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Buste d'homme et deux figures, de face et de profil

Buste d'homme et deux figures, de face et de profil
oil on canvas
18 1/8 x 14 7/8 in. (46 x 37.7 cm.)
Painted circa 1954
Louis-Gabriel Clayeux, Paris.
Private collection, France.
Galerie Beyeler, Basel (acquired from the above).
Private collection, Europe (acquired from the above, July 1978); sale, Christie's, London, 28 February 2017, lot 32.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
The Alberto Giacometti Database, no. 1698.
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Petits formats, May-July 1978, no. 60 (illustrated in color; titled Buste de Diego).

Lot Essay

Giacometti painted this Buste d'homme et deux figures, de face et de profil circa 1954, the same time that he completed Diego en chemise écossaise, widely regarded as the most impressive portrait he created of his brother and favorite model (sold at Christie’s New York in 2013, where it achieved the still record sum at auction for any painting by this artist). The latter work is one of a series of major portraits that Giacometti realized during the mid-1950s – others depict his wife Annette, the writer Jean Genet, the artist’s collectors Peter Watson and G. David Thompson. These classic works constitute a definitive statement of Giacometti’s achievement as a painter.
Buste d'homme et deux figures, de face et de profil represents another aspect of Giacometti’s production during this significant period, paintings in smaller formats that embody and record the day-to-day efforts of the artist at his easel. In works of this kind, Giacometti most clearly revealed his method-intensely inward, intuitive, probing, improvisational, exploratory, and unflinchingly self-critical - as he pitted the skill of his technique, assessing after each sitting the authority of the result, against the vision of the likeness, that sense of a real presence, which he perceived in his mind’s eye and held up as his goal.
‘The visionary quality that Giacometti wanted to convey is not of the fleeting impression,’ Christian Klemm has written. ‘Rather, it was the essential presence of the human being, as it appears to the artist, that he sought to grasp… And this he wanted to capture as a momentary experience, as in an epiphany: “to create [Giacometti declared] a complete whole all at once”’ (exh. cat., Alberto Giacometti, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001, p. 222). This outcome, as the artist would eventually and freely concede, was impossible to achieve. ‘From the mid-1950s on,’ David Sylvester observed, ‘the paintings and sculptures alike became increasingly expressive of the difficulties in making them’ (Looking at Giacometti, New York, 1994, p. 82).
The serious admirer of Giacometti’s oeuvre may discover in Buste d'homme et deux figures, de face et de profil a revelatory experience of this private, existential drama. A painting of this kind is perhaps the only means left to the viewer today to enter into the complex, doubt-driven, and often anguished thinking of Giacometti’s creative genius. ‘His procedure turns into a stubborn, furious pursuit of a prey which escapes him or a shadow which he rejects,’ Jacques Dupin wrote. ‘The closer he comes to the truth of the object, the more he deepens the gulf which separates him from it, the more he feels and communicates the acute feelings of his difference and separation’ (Giacometti: Three Essays, New York, 2003, p. 11).
The tactile aspect of the surface, the sheer accumulation of paint on this canvas, are evidence that Giacometti worked on the present lot over an extended period of time, in repeated sessions, as he set down layers of transient imagery that only X-ray analysis may someday bring to light. The artist painted on a no. 8 figure canvas, the same size he selected for a portrait of his physician and close friend, Dr Théodore Fraenkel, which he also completed around this time. The impromptu oil study that appears on the unprimed reverse may depict the doctor’s head. Giacometti perhaps began working on the present picture as a portrait of his friend; both compositions are weighted heavily along the lower edge, tonally, and in the thickest application of paint.
Another possibility is especially intriguing: Giacometti may have conceived this canvas as an atelier composition, employing an arrangement of sculptures chosen from among the plaster models he had then been working on, or kept at hand in his cramped studio. The lower, central portion of this painting is thick with clotted pigment, the detritus of pentimenti left behind from numerous forays at the easel. The effect is akin to the dense build-up of matière that Jean Fautrier incorporated into his famous wartime ‘hostage’ paintings, Georges Braque in his late compositions, including his own Atelier series, as well as the Art Informel textures of Jean Dubufet and other contemporaries.
This Buste d'homme et deux figures, de face et de profil, then, may not be a painted portrait of the artist’s brother, but actually a representation in oil of one of the sculptures that Giacometti modelled on Diego after 1950, when he returned to working from a live model, to study the presence of the head, bust, and figure as they exist in real space. The sculpture Giacometti chose to showcase in this composition is possibly Tête de Diego au col roulé, 1951, or among more recent plasters, perhaps Diego au manteaux, 1953, or even one of the wide-base busts, modelled like Alpine crags, with heads cut thinly along the sides, such as Diego au blouson, 1953 or the well-known Grande tête mince, 1954.
The rubbed and overpainted area in the upper half of the canvas suggests that Giacometti first painted this plaster model in a larger size. The ascending curve of raised texture to the left of Diego’s visage is likely the pigment that comprised this original head, which Giacometti subsequently scraped to the side. Along the left edge he painted one of the tabletop-sized figures of Annette, modelled during 1953-1954, that anticipate the celebrated Femmes de Venise of 1956. The female profile on the right side, with an extended arm that appears to rest on Diego’s shoulder, may be the figure which Giacometti set atop Chariot, cast in 1951-1952.
Having erased the image of the large plaster head, Giacometti concluded work on this canvas by returning to the very beginning of his creative process, by drawing with paint into this void a smaller visage of Diego, with the contours of his shoulders – whether as the sculpture, or the man himself, we cannot be certain. A spectral rendering of Diego’s white facial highlights mysteriously hovers overhead, like a disembodied spirit, an astral projection. An aura of pale paint emanates from each of the three figures, which emerge like apparitions summoned forth from the darkness of a room, or the twilight of memory.
Buste d'homme et deux figures, de face et de profil, as Giacometti completed this painting, resembles an actual wall in his studio, a space covered with an ever-thickening grey film of dust, plaster, and paint, with surfaces fissured and pock-marked, illuminated here and there with the artist’s painted studies and drawn graffiti. The artist painted on this canvas, within the confines of the frame outline he customarily sketched around the edges of every composition, only several objects. These elements resonate, however, as phenomena in multiple guises, within complex dimensions of time and space, as if Giacometti had attempted here ‘to create a complete whole all at once.’

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