Left Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Homme (Apollon), conceived in 1929 and cast in 1954. Bronze with dark brown patina. Height 15½ in (39.3 cm); length 11 ¾ in (30 cm). Sold for

The Surrealist sculptures that put Alberto Giacometti on the map

Each with distinguished provenances, early male and female figures by the artist are reunited at auction

Upon hearing the name ‘Alberto Giacometti’, one typically envisions the legendary artist’s post-war works — commanding sculptures of elongated figures and busts. The Swiss visionary’s appreciation for the human form, however, began decades earlier upon moving to Paris. 

Giacometti relocated to the French capital in 1922 to train under sculptor Antoine Bourdelle at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. During this time his work adopted a more Cubist style, inspired by the likes of Constantin Brancusi and Pablo Picasso, as well as exposure to non-Western art.

Together with these influences, Giacometti also grew increasingly interested in existential philosophy, and by the late 1920s, he was forming a distinct visual language with his own abstract forms that held complex messages tied to universal themes of love, death, gender and sex. 

Alberto Giacometti in his studio, Paris, 1927. Photographer unknown. Photo © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (ADAGP, Paris), licensed in the UK by DACS, London 2022  Bridgeman Images
Alberto Giacometti in his studio, Paris, 1927. Photographer unknown. Photo: © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (ADAGP, Paris), licensed in the UK by DACS, London 2022 / Bridgeman Images

In 1930, the relatively unknown artist caught the attention of André Breton, a founder and leader of the Surrealist circle, responsible for Paris’s most radical art at the time. Under Breton, artists such as Salvador Dalí, Yves Tanguy and Max Ernst, as well as several prominent literary figures sought to eliminate distinctions between dream and reality, reason and madness, objectivity and subjectivity.

Although Giacometti’s Surrealist tenure was relatively short lived (in 1935, Breton would expel him from the group because his art was returning to representational figures) this period marked a pivotal moment in his career. 

Two masterful examples from Giacometti’s Surrealist period will feature in the 20th Century Evening Sale on 17 November at Christie’s New York. Both conceived in 1929, Homme (Apollon) and Femme couchée qui rêve come from two distinct collections, each with their own distinguished provenances. ‘This is an incredible opportunity to see these two works side by side,’ says Vanessa Fusco, Head of Impressionist & Modern Art, New York. ‘Seeing them together adds so much to your understanding of them individually.’

Alberto Giacometti, Letter to Pierre Matisse, 1947. © 2022 Alberto Giacometti Estate  Licensed by VAGA and ARS, New York
Alberto Giacometti, Letter to Pierre Matisse, 1947. © 2022 Alberto Giacometti Estate / Licensed by VAGA and ARS, New York

Offered by a member of the Matisse family, Homme (Apollon), cast in 1954, hails from the collection of Pierre Matisse who was Giacometti’s dealer in the United States and was instrumental in introducing American audiences to the European avant-garde. In an extant letter that the artist wrote to Pierre Matisse, diagrams of both Homme (Apollon) and Femme couchée qui rêve are illustrated.

‘I saw anew the bodies that attracted me in reality and the abstract forms which seemed to me true in sculpture, but I wanted to create the former without losing the latter…’ — Alberto Giacometti, ‘Letter to Pierre Matisse’ 1947

Cast in 1959, Femme couchée qui rêve was acquired by a separate owner around 1960 and has similarly spanned generations of the same family. What makes this sculpture especially remarkable is that not only is it appearing at auction for the first time, but it is also believed to be the only cast of this edition remaining in private hands. 

Casts of Homme (Apollon) and Femme couchée qui rêve can be found in museum collections, including the Fondation Alberto Giacometti, Paris, Alberto Giacometti Stiftung, Zurich, and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. 

Further demonstrating the significance of these sculptures, the first major article published about Giacometti included photographs of their plasters. The article appeared in the Surrealist periodical Documents in 1929.

The plasters of Homme (Apollon) and Femme couchée qui rêve photographed in Giacometti’s studio and featured in Documents, no. 4, 1929. Photograph by Marc Vaux. Artwork © 2022 Alberto Giacometti Estate  Licensed by VAGA and ARS, New York
The plasters of Homme (Apollon) and Femme couchée qui rêve photographed in Giacometti’s studio and featured in Documents, no. 4, 1929. Photograph by Marc Vaux. Artwork: © 2022 Alberto Giacometti Estate / Licensed by VAGA and ARS, New York

The works’ compositional structures also play a key role in understanding the development of the artist’s later sculptures. Annabel Matterson, Head of Research for the Impressionist & Modern Art department, explains: ‘In terms of how Giacometti conveys gender through the rest of his career, when you approach his sculptures of the late 1940s onwards, the male figure tends to be active, pointing or moving, for example, while his depictions of women are often more static and hieratic. Here, you get the same sense that the Homme is upright and active, and the reclining Femme is passive.’

In Homme (Apollon), alternating vertical and horizontal bars evoke legs, ribs and a central spine, demonstrating a new skeletal lightness crucial to Giacometti’s artistic development. With its radically reduced framework and lack of a single viewpoint — elements that would become a hallmark of the work produced during Giacometti’s association with the Surrealists — this work makes a definitive break from traditional sculpture.

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Homme (Apollon), conceived in 1929 and cast in 1954. Bronze with dark brown patina. Height 15½ in (39.3 cm); length 11 ¾ in (30 cm). Sold for $2,580,000 in 20th Century Evening Sale on 17 November 2022 at Christie’s in New York
Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Homme (Apollon), conceived in 1929 and cast in 1954. Bronze with dark brown patina. Height: 15½ in (39.3 cm); length: 11 ¾ in (30 cm). Sold for $2,580,000 in 20th Century Evening Sale on 17 November 2022 at Christie’s in New York

Whereas the male composition is about verticality and erectness, and the title associates the figure with Apollo, the god of rationality and the sun, the female’s composition is extremely complex by comparison. Fusco explains: ‘The handling of the bronze itself is very important. The two curvaceous planes represent a technical feat because they are very thin and juxtaposed with the vertical beams that comprise the form.’ 

Femme couchée qui rêve has a clearly delineated front, but the artist is beginning to engage with alternate views (such as the work’s back and profile) to create a more engaging, interactive viewing experience. The female figure’s association with the nocturnal and dreaming reflects yet another Surrealist preoccupation.

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Femme couchée qui rêve, conceived in 1929 and cast in 1959. Bronze with dark brown patina. Height 9¼ in (23.4 cm); length 16¾ in (42 cm). Sold for $3,780,000 in 20th Century Evening Sale on 17 November 2022 at Christie’s in New York
Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Femme couchée qui rêve, conceived in 1929 and cast in 1959. Bronze with dark brown patina. Height: 9¼ in (23.4 cm); length: 16¾ in (42 cm). Sold for $3,780,000 in 20th Century Evening Sale on 17 November 2022 at Christie’s in New York

‘With these works, Giacometti reimagined the human form in a novel symbolic primordial visual language,’ describes Matterson. ‘These Surrealist sculptures are still rooted in the physicality of the archetypal male and female, which is what Giacometti continues to investigate, albeit in a very different manner, for the rest of his career. It’s with these works that Giacometti found his footing within the art world, which would propel him for the rest of his career.’

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