‘When I saw her for the first time, I was shocked,’ says specialist Pierre Martin-Vivier of his first glimpse of Alberto Giacometti’s Grande femme II. ‘It was in a large living room in a country house, and completely dominated the space.
‘What struck me above all is its majesty,’ the director of 20th Century Art at Christie’s in Paris continues. ‘It was as though I was in front of a statue from Chartres, or an African totem. And the detail is incredible. The surface is very irregular, and it moves with the light.’
Offered in Christie’s Paris Avant-Garde auction on 19 October, Grande Femme II achieved a record €25 million, becoming the most expensive work of art sold in France in 2017.
Giacometti produced four Grande femme sculptures (numbered I to IV) in 1960 for a commission which, had it been seen to completion, would have perhaps been the crowning achievement of his career.
That year, Giacometti had been asked by architect Gordon Bunshaft to create a sculpture for the plaza in front of Chase Manhattan Bank’s New York headquarters. Although Giacometti had never been to New York, the artist agreed to the project, settling on a design that included one standing woman (Femme debout) one walking man (Homme qui marche), and a large head of a man (Grande tête). Giacometti had worked on outdoor sculptures since the early 1930s, fascinated by the human figure in space. He was also interested in answering a different question: ‘I always had a sneaking desire to know what I could make as large as possible,’ Giacometti would later explain.
As he began to appreciate the immensity of New York and its skyscrapers, however, Giacometti came to understand that his figures would have to be much larger than he originally intended. Giacometti did not want the figures to dominate the square, or for passers-by to feel small in comparison. Above all, he did not want to create a sculpture impressive only for its size.
‘Initially the architect asked for a sculpture 20 metres high,’ says Martin-Vivier. ‘That appeared totally impossible to Giacometti. He always worked with what he could see, and he simply could not envision a figure of this size. Giacometti wanted to show things as they really were, as he saw them. He wanted to do away with the “intellectual” in order to hit at what was purely based on the senses. For him, a 20-metre statue — seven times the size of Grand Femme II — would be pure decoration, not real representation.’
Ultimately, Giacometti produced no fewer than 10 versions of Grande Femme and almost 40 of Homme qui marche without getting the results he wanted. Eventually, he abandoned the commission.
Still, Giacometti did not abandon the sculptures, three of which would be exhibited at the Pierre Matisse gallery in New York. In 1962, the Grande tête, two versions of Homme qui marche and two more of Grande femme were installed at the Venice Biennale. In 1964, the figures were installed at the Maeght Foundation in St-Paul-de Vence, France. With time, these works would take their place among the artist’s most iconic pieces.
‘Objects like these are very rare — only 10 versions of Grande Femme II were ever produced,’ confirms Martin-Vivier. ‘One is at the Pompidou in Paris, another at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and one is at the Maeght Foundation. This is the largest and most balanced of Giacometti’s largest works. With this piece, we’re on the order of the sacred — there’s something almost religious about it.’