Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)
Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)

Femme debout (Figurine)

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)
Femme debout (Figurine)
signed and numbered 'Alberto Giacometti 1/6' (on the left side of the base); inscribed with foundry mark 'Susse Fondr Paris' (on the back of the base)
bronze with dark brown and green patina
height: 24 in. (61 cm.)
conceived in 1958 and cast in March 1959
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York (by 1960).
Mr. and Mrs. Ira Kaufman.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (acquired from the above, 1964); sale, Sotheby's, New York, 2 November 2005, lot 18.
Jan Krugier, acquired at the above sale.
Galerie Maeght, ed., Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 1962, p. 284 (plaster version illustrated; titled Figurine).
The Alberto Giacometti Database, no. 497.
The Alberto and Annette Giacometti Association Database, no. S-2005-7.
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, XXth Century Artists, October-November 1960, no. 25 (illustrated; titled Standing Figure and dated circa 1954).
New York, Jan Krugier Gallery in collaboration with Richard L. Feigen & Co., Drawing in Space, November 2007-January 2008, no. 35 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

Femme Debout (Figurine) condenses many of the concerns Giacometti had regarding the depiction of reality into the most important motif of his career, the standing female figure. Looking at its turbulent surface, the viewer can appreciate the near-frenzied speed with which the artist must have worked the original plaster from which this was cast. At the same time, the sculpture conveys that sense of distilled materiality that is so celebrated in his elongated figures. This emphasis on the vertical was famously the solution to an artistic crisis that Giacometti faced during the Second World War, during which he was unable to stop whittling away at his figures, paring them down to the barest minimum. This resulted in diminutive sculptures, some of which were so small that they fitted into matchboxes. Soon, a solution to Giacometti's inveterate, unstoppable paring away of material arrived in the form of a vision, an epiphany which brought about elongated, elegant figures such as Femme Debout (Figurine). They convey a sense of mass and also of mirage, shimmering before us, communicating both physical and psychological distance through their appearance. As Giacometti himself said of women, "The nearer one gets, the more distant they are" (Giacometti, quoted in D. Sylvester, Looking at Giacometti, London, 1994, p. 30).

The conception of the Femme Debout (Figurine) is contemporary to the first Grande femme sculptures created in response to a commission which--had he completed it--would have certainly been the crowning achievement of Giacometti's career and his most famous public work. Giacometti was in his family home in 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.

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. 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. By May 1959 Giacometti's conception of the project had crystallized in his mind, and he determined that he would use the three main elements in his figural repertory: there would be at least one standing woman and a walking man, and 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 and then quickly translated these ideas into full-size figures which he modeled in plaster (figs. 1-3).

In contrast to many of his standing women, Giacometti opened up the space between the arms and torso in each of the Grande femme debout figures as well as the present Femme Debout (Figurine), 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 full breasts, these works are 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. Unlike earlier representations of Annette, in which her face is framed by waves of hair, in the present work Giacometti is more interested in rendering the bone structure of her face, emphasizing the sharpness and expressiveness of her face.

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. Giacometti decided on his own that he could not fulfill the Chase Manhattan commission and did not submit these sculptures for Bunshaft's approval. 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. 4). 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).

(fig. 1) Plaster models in progress of Grande tête and Homme qui marche I in the artist's studio, 1960. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger.

(fig. 2) Plaster versions of a Grande tête, Grande femme debout II and IV in the artist's studio, 1960. Photograph by Patricia Matisse.

(fig. 3) 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.

(fig. 4) 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.

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