Early in 1956, Giacometti produced a group of large-scale standing female figures in preparation for exhibitions of his work at the Venice Biennale and at the Kunsthalle in Bern (fig. 1), both of which opened in June of that year. The catalogue of the Biennale indicates that ten of these plaster women were exhibited there, in groups entitled Quattro Figure (Four Figures) and Sei Figure (Six Figures). The catalogue of the Bern exhibition records the inclusion of five additional plasters, identified as Figures I-V, 1956. Examination of installation photographs from the two exhibitions, however, has revealed that only seven examples from this group of figures were actually shown in Venice, six on a single large plinth and a seventh on its own (fig. 2). The remaining three figures listed in the catalogue are in fact much smaller than these seven, and do not form part of the same series. Moreover, one of the five figures identified at Bern as a work of 1956 is in fact a 1947 plaster entitled Femme debout (Leoni). Although the cycle in question therefore comprises at least eleven figures (seven shown in Venice and four shown in Bern), the discrepancies between the catalogues and the in situ photographs make it difficult to determine with certainty the exact number of plasters that once existed.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Venice and Bern exhibitions, Giacometti selected nine of the plasters for casting in bronze, entitling them Femmes de Venise regardless of where they had originally been shown. Femmes de Venise IV, VI, and VII are among the versions shown in Venice, and Femmes de Venise III and XI (the present example) are among those shown in Bern. The plasters which were not cast in bronze were apparently destroyed.
According to David Sylvester, all the sculptures were created as different states of the same figure, modeled from a single mass of clay over a period of about three weeks (fig. 3). When Giacometti was satisfied with a particular version, his brother Diego made a plaster cast of it while Giacometti continued to rework the clay into a different figure. As Giacometti told Sylvester, "The last of the states was no more definitive than its predecessors. All were provisional..." (quoted in exh. cat., Twentieth Century Modern Masters, The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1989, p. 265). Giacometti's biographer, James Lord, describes the creation of the Femmes de Venise as follows:
Working with the same clay on the same armature, as he often did,
Giacometti concentrated on a single rigidly erect figure of a nude
woman, her body slender, attenuated, head held high, arms and hands pressed to her sides, feet outsized and rooted to the pedestal. She was modeled after a female figure in the mind's eye, not from a living woman. In the course of a single afternoon this figure could undergo ten, twenty, forty metamorphoses as the sculptor's fingers
coursed compulsively over the clay. Not one of these states was
definitive, because he was not working towards a preconceived idea or form...[his] purpose was not to preserve one state of his
sculpture from amid so many. It was to see more clearly what he had seen. (J. Lord, op. cit., pp. 355-356)
The differences in height and anatomy among the nine Femmes de Venise suggest that their numbering might not even reflect the sequence in which Giacometti produced them. Figure IV (fig. 4), with its broad shoulders and naturalistic anatomy, may actually follow Figure I, while the sharp-edged profile and curved hairdo of Figure IX, the present example, most closely resembles that of Figure VI (fig. 5). Dr. Valerie Fletcher has proposed that the nine Femmes de Venise were renumbered when the artist selected them from among the original plasters for casting in bronze.
Measuring between 110 and 113 centimeters in height, the Femmes de Venise were the first large-scale bronzes that Giacometti had executed since the late 1940s. None of his bronze sculptures from the first half of the 1950s exceeds sixty centimeters (although at least one much larger plaster from this period, never cast in bronze, has apparently been destroyed). Along with this increase in height came a dramatic decrease in breadth and depth, resulting in the gaunt proportions which are one of the signature elements of Giacometti's post-war sculpture. In a radio interview with Sylvester broadcast in September 1964, Giacometti posited this extreme reduction in volume as something of a compulsion: "...I wanted to hold onto a certain height, and they became narrow. But this was despite myself and even if I fought against it. And I did fight against it; I tried to make them broader. The more I wanted to make them broader, the narrower they got..." (quoted in exh. cat., Alberto Giacometti: Thirteen Bronzes, Thomas Gibson Fine Art, Ltd., London, 1977, p. 12).
Elsewhere, Giacometti linked the thinness of his figures to his effort to sculpt the human body not as he knew it to be but as he actually saw it -- that is, at a distance. His intention was not to reproduce reality per se but rather to convey the experience of reality. He dated this awareness of distance as a pre-condition of perception to a day in 1945, just two years before the creation of his first Grande figure:
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. (Quoted in D. Honisch, "Scale in Giacometti's Sculpture," in A. Schneider, ed., Alberto Giacometti: Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, Munich, 1994, p. 65)
Mercedes Matter has provided one of clearest explanations of the way that Giacometti's consciousness of the distance separating him from his model impacts upon the viewer's experience of his sculpture:
Upon first seeing Giacometti's work, I thought this sense of distance, of farawayness, to be a generalized feeling, a sort of emotional ambience, and a tour de force to accomplish. I did not immediately recognize the simple fact that it was the representation, the precise representation of the appearance, or rather his sensation of the appearance, of the model at the distance separating him from it. This became clear to me in the case of a [sculpture] that I saw for the first time...across a tremendous space several galleries away. It was startlingly close to me. As I drew nearer it never got any closer nor did it ever get further away, however far I walked in the opposite direction. (M. Matter, op. cit., p. 208)
A still greater tour de force is the fact that the illusion of distance which Matter describes often co-exists in the same sculpture with an inescapable sense of materiality. The disproportionately large feet and massive bases of the Femmes de Venise, for instance, anchor them firmly to the ground; and their craggy, well-worked skins lend them an aspect of tactile proximity, like surfaces seen from very close up. A similar paradox is evident in the way that the far-away gazes of the Femmes de Venise speak to their unattainability while their prominent breasts and slender waists endow them with a frank eroticism. Giacometti's sculptures thus stand as powerful testaments to the unstable nature of perception: as we stand before one of the Femmes de Venise -- as we watch her oscillate from near to far, far to near -- we feel Giacometti's compulsive working and re-working of the figure, understand his unending quest to capture in clay exactly what he saw when he last glanced at a flesh-and-blood female.
(fig. 1) Giacometti at the 1956 exhibition of his work at the Bern Kunsthalle (photo: Franz Meyer)
(fig. 2) Six plaster Femmes de Venise installed at the 1956 Venice Biennale
(fig. 3) Bronze casts of seven of the nine extant Femmes de Venise
(fig. 4) Alberto Giacometti, Femme de Venise IV, 1956
(fig. 5) Alberto Giacometti, Femme de Venise VI, 1956