‘The movement is so unexpected and so expressive’ — Alberto Giacometti’s Homme qui chavire

Coming to the market for the first time in more than 20 years, Homme qui chavire is a dramatic variation on the elongated figures created by the Swiss sculptor after the Second World War, and a poetic expression of the human condition

In the autumn of 1945, Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) left his war-time refuge in Geneva and returned to Paris, where his future wife and favourite model, Annette, would join him.

Abandoning the Surrealist works that had made his name in the early 1930s, he had returned to figurative representation during the war, sculpting plaster heads and figures that were so small they fitted into matchboxes.

That would soon change, however.

In 1946, while watching a film in a cinema on the Boulevard Montparnasse, the artist realised that the way he saw people on the street was very different from the way they were portrayed in photography and film — and, as he later explained, ‘I wanted to represent what I saw.’

His figures were already getting thinner. Now they grew taller as well, soaring to life-size heights of up to two metres and beyond — resembling, as Giacometti said, not so much the human figure, but ‘the shadow that is cast’.

‘You don’t feel your weight,’ he noted. ‘I wanted — without having thought about it — to reproduce this lightness, by making the body so thin.’

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Homme qui chavire. Conceived in 1950; this work cast by Alexis Rudier in 1951. Bronze with brown patina. Height: 23⅜ in (59.3 cm). Sold for £13,703,000 on 30 June 2021 at Christie’s in London

Giacometti exhibited a new body of work in 1948 at the Pierre Matisse gallery in New York, including L’homme qui marche (Walking Man), Femme debout (Standing Woman)  and L’homme au doigt (Pointing Man) — which fetched a record $141 million in 2015 at Christie’s in New York.

‘Homme qui chavire is very beautiful. A complete surprise. And so poignant’ — Pierre Matisse

The show was so successful that Matisse organised another in 1950, this time exhibiting Trois hommes qui marchent, Le Chariot  and a new male figure that Giacometti had initially conceived as a drawing and described in a letter to Matisse as ‘un homme qui chavire’.

Homme qui chavire  is very beautiful,’ Matisse replied. ‘A complete surprise. And so poignant. The movement is so unexpected and so expressive.’

The figure was surprising in that, unlike the artist’s other male figures, which are depicted as purposeful and grounded (and often presented in groups), Homme qui chavire  is vulnerable and alone: suspended in time at a moment when he might either continue to fall or recover his balance. 

The fall may have been inspired by an accident in 1938, when a car drove over Giacometti’s right foot, knocking him down. Yet it transcends any specific event to take on a metaphysical meaning that resonated strongly with the Existentialists.

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As Christian Klemm wrote in the catalogue for the Giacometti exhibition at New York’s MoMA in 2001, the figure ‘seems to emerge straight out of Sartre’s Nausea  or Camus’s The Stranger  in an extreme moment when the ground seems to open to the choice of life or death’.

Homme qui chavire  is one of an edition of six, with other casts in museums including the Kunsthaus Zürich, the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris and the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence.

Formerly in the collection of the American artist Lillian H. Florsheim, Homme qui chavire  comes to market for the first time in more than 20 years.

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