specific and purposeful movement.
These body part sculptures are, however, no mere preparatory exercises. As in the full-length figures that quickly followed, the overall scale and inter-related complexity of the elements in these works are a marked contrast from the miniscule figures and heads that Giacometti brought back with him from Geneva when he returned to Paris in September 1945, following the end of the Second World War. He is said to have carried the sum of his surviving wartime production in several matchboxes that easily fit in the pockets of his overcoat. He realized that he had come to a sterile end with these "pin people." Giacometti declared, "In 1945 I swore to myself that I didn't want to let my figures get smaller and smaller, not even by an inch. But now the following happened: I could maintain the height, but they started to get narrow, narrow tall and thin as a thread." The artist moreover observed that "You don't feel your weight. I wanted--without having thought about it--to reproduce this lightness, and that by making the body so thin" (quoted in R. Hohl, op. cit., 1998, pp. 108 and 125).
The accelerating evolution in Giacometti's work during the years 1945-1947 stemmed from a sequence of hallucinatory revelations that the sculptor experienced as he reintegrated himself within the cosmopolitan life of Paris, as the city emerged from the deep nightmarish sleep of the Occupation and, amid continuing privations, slowly returned to life during the years following the Liberation. These epiphanies reveal the ways in which the inner life of the artist's mind contended with the reality of the outer world and the circumstances of his existence. They trace a continuation of the pre-war surrealist impulse in the sculptor's life and work. In December 1946 Giacometti published a visionary text in the art journal Labyrinthe which he titled Le Rêve, Le Sphinx et la mort de T., referring to a favorite brothel that had just been closed down by a new city ordinance, and the death of a close friend, Tonio Pototsching, who acted as caretaker of the building in which the sculptor had his studio. As Klemm has pointed out, "In his text there is a point of reference for each of the new sculptures" (exh. cat., op. cit., 2002, p. 146).
In the Rêve sequence of the text, Giacometti dreamed he saw two enormous spiders, the second, as he wrote, "far more monstrous than the first spider... Terror struck, I saw my girlfriend's hand reach out and touch the spider's scales: she did not seem to feel either fear or surprise. With a cry, I pushed her hand away and, as in the dream, I asked for the creature to be killed." Later he described his friend Pototsching, as he lay--having died only moments before--on a bed in a room adjoining his own:
"I saw him dead, with his skeletally thin limbs stretched out, opened up and abandoned from the body, with his enormous, swollen belly, his head thrown back and his mouth open. Never had a corpse seemed so meaningless to me I looked at the head, which had become an object, an insignificant, little box... The following night I was about to go naked down the corridor leading to the bathroom which went past the dead man's bedroom, I was filled with terror and, although I didn't believe it, I had the vague impression that T. was everywhere, everywhere except in that miserable corpse on the bed, that corpse which had seemed so meaningless to me. T. was beyond all bounds, and terrified of feeling an icy hand touch me on the arm, I made a huge effort to go down the corridor, then came back to bed and with my eyes open, I talked to A. until dawn" (quoted in M. Peppiatt, Alberto Giacometti in Postwar Paris, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, 2001, p. 31).
Tonio's passing reminded Giacometti of his first encounter with death, when in 1921 he accompanied an elderly Dutchman named Van Meurs on a trip through the Alps on their way to Venice. The gentleman was ill, and died en route, as Alberto attended to him. Giacometti's girlfriend "A." in Le Rêve is Annette Arm, the young woman whom the artist met in a Geneva brasserie in 1943. She arrived in Paris on 6 July 1946 to live with Giacometti in his studio at 46, rue Hippolyte-Maindron, Montparnasse. They married in 1949. The references to her arm in the text Le Rêve strongly suggest that Giacometti had in mind a female limb when he modeled La Main. Annette's last name, which signifies the same in both English and German, may be more than a coincidence in this regard.
A feminine source of inspiration for La Main is moreover born out by another event in Giacometti's life that commentators have cited, which took place in June 1940 during the German invasion of France. Alberto buried his sculptures in a corner of his studio, and together with his brother Diego and the latter's girlfriend Nelly, fled Paris ahead of advancing German forces. They followed roads south, with Bordeaux as their destination. Two days later, they witnessed the immediate aftermath of an air raid on the town of Etampes, thirteen miles from Paris. "Buildings were in ruins, burning." James Lord has written. "A human arm, severed at the shoulder, lay in the road, and they realized it must have come from a woman's body, because a bracelet of green stones still circled the wrist. Farther on, they came to a wide, shallow crater where a bomb had recently fallen; around it lay several bodies, torn limbs... The street was running with blood" (op. cit., p. 214). They joined the exodus of refugees that streamed along the highway beyond Etampes, and were strafed by German planes. Five days into their journey, they were overtaken by German troops, and decided they had no choice but to return to Paris, witnessing once again the carnage they had tried to escape. Lord has written, "The sculpture [La Main] assumes searing significance as a haphazard item from the inventory of human horror. It shows again how Giacometti worked to fuse the personal with the universal" (ibid., p. 286). Jean Genet, in his 1957 essay The Studio of Giacometti, makes a point crucial to understanding Giacometti and his work:
"Beauty has no other origin than the singular wound, different in every case, hidden or visible, which each man bears within himself, which he preserves, and into which he withdraws when he would quit the world for a temporary but authentic solitude... Giacometti's art seems to me determined to discover this secret wound in each being and even in each thing, in order to for it to illuminate them" (in E. White, ed., The Selected Writings of Jean Genet, New York, 1993, p. 310).
The hand was an important component in several of Giacometti's surrealist sculptures created during the early 1930s. In Main prise (Caught Hand; fig. 6), a mannequin-like hand is enmeshed within the wheels and rods that comprise a mechanical device of uncertain function. In relating La Main to this earlier work, Yves Bonnefoy observed, "Giacometti realized that his hand, formerly caught by the fingers and inhibited, was now free to create, to speak, to show, perhaps even to exorcise... True, fear has not ceased, dangers abound, yet suddenly art has become possible" (op. cit., p. 329). A severed hand appears as if it were a still-life object in Table surréaliste, 1933 (fig. 7). The arms in Mains tenant le vide (L'Objet invisible) (Hands Holding the Void [Invisible Object]), 1934 (fig. 8), were executed separately, and remained detachable; during the 1960s Giacometti made casts of the left arm.
Prior to executing La Main, Giacometti modeled a thin plaster figure on a raised platform, a woman with her hands outstretched before her, as if groping in the dark. He subsequently reworked the figure so that its gender was ambiguous, and this plaster was included in the 1948 Pierre Matisse exhibition as Sketch for a Burglar (The Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti possesses the fragmentary surviving version of this work). In 1952 the sculptor published a haiku-like poem, L'Aveugle avance la main, in XXe Siècle: "A blind man extends his hand in the void (in the dark? In the night?/The days pass and I dream of catching, stopping that which flees" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 126).
During 1946-1947 Giacometti fully realized his visionary, weightless approach to sculpture. He was creating astonishing heads, figures and parts of the body in attenuated, reduced forms, eliminating virtually all volume and mass, ranging from only a few inches in height to nearly life-size. These figures were utterly unprecedented, unless one went back to the most primitive works of ancient man. Giacometti had made it his challenge and task to reinvent the very idea of sculpture.
Rather than fleshing out the form of La Main, as Rodin would have done in one of his sensuously expressive hands, Giacometti applied and then relentlessly carved away the drying plaster so that the material appears to have shrunk around and now desperately clings to the wire armature. There is no semblance of warm, living flesh as would comfort us--the resulting limb seems as brittle as a broken off and burnt tree branch. The vastness of surrounding empty space presses in on the limb from all sides, eating away at its substance, stressing, corroding and scarring the skin; that matter which endures possesses the pitted and gouged appearance of an unearthed fossilized life form. This fragile, weightless arm strains in supplication against the overwhelming compression of all these forces, the sum of which is no less powerful than mortality itself. The hand nonetheless acquires a compensatory shamanistic potency, the miraculous aura of a venerated saintly relic.
Peter Selz declared, "it exists with a mysterious power and contained violence" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1965, p. 11). This hand resists, holds forth defiantly, and struggles through the sheer resolve of its resilient will to counteract all that impinges upon it. The hand perseveres, survives, and somehow prevails--however tenuously--over these terrible conditions. There is a chilling though undeniable beauty in the arm's gently curved form, balanced precariously on a slender metal rod. The hand ultimately overcomes the space in which it stands. The bony fingers beckon to us, and remind us: this is the fragility of life as all of us have experienced it, painfully, inexorably, and with no small measure of a private, ineffable heroism.
Pierre Matisse, the New York gallerist, had been closely following developments in Giacometti's work since before the war, and now he was the sole admiring dealer who possessed the means to support the sculptor's renewed efforts during the early postwar period. Matisse realized it was high time to give the artist a solo show, his first in almost fifteen years. This would take place in New York, which would become the leading venue in the genesis and expansion of Giacometti's international reputation.
Giacometti selected Jean-Paul Sartre, the leading writer and thinker of the Paris existentialist set, to provide the introductory catalogue essay. Sartre rose to the occasion with The Search for the Absolute, which sixty years on remains an essential, classic text on Giacometti and his work. Sartre wrote:
"With space...Giacometti has to make a man; he has to write movement into the total immobility, unity into the infinite multiplicity, the absolute into the purely relative, the future into the eternally present, the chatter of signs into the obstinate silence of things... The passion of sculpture is to make oneself totally spatial, so that from the depth of space, the statue of a man may sally forth... Once he had a terror of emptiness; for months, he came and went in an abyss at his side; space had come to know through him its desolate sterility. Another time, it seemed to him that objects, dulled and dead, no longer touched the earth, he inhabited a floating universe, he knows in his flesh, and to the point of martyrdom, that there is neither high nor low in space, nor real contact between things; but at the same time, he knew that the sculptor's task is to carve in this infinite archipelago the full form of the only being who can touch other beings" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1948, p. 3).
Nineteen of the twenty-nine sculptures that Giacometti sent to New York were recent, having been done in 1945-1947. Of these, nine were shown as bronze casts, including one of La Main; the rest were original plaster sculptures, many of which were later cast in bronze. Pierre Matisse financed the casting process, using the Alexis Rudier foundry, which had worked with Rodin, and whose excellent work did not come cheap. All of the authorized bronze casts that exist of La Main, including the present one, were cast by Rudier between 1947 and 1949. Giacometti relished the opportunity to transcribe his original plaster sculptures into bronze. He became even more exacting in his efforts, and self-critical of the results. He wrote to Matisse, "I simply cannot bear the idea of casting these sculptures in bronze before they are more or less what I want them to be." He later expressed his gratitude to Matisse, "You have rendered me an immense service in allowing me to have these casts made. For the last year, I could never have afforded to have one made at my expense... You cannot know how much all this has helped me in my work. I have made great progress since we began to work together" (quoted in J. Russell, Matisse: Father & Son, New York, 1999, pp.152 and 155).
Giacometti's exhibition, comprised of twenty-nine sculptures, two paintings and two drawings, opened at the Pierre Matisse Gallery on 19 January 1948. It turned into a major event, and became the talk of the art world. If critical reception initially seemed hesitant, it was only because it would take time to mull over this approachable but nonetheless formidable body of work, which called into play--in a way New York had not yet experienced--many of the complex and anxious issues that comprised the zeitgeist in postwar Europe. The show proved to be a commercial success as well; eight of the important sculptures were sold within the year.
The large and continuous turnout for the exhibition led Matisse to extend the viewing. An article in Time magazine included photographs of two works. Giacometti was delighted at this public response, and wrote Matisse, "in Paris everyone wants to have the catalogue, and those who have seen it find it very, very good" (ibid., p. 162). But even with this sudden renown, one thought was foremost in Giacometti's mind. From his family home in Stampa, he wrote to Matisse, "no sooner do I think of it than I long to be back in Paris and at work on my sculptures. Everything I have done so far is just a beginning" (ibid., p. 161).
Figs: (all sculptures: 2001 Artist's Rights Society (ARS), New York ADAGP, Paris)
(Fig. A) Alberto Giacometti, 1951. Photograph by Gordon Parks; Getty Images.
(Fig. B) Hand of Alberto Giacometti, 1963. Photograph by Marianne Adelmann; Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris.
(fig. 1) Alberto Giacometti, La Main, in the window of the Pierre Matisse Gallery, late 1947.
(fig. 2) Alberto Giacometti, Le Nez, painted plaster, 1947. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger; Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung, Zurich.
(fig. 3) Alberto Giacometti, Tête sur tige, plaster, 1947. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger; Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung, Zurich.
(fig. 4) Alberto Giacometti, La Jambe, bronze, 1947/1958. Sold Christie's New York, 8 November 2006, lot 46.
(fig. 5) Alberto Giacometti, L'Homme au doigt, 1947. Photographed in Giacometti's studio. Courtesy of the Pierre Matisse Gallery Archive, The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.
(fig. 6) Alberto Giacometti, Main prise, 1932. Alberto Giacometti Stiftung, Zürich; Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger; Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung, Zurich.
(fig. 7) Alberto Giacometti, Table surréaliste, plaster, 1933. Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
(Fig. 8) Alberto Giacometti, Mains tenant le vide (L'Objet invisible), 1934. Photograph by Dora Maar, courtesy The Estate of Dora Maar. Yale University Museum of Art, New Haven.