To approach and behold a single Giacometti figure--a standing woman or a walking man, for instance--is a tense and unsettling experience. Space appears to press in on it from all sides; the bronze or plaster flesh on this elongated and attenuated armature body seems tormented, even flayed and scarred by the emptiness that threatens to engulf it. Its very existence may appear fragile or ephemeral, and insinuate our innermost anxieties about distance, remoteness and solitude. This nearly weightless body strains against the indomitable press of mortality, which may be held in abeyance but can never be laid aside. Nevertheless, in more than an equivalent measure this body resists, it defies, it struggles through sheer willpower to contradict all that impinges upon it. It perseveres, and, yes, we may finally concede that it somehow prevails, however tenuously, over all these corrosive circumstances. It surmounts the space in which it stands.
Place two figures in close proximity, or three, four, even five--as seen here, in La Place II--and this dynamic instantly unfolds into further dimensions, both spatially and emotionally. The propinquity of the figures spins out a spiraling network of relationships with astonishing exponential multiplicity. In the case of La Place II, there is no single vantage point. Get down close to this sculpture and let your eye perambulate among the figures. The permutations that stem from this mere handful of hand-sized bronze elements are virtually inexhaustible. This sculpture virtually reinvents itself each time you approach it.
Giacometti created two versions of Place, perhaps better known in English as La Place and La Place II, in 1948, and had them cast in bronze the following year. The initial version (fig. 1) was Giacometti's very first multi-figure postwar sculpture, and bronze casts of it were among the first works by the sculptor enter public collections: The Museum of Modern Art acquired cast 1/6 in 1949, and the Kunstmuseum Basel purchased cast 6/6 following the exhibition they gave the artist in 1950. Cast 4/6 of City Square II is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and one cast, 5/6, was destroyed in a fire.
In both works Giacometti has positioned four walking men and a solitary standing woman on a broad and thick platform. La Place II differs from the first version in that figures are slightly larger, the walking man opposite the standing woman faces her less directly, and he carries his arms more tensely and closely to his side.
The overall scale and inter-related complexity of the elements in this sculpture are a far cry 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" (quoted in R. Hohl, op. cit., p. 108).
The accelerating evolution in Giacometti's work during the years 1945-1948 stemmed from a sequence of hallucinatory revelations that the sculptor experienced as he reintegrated himself within the reviving and invigorating cosmopolitan life of liberated, postwar Paris. His visions revealed the ways in which the private life of the mind contends with the public reality of the street. 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, and the death of a close friend. He wrote:
"...I had begun to see heads in the void, in the space that surrounded them. The first time I saw a head I was looking at freeze, become fixed in that single instant forever. I trembled with terror as never before in my life, and cold sweat ran down my back. This was no longer a living head, but an object which I looked at as I would look at any other object; yet not quite, not like any other object, differently, like something that was dead and alive at the same time. I let out a cry of terror as if I had just crossed over a threshold, as if I had gone into a world that nobody had seen before. All the living were dead, and this vision came back often, in the metro, in the street, in restaurants or with friends. The waiter at the Brasserie Lipp who stood motionless, bending over me, his mouth open, with no connection to the previous moment of with the following moment, his mouth open, his eyes fixed and unwavering. And at the same time as people, objects underwent a transformation: tables, chairs, clothes, streets, even trees and landscapes" (M. Peppiatt, trans., in Giacometti and Postwar Paris, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, 2001, pp. 31-32).
Giacometti had been drawing constantly in a new, non-naturalistic manner in which the figure appears to coalesce from a web of vigorous, matchstick-like strokes. Rendered in this way against the white void of the sheet, his figures became elongated (fig. 2). In statements culled from various interviews given during the 1960s, Giacometti recalled:
"Through drawing all that began to change a little... Not until 1946 and after was I able to perceive the distance which makes people appear real and not their natural size. My visual field widened. The true revelation, the great shock that destroyed my whole conception of space and finally put me on the track I'm on today came in 1945, in the newsreel theater 'Actualités Montparnasse.' I used to go to the movies quite often earlier. I went in, saw the film, left the theater, I was in the street again, in a café--it wasn't anything special, nothing really happened at all, I mean, there wasn't the slightest difference between what I saw outside in reality and what happened on the screen. The one was the continuation of the other. Until the day they separated: instead of seeing a person on the screen I saw--influenced by the drawings I was doing at the time--unfocused black spots that moved. I looked at my neighbors--and suddenly I saw them as I had never seen them before. Not what was happening on the screen was new, but the people who were sitting next to me. On that day--I still remember exactly how I walked out into the Boulevard Montparnasse--I saw the boulevard as I had never seen it before. Everything was different, the spatial depth and the things, and the colors and the silence...for silence played a role in it too--the film I had seen was a sound film... Everything appeared different to me and completely new. Boulevard Montparnasse was dipped in the beauty of the Thousand and One Nights, fabulous, absolutely strange... Now I was eager to see more. I was, if you will, in a sort of perpetual enchantment of everything... On that day reality was revaluated for me completely; it became unknown for me, 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 photography and films see things, I wanted to represent what I saw" (quoted in ibid., pp. 111 and 114).
During 1946-1947 Giacometti fully realized his visionary, weightless approach to sculpture. He was creating astonishing figures in attenuated vertical forms, ranging in height from only a few inches to nearly life-size. Rather than fleshing out the armature, the plaster seemed to shrink around it, as if it were clinging to it for dear life. These figures were utterly unprecedented, unless one went back to the most primitive works of the ancient man. Giacometti appeared to have taken on the challenge of reinventing the very idea of sculpture for his time.
Pierre Matisse had been virtually alone among dealers in closely following and supporting the progress of Giacometti's work since his return to Paris, and 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 henceforth became the leading venue in the genesis and expansion of Giacometti's postwar reputation. The exhibition of twenty-nine sculptures (both early and recent), two paintings and two drawings at the Pierre Matisse Gallery which opened in January 1948 was a major event. It proved to be a commercial success, and was 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 daunting body of work, which called into play--in a way New York had not yet experienced--many of the difficult issues that comprised the postwar zeitgeist. Selected by the sculptor himself, Jean-Paul Sartre, the leading writer and thinker of the Paris Existentialist set, had provided the introductory catalogue essay, "The Search for the Absolute," which sixty years on remains an essential, classic text. 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...
"But space, even if naked, is still superabundant... 'In space,' says Giacometti, 'there is too much.' This too much is pure and simple coexistence of parts in juxtaposition. Most sculptors let themselves be taken in by this; they confuse the flaccidness of extension with largesse, they put too much into their work, they delight in the fat curve of a marble hip, they spread out, thicken and expand the human gesture. Giacometti knows there is nothing redundant in a living man, because everything there is functional; he knows that space is a cancer on being, and eats everything; to sculpt, for him, is to take the fat off space; he compresses space, so as to drain off its exteriority... We know now what squeezer Giacometti used to compress space: there is only one: distance. He puts distance within reach of your hand, he thrusts before your eyes a distant woman--and she remains distant, even when you touch her with your fingertips" (quoted in K. Stiles and P. Selz, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, pp. 185 and 186).
Although Giacometti felt bolstered by the adulation his work had received in New York, which brought him a good measure of celebrity in Paris as well, the sculptor was not about to rest on his laurels. Turning to figures in groups was the unavoidable outgrowth of the single figures of women and men, and a necessary step in avoiding undue repetition. The sculptor only needed to look around at the many plaster figures that crowded every tabletop and filled each corner in his cramped studio to visualize the potential inherent in multi-figure sculptures. Giacometti began to work on the two versions of City Square in 1948, and during this time he also modeled two versions of Three Men Walking (fig. 3). Other important multi-figure groupings followed in 1949-1950, during the period, which James Lord called Giacometti's anni mirabili, leading up to Giacometti's second New York exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1950. These include The Glade, The Forest and Four Figures on a Pedestal (figs. 4-6). Jacques Dupin has pointed out, "The movement of one figure leads almost inevitably to depicting the movements, conjugated or not, of several figures. An immobile figure surrounds itself with closed space. A figure in motion opens space and attracts other figures there, without however meeting them; in open space, solitude as plural" (in Giacometti: Three Essays, New York, 2003, p. 58).
Again the events in Giacometti's daily life, from his long walks on the streets of Paris, served as a catalyst. The sculptor described one such incident in conversations he held during the 1960s with Raoul-Jean Moulin and Pierre Schneider:
"Once I had to leave the Louvre, I couldn't take it anymore. Not because of the artworks, but because of the reality of all those faces I met and which snapped at me as they went by. In the street the people astound and interest me more than any sculpture or painting. Every second the people stream together and go apart, then they approach each other to get closer to one another. They unceasingly form and re-form living compositions of unbelievable complexity The men walk past each other, they pass each other without looking. Or then they stalk a woman. A woman is standing there and four men direct their steps more or less toward the spot where the woman is standing. It occurred to me that I can never make a woman in any other way than motionless, and a man always striding; when I model a woman, then motionless; a man, always walking It's the totality of this life that I want to reproduce in everything I do" (quoted in R. Hohl, op. cit., p. 135).
Giacometti's interest in depicting the coincidence of figures in an open public space looks back to several sculptures that he executed during the early 1930s, in which abstract elements share and interact within the area of the platform, such as Man, Woman, and Child, No More Play, Circuit, and especially Model for a Square (fig. 7). Hohl believes the latter sculpture to be a representation of Adam, Eve and the serpent gathered around the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Giacometti had intended to enlarge it to a height of six feet for installation in a public space, where people might freely wander among it component elements.
The narratives in these early works are abstractly symbolic and imaginary; the City Square sculptures are, on the other hand, based on everyday life. Dupin has observed just how closely Giacometti's figures represent our real experience of crossing paths with strangers on a city street:
"We walk in the street with our eyes closed. We see only through the deforming prism of contracted habits, of a blinding knowledge: we see those passersby only as we know they are. If I call this knowledge into doubt, if I purify my eye of all the mental correctives which dull and estrange it, everything changes. These same passersby issue from a wide lateral opening; the immense space which imprisons them makes them appear small, thin, nibbled by the void, almost undifferentiated and especially elongated, drawn out by the attentuation of their verticality... It is thus that the eye really sees and it is thus that Giacometti represents beings and things: in their distance, in their space, hence by depicting that space, by incorporating into his figures the distance which separates them from him" (op. cit., pp. 53-54).
It is significant that the two versions of La Place do not differ radically from each other; it was not Giacometti's intention to represent widely alternative possibilities of how figures in the street might mingle, then draw together to only pass each other and head on their way. He was aiming instead to lay down the essential phenomenon of convergence and passage in a public place. Giacometti slightly modified the figures and their positioning from the first version to the second, but the conception was already whole and absolute. There may be the appearance of randomness and accident, but this is illusory, because the positioning of the figures seems almost fated and inevitable. Dupin has reminded us, "A hidden organizer still directs the respective placing and orientation of the figures" (ibid. p. 58).
The walking men would eventually converge and collide if all proceeded to head along their chosen tracks. The standing woman exists apart from this ambulatory configuration; she is, however, the apparent destination for the man approaching her from the opposite side of the platform. A palpable degree of sexual tension exists in each of the male figures, an inference that each man is to some extent contending for the attention of the woman, or he is at least responding to her power to attract him. David Sylvester has noted that she is "waiting to one side like a street walker" (in Looking at Giacometti, New York, 1994, p. 100). The significant player in this drama is certainly the man opposite her. He seems more casually at ease in the first version and reasonably certain of a successful approach, but with his arms clenched in La Place II, in a posture of anxious anticipation, there is the dawning suggestion that his eventual tête-à- tête with her will end up in thwarted intentions and frustrated desire.
Yves Bonnefoy was, like Dupin, another important French poet who was drawn to the manifold ambiguities and metaphorical inferences so strongly inherent in Giacometti's sculpture. He has likened the La Place sculptures to the theater stage:
"The novelty in these two sculptures...resides in the suddenly crystallized impression for the observer that he is at the theater, confronting a bare stage such as soon to become the fashion, and in the presence of characters, who although silent and impenetrable, are involved in a quest which is certainly intense and might even be tragic... What happens between men, the connection with one another, proclaims itself as the theme of the work... The sculptor had come close in these unexpected compositions to what was then called 'existentialist' drama, which was concerned with the human condition at it most fundamental. But he did not learn it from the theatre of Jean-Paul Sartre, in whom thought, ideas, psychology, 'words' as Sartre himself said, predominated. He was more akin to his friend Beckett, whose constant preoccupation with absence and with instants of presence--real or dreamed--knew how to exist and maintain itself on the farther and boldest margin of language, amid the same mist which enshrouds the passersby in these two sculptures." (in Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of his Work, Paris, 1991, pp. 331 and 332).
The drama which Giacometti which directs in La Place II is based on the irresistible attraction between man and woman, the magnetic fields generated by these opposing polarities, which stem from their dissimilarity and distance. A chasm separates one from the other: this is the space that must be traversed from one side of the platform to the other before the connection is made. The outcome, however, for all we can tell, is uncertain at best. Bonnefoy wrote: "Woman and man. Presence opposed, as such, to existence which strives to accede to being: the kingdom and exile, the two opposite poles with nothing up to now to bridge the gap, to reconcile the two solitudes" (ibid., p. 332).
Giacometti welcomed the perceptive attention of poets, playwrights and philosophers; he disliked, however, overly literary and purely intellectualized efforts to make his work appear representative of their ideas, which he thought distracted from a more meaningful understanding of the essential physicality of his sculptures. He did not want his work to be viewed merely as models that reflected currently fashionable polemics about estrangement, irrationality and despair, and he refused to be held up as the avatar of the topical Existential mindset in modern sculpture and painting. His felt his work reached further back into the history of art than the writers realized, and that it was embedded more deeply in the fabric of real life than they were capable of articulating. The truth in his work became manifest where their words left off. Giacometti protested, "While working I have never thought of the theme of solitude. I have absolutely no intention of being an artist of solitude. Moreover, I must add that as a citizen and a thinking being I believe that all life is the opposite of solitude, for life consists of a fabric of relations with others... There is so much talk about the malaise throughout the world and about existential anguish, as if it were something new. All people have felt that, and at all periods" (quoted in J. Lord, Giacometti: A Biography, New York, 1985, pp. 309-310). If Giacometti needed to demonstrate his point with a single sculpture, he could have done no better than to choose La Place.
(fig. 1) Alberto Giacometti, La Place, first version, 1948. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 25012453
(fig. 2) Alberto Giacometti, Femme debout, 1947. Sold, Christie's New York, 9 May 2006, lot 74. BARCODE 24165617
(fig. 3) Alberto Giacometti, Three Men Walking I (Trois homes qui marchent I), 1948. Alberto-Giacometti Stiftung, Zurich. BARCODE 25012361
(fig. 4) Alberto Giacometti, The Glade (La clairière), 1950. Sold, Christie's New York, 19 May 1981, lot 354. BARCODE 25012347
(fig. 5) Alberto Giacometti, The Forest (Le forêt), 1950. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. BARCODE 25012477
(fig. 6) Alberto Giacometti, Four Women on a Base (Quatre femmes sur socle), 1950. Alberto-Giacometti Stiftung, Zurich; on permanent loan to the Kunstmuseum, Basel. BARCODE 25012460
(fig. 7) Alberto Giacometti, Model for a Square (Projet pour une place), 1931-1932. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York). BARCODE 25012446
[artist fig] Alberto Giacometti in his Paris studio, circa 1946. BARCODE 25012354
[artist fig] Alberto Giacometti at the door of his studio, 1948. BARCODE 25012378
[artist fig] Alberto Giacometti explaining City Square (Place) at the Kunstmuseum, Basel, 1950. BARCODE 25012385