Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)
Property of a Private French Collector
Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)

Tête noire (Portrait de Diego)

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)
Tête noire (Portrait de Diego)
signed and dated 'Alberto Giacometti. 1957.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
39 5/8 x 25 5/8 in. (100.2 x 65.2 cm.)
Painted in 1957-1962
Marguerite and Aimé Maeght, Paris (by 1970); sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 27 October 1982, lot 32.
Galerie Jan Krugier, Geneva.
Joanne Toor Cummings, New York (circa 1983).
Francis Lombrail, Paris (acquired from the above, 1997).
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner.
Y. Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of His Work, Paris, 1991, p. 428, no. 410 (illustrated; dated 1957).
The Alberto Giacometti Database, no. 3708.
New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, Giacometti: Sculpture, Paintings and Drawings from 1956 to 1958, May 1958.
Venice, Esposizione Biennale Internazionale d'Arte: 31, June-October 1962.
Kunsthaus Zürich, Alberto Giacometti, December 1962-January 1963.
Rome, Mostra all'Accademia di Francia, Villa Medici, Alberto Giacometti, October-December 1970, p. 32, no. 17 (illustrated; titled Testa and dated 1957).
Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Fondation Maeght, Alberto Giacometti, July-September, 1978, p. 196, no. 160 (illustrated, p. 135; titled Buste de Diego and dated 1957).
Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Fondation Maeght, L'univers d'Aimé et Marguerite Maeght, July-October 1982, p. 264, no. 69 (titled Tête noire and dated 1957).

Lot Essay

“The head is what matters. The rest of the body plays the part of antennae making life possible for people and life itself is inside the skull.” (Alberto Giacometti; quoted in Y. Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of his Work, Paris, 1991, p. 377)

Three distinct painted images, and the many interim steps that led from one state to the next, comprise the powerful, compelling Tête noire (“Dark” or “Black Head”) that Alberto Giacometti rendered on this canvas of his beloved and devoted brother Diego. This picture as we view it today was five years in the making. The artist began this work as a half-length seated portrait of the Japanese professor of philosophy Isaku Yanaihara during their second series of portrait sessions in the summer of 1957. The sitter photographed the painting while it was in progress.
Having completed the portrait by the end of that year, Giacometti signed and dated the canvas. By the time he had it shipped to New York, however, for inclusion in his third solo exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, scheduled to open in May 1958, he had drastically altered the appearance of the canvas from the state in which Yanaihara had last seen it. Reduced in height, the sitter occupied the lower half only of the composition, with his back to a vastly tall, undefined space. Following the return of the portrait to Paris, the artist again reworked the canvas—no longer as Yanaihara, but as Diego. Having determined that he had taken this new version as far as he felt necessary or possible, Giacometti ceased work on it in 1962. Despite the change in identity of his sitter, and in most every other aspect of the painting’s original conception above the subject’s folded hands, Giacometti nevertheless let stand the original signature and applied date. He showed the painting as such in his solo exhibition at the 1962 Venice Biennale, as well as in his retrospective at the Kunsthaus Zürich later that year.
Like a palimpsest, an ancient parchment erased and overwritten with successive texts, but still showing tantalizing vestiges of the original content, the head of Yanaihara lurks like a specter within the strata of the artist’s successive applications of paint—still visible to the eye below Diego’s collar—haunting the portrait that Giacometti completed as his brother. Set down over a protracted period of time, these tell-tale traces track the crucial transformation in Giacometti’s approach to creating a portrait that took place during the late 1950s and anticipated the intensity of his expressionism during the final period of the early 1960s. Several years before the artist commenced painting this head as Yanaihara, he had completed Diego en chemise écossaise, as formally classicized a portrait as he ever painted after 1950, in which he employed elements of architectural perspective to establish the spatial environment, while projecting Diego’s presence in rounded, volumetric forms. His aim had been, as the artist stated, “to create a complete whole all at once” (quoted in Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001, p. 222).
The seated Yanaihara that Giacometti signed and dated in 1957—still visible in the slender strands of black paint in the lower, exposed portion of the canvas—would eventually give way to an alternative, even opposing conception of the human presence in space. While continuing to work from life, as he done since 1950, with his model seated before him, Giacometti became increasingly absorbed with the necessity of entering into a visionary perception of experience, an epiphany of his visualization of reality, in which he would draw upon his powers of memory and imagination. He described an experience of this kind in The Dream, The Sphinx, and the Death of T., a text he wrote in 1946, just as he was about to embark on the attenuated, weightless figures that within several years would bring him international renown: “I had begun to see heads in the void, in the space that surrounded them. The first time I saw the head I was looking at completely closed in, immobilized within an instant… That was no longer a living head, it was a thing I looked at like any other thing… There was no longer any rapport between things; they were separated by endless abysses of space” (quoted in R. Hohl, ed., Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, Ostfildern, 1998, pp. 116-117).
Isaku Yanaihara first arrived from Tokyo in 1955 to study at the Sorbonne the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, who suggested that he meet Giacometti. The professor and the artist got along well; the following year, Giacometti accepted Yanaihara’s commission for a portrait, the sessions for which commenced that fall. Numerous further sittings took place when Yanaihara returned to Paris the following summer, during which Giacometti began the present portrait. In this painting and in other versions, however, Giacometti became consumed with doubt, an oppressive uncertainty that he attributed to the inadequacy of his way of seeing and the means he employed to represent the truth of his sensations before the subject. A similarly chronic crisis of confidence had famously beset Cézanne, all the more contributing to the latter’s exemplary, legendary status among modern painters. In session after session, as Giacometti painted, scrubbed out, and reworked the image on the canvas, Yanaihara’s features refused to take on that presence he was seeking—“the complete whole all at once”—leaving the subject awash in a formless fog of gray paint.
The way out of this morass, Giacometti decided, was to make a virtue of his predicament—that is, he should accept the void, while concentrating on the head itself. Diego as Tête noire is the compacted energy and space of the human presence, like a black hole (a scientific discovery of the late 1960s and early 70s), emitting but mere flashes of light, denoting the veins in Diego’s forehead, the line and tip of his nose, lower lip, and chin. “Notice how the multiple lines that he draws are inside the form depicted,” Sartre explained. “All these lines are centripetal… The face seems to be contracting under the influence of an astringent substance, giving the impression that in five minutes it will be the size of your fist, like a shrunken head” (“The Paintings of Giacometti,” 1954; in Alberto Giacometti: The Origin of Space, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, 2010, pp. 240-241).
As perfect in conception and execution as a Cézanne apple, this dark fruit of a head is—as in Giacometti’s epiphany of 1946—“immobilized within an instant,” compressed into a riveting presence by the tremendous force of the surrounding void, pushing in from all sides. Or conversely, this head appears to dematerialize into a mysterious dark aura that dissolves outward into space. The fragility and tenuousness of its painted construction notwithstanding, there is the semblance of certainty in this Tête noir, an assurance of the strength to endure, the ability and resolve to stare into and far beyond the face of death, into eternity, like a Byzantine icon. “In the portraits of Diego, from which all ordinary likeness has disappeared, one senses considerable disquiet, as well as great energy, in the scrutiny of the sitter’s presence, as though Alberto found in Diego a source of anxiety,” Yves Bonnefoy wrote. “In the presence of someone who is, as it were, his double, Giacometti more than ever is witness to the mystery of existence, like Hamlet thinking of Yorick, in front of a skull in the dust” (Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 2012, pp. 426 and 432).
“To me, it is as if reality were constantly hidden behind veils, which one after another have to be tossed aside…and behind each of them another and then another. Yet, I still believe or imagine that I make progress every day. This is what drives me, as if it really was about understanding the essence of life. And so I go on, knowing that the closer I get, the further away the ‘real’ issue will be. The distance between me and the model is in fact growing all the time; the closer I get the more distant my subject. It is an unending quest(quoted in Cezanne & Giacometti: Paths of Doubt, exh. cat., Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, 2008, p. 258).

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