Perhaps no other work in Alberto Giacometti’s oeuvre embodies in such poignant, powerful terms the essential fragility and inherent solitude of the human experience. Conceived in 1950 and cast a year later, Homme qui chavire is a work of exquisite grace and compelling pathos, picturing a man in the split second before he either succumbs to gravity’s inexorable pull and falls to the ground, or conversely, rises from the bounds of the earth to ascend upwards. As Christian Klemm has written, ‘Giacometti's Homme qui chavire was in fact to become a central icon in the Existentialist view of his work. This sculpture, one of his slenderest, most fragile figures, seems about to topple from its small, cylindrical pedestal. Yet holds it position by throwing the head back ecstatically; it seems to emerge straight out of Sartre’s Nausea or Camus’ The Stranger in an extreme moment when the ground seems to open to the choice of life or death. Homme qui chavire is a human being in precisely the situation in which his transcendental destiny becomes apparent’ (in Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001, p. 184).
There are six recorded examples of Homme qui chavire, with other casts now held in museums including the Kunsthaus, Zurich, Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, and Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence. As the Tate’s recent 2017 catalogue points out, the position of the arms of Homme qui chavire varies significantly from casting to casting. ‘The Zurich version of the figure is notable for the drooping right arm; in other versions this arm is either outstretched or bent at the elbow’ (P. Büttner, in L. Fritsch and F. Morris, eds., Giacometti, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2017, p. 50). There are frequently variations in the position of the limbs and other elements of Giacometti’s sculptures as minor adjustments were made both during the process of casting at the foundry and after the bronzes had been released. These variations fall well within the parameters of Giacometti’s working method and make each cast a unique variant.
Homme qui chavire is one of the greatest of Giacometti's now iconic sculptural type of elongated, attenuated figures that emerged after the end of the Second World War. The artist returned to Paris from Geneva in the autumn of 1945, carrying with him just six matchboxes that contained the sum of his wartime work: a group of tiny plaster heads and figures. Back in Paris, he vowed not to let his sculptures diminish in size any further, turning to the practice of drawing continuously in an attempt to model taller figures. Giacometti recalled, ‘In 1945 I swore to myself that I didn't want to let my figures get smaller and smaller, not even by an inch. But now the following happened: I could maintain the height, but they started to get narrow…tall...and thin as a thread.’ The artist noticed that, ‘You don't feel your weight. I wanted – without having thought about it – to reproduce this lightness, and that by making the body so thin’ (quoted in R. Hohl, Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, Stuttgart, 1998, pp. 108 and 125).
Soon after his return to Paris, Giacometti made a revelatory discovery in a Montparnasse cinema. During the film he became suddenly and acutely aware of the difference between figures portrayed in fictional images and those experienced in real life, ‘From that day on, because I had realised the difference between my way of seeing in the street and the way things are seen in photography and film – I wanted to represent what I saw. Only from 1946 have I been able to perceive the distance that allows people to appear as they really are and not in their natural size’ (quoted in A. Schneider, ed., Alberto Giacometti: Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, Munich and New York, 1984, p. 65).
This experience irrevocably altered Giacometti’s sculptural practice. He no longer sought to model an image that corresponded to a memory or to any prior knowledge of what it should or should not look like, but instead became fixated upon the reproduction of the reality that he could observe in front of him. As a result, when modelling his figures, Giacometti attempted to tackle representation as though for the first time, relying uniquely on his sense of perception, rather than on traditional convention or academic techniques. From 1947 onwards, his figures soared vertically; enlarged and drastically elongated, the clay stretched, modelled and manipulated to its farthest limit as he reduced the human form to its barest components. Working intensively in preparation for his landmark 1948 exhibition at Pierre Matisse’s gallery in New York, Giacometti created works including L’homme qui marche, L’homme au doigt and Femme debout.
Unlike his other depictions of the male figure, in which man appears active, purposeful, perfectly balanced, and grounded, striding determinedly towards his destiny, the present work is graced with a novel sense of spontaneity, picturing an unplanned, chance movement suspended in time. Yves Bonnefoy has suggested that the fall captured so poetically in Homme qui chavire was inspired by an accident that had befallen the artist some years earlier, in 1938, when a car driven by a drunk American woman ran over his right foot, crushing it, and knocking him down.
Yet, rendering this action with a calligraphic, near-balletic elegance Giacometti has transcended any exact event to create a figure which, with its head thrown back and arms rounding in an expansive arc, inhabits a universal form of human experience, at once physical and metaphysical. In essence, Homme qui chavire shows how we are victims of chance, our will ultimately futile amid the unpredictable, unknowable cosmic expanse of the universe. Seen alone, without the unknown yet comforting companions that appeared in other works of this time – La Place or Trois hommes qui marchent for example – Homme qui chavire is the embodiment not only of Giacometti’s defining sculptural practice, but of the existentialist experience of modern life. ‘Vertigo announces itself through fear’, Sartre wrote in Being and Nothingness, ‘I am on a narrow path – without a guard rail – which goes along a precipice. The precipice presents itself to me as to be avoided; it represents a danger of death’ (quoted in S. Wilson, ‘Paris Post War: In Search of the Absolute,’ in F. Morris, Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism, 1945-1955, exh. cat., Tate Britain, London, 1993, p. 37).
Homme qui chavire was formerly in the collection of the American artist Lillian H. Florsheim (1896-1988). Born in New Orleans, Florsheim began studying art in Chicago in the late 1940s, after divorcing from her husband. She soon became interested in abstract art, creating sculptures with wire, and later plexiglass and plastic, akin to the teachings and technique pioneered by Moholy-Nagy. It was also at this time that Florsheim began to build a collection of art by other artists. In line with her own artistic interests, she acquired non-representational works of Cubism, De Stijl and Abstraction-Création artists, including Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo, and Georges Vantongerloo, all of whom she knew personally. Through the 1960s, Florsheim’s reputation as an artist grew, as she held shows of her work across America and beyond. Florsheim acquired Homme qui chavire in December 1951, from one of Giacometti's most important dealers, Galerie Maeght. It remained in her collection for the rest of her life, before being sold by her family in 1998, when it was acquired by the present owner.