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Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)
Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)

La forêt

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)
La forêt
signed, numbered and stamped with foundry mark 'A. Giacometti 5/6 Alexis Rudier Fondeur. Paris' (on the base)
painted bronze
Height: 23 in. (58.4 cm.)
Executed in 1950
Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York.
The Milton D. Ratner Family Collection, Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Private Collection, Switzerland (acquired from the above, by 1977).
Thomas Gibson Fine Art Ltd., London.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
P. Bucarelli, Alberto Giacometti, Rome, 1962, p. 78 (another cast illustrated, no. 44).
J. Dupin and E. Scheidegger, Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 1962, p. 257 (another cast illustrated).
C. Huber, Alberto Giacometti, Lausanne, 1970, p. 74 (another cast illustrated).
W. Rotzler and M. Adelmann, Alberto Giacometti, Bern, 1970, pl. 5 (another cast illustrated).
R. Hohl, Alberto Giacometti: Sculpture, Painting, Drawing, London, 1972, p. 124 (another cast illustrated).
H.H. Arnason, History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, New York, 1978, no. 644 (another cast illustrated).
B. Lamarche-Vadel, Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 1984, p. 130 (another cast illustrated, fig. 184).
C. Juliet, Giacometti, Paris, 1985, pp. 71-72 (another cast illustrated).
H. and M. Matter, Giacometti, New York, 1988, pp. 76 and 84-87 (another cast illustrated).
Y. Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti, A Biography of His Work, Paris, 1991, pp. 104 and 350 (another cast illustrated in color, figs. 96 and 324).
T.B. Jelloun, Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 1991, p. 61 (another cast illustrated).
Sale Room Notice
Exhibited: Venice, XXXI Biennale Internazionale d'Arte di Venezia, 1962.
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Alberto Giacometti: A Retrospective Exhibition, 1974, another painted cast illustrated, number 59, page 90.

Lot Essay

Between 1948 and 1950, Giacometti executed a series of multi-figure compositions that comprise some of the undisputed masterpieces of his career (fig. 1). Their constituent elements are culled from the trademark iconography of Giacometti's post-war oeuvre: the standing woman, the striding man, and the disembodied bust. The last multi-figure compositions that Giacometti ever completed, the works from this period represent the artist's most sustained and searching exploration of themes that preoccupied him throughout his life: sexual difference, urban space, and the structural conditions of vision. In 1960, Giacometti planned a monumental sculptural group for the plaza of the Chase Manhattan Bank building in New York, which would have brought together for the first time all three motifs represented in the earlier compositions; he remained dissatisfied with the grouping of the figures, however, and abandoned the project shortly before his death.

The present work, which consists of seven female figures and a bust, dates to the spring of 1950. In a letter to Pierre Matisse, the artist described the genesis of the composition:

Every day during the months of March and April...I made three figures (studies) of different dimensions and some heads. I stopped without quite getting what I was looking for, but was incapable of destroying the figures, which were still standing up, or of leaving them isolated and lost in space. I started a composition with three figures and a head, a composition which got made almost despite myself (or, rather, it was done before I'd thought about it) [fig. 2]... A few days later, in looking at the other figures, which, in order to clear the table, had been placed on the floor at random, I perceived that they formed two groups which seemed to correspond with what I was looking for [fig. 3 and the present work]. I set up the two groups on bases just as they'd been and, while I worked on the figures afterwards, I never altered either their position or their size. (quoted in D. Sylvester, Thirteen Bronzes by Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., Thomas Gibson Fine Art Ltd., London, 1977, pp. 26-28)

The conventional title of the present work, La forêt, was inspired by another statement that Giacometti made to Pierre Matisse, in which he compared the sculpture with the woods around his hometown of Stampa, "The Composition with Seven Figures and a Head reminded me of the corner of a forest, seen over many years during my childhood, where trees with naked slender trunks (limbless almost to their tops and behind which there were granite boulders) had always seemed to me like people stopped in their tracks and talking amongst themselves" (fig. 4; quoted in ibid., p. 30). As James Lord has noted, the concept of trees as sensible beings is age-old, and vestiges of worship of tree spirits have persisted to the present day in various places, including the English village where Isabelle Lambert [Giacometti's one-time lover] was later to reside (J. Lord, Giacometti: A Biography, New York, 1983, p. 308). Moreover, the countryside of Stampa, with its gnarled trees and rocky crevasses, seems to be reflected in the present work in the craggy and well-worked surface of the figurines.

A second possibility is that the composition of La forêt was suggested by Giacometti's experiences in the brothels of Paris. Discussing another multi-figure work from 1950, Quatre figurines sur socle (fig. 5), Giacometti recalled that it had been prompted by the sight of four women at Le Sphinx, a Montparnasse brothel that he is known to have frequented, "Several naked women seen at the Sphinx while I was seated at the end of the room. The distance which separated us (the polished floor) which seemed to me impassable in spite of my desire to cross it, impressed me as much as the women" (quoted in Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1996, p. 165). Likewise, in La forêt, a man seems to survey seven naked women who stand before him. The man is disembodied, his eyes wide and staring, his sole attribute the possession of the gaze; the women are fixed and immobile, passive objects of male scrutiny. Just as the interplay of desire and distance informed Giacometti's recollection of his experience at Le Sphinx, so too does it govern the structure of the present work. On the one hand, the female figures exude an undeniable sense of physicality. Their oversized feet anchor them firmly to the ground, while their cracked and striated skins (what Sartre called "this whole lunar orography") suggest ravaged flesh; the touches of paint used to articulate their lips, breasts, and genitals endow them with an element of frank eroticism. At the same time, however, the women are insistently remote and unattainable, their postures frontal and hieratic, bodies weightless and incorporeal. They seem to function at the same time as objects of desire and devotion, a dichotomy that Giacometti himself explicitly acknowledged, "When I am walking in the street and see a whore from a distance, all dressed, I see a whore. When she is in the room and naked before me, I see a goddess" (quoted in J. Lord, op. cit., p. 227).

Giacometti's use of the word goddess suggests that inspiration for his female figures may have been drawn from an unexpected source: the art of antiquity. During his early years in Paris, Giacometti is known to have spent every Sunday, when admission was free, at the Louvre, copying the works that impressed him most - in particular, the idols of Old Kingdom Egypt and the prehistoric Cycladic islands. Reinhold Hohl has noted a parallel between works like La forêt and the rows of small Egyptian burial figures that Giacometti would have seen in the cabinets of the Louvre. Still more striking is the affinity between Giacometti's female figurines and marble statuettes from the Cyclades, probably fertility figures or representations of the Great Mother. The statuettes depict nude women standing stiffly erect and rigidly frontal, their heads held high; although small of stature and stylized in the extreme, the idols exude a commanding presence, an almost numinous aura, that seems to imbue Giacometti's waif-like figures as well.

A reading of La forêt as a depiction of the act of viewing, of a man watching seven women in a room, is consistent with Giacometti's well-established interest in phenomenological problems within the field of vision - specifically, in the tension created by the physical and perceptual distance that separates viewer and viewed. Asked about the gaunt, elongated proportions of his figures in the post-war period, Giacometti explained them as part of his effort to sculpt the human body not as he knew it to be but as he actually saw it - that is, at a distance. A figure viewed from afar, he pointed out, appears pronouncedly thin and as a consequence relatively tall; he criticized both Rodin and Houdon for sculpting life-size figures, and claimed, "The works that I find the most true to reality are those that are considered the least..." (quoted in M. Matter, Alberto Giacometti, New York, 1987, p. 211). Giacometti dated his awareness of this paradox to a day in 1945:

That day, reality took on a completely new value for me; it became the unknown, but an enchanted unknown. From that day on, because I had realized 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 D. Honisch, "Scale in Giacometti's Sculpture", in A. Schneider, ed., Alberto Giacometti: Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, Munich, 1994, p. 65).

Jean-Paul Sartre provided a clear explication of Giacometti's dilemma on the occasion of the artist's first one-man exhibition after the war, "...when [sculptors] worked from nature, instead of rendering what they saw - that is to say, the model, ten paces off - they outlined in clay what they knew to be there - that is to say, the model. As they wanted their statue to give a spectator standing ten feet off from it the impression they had experienced before the model, it seemed to them logical to make a figure which would be for the spectator what the model had been for them; and that was only possible if the marble were here as the model were there. But what does it mean to be 'as it is' and 'there'? At ten paces, I form a certain image of that nude woman; if I approach her, and regard her from up close, I no longer recognize her: these craters, tunnels, cracks, this rough black hair, these smooth shiny could all these qualities go to compose the sleek fresh skin that I admired from far off? What is it then that the sculptor ought to imitate? However close he comes to this face, one can approach closer still. Thus the statue will never truly resemble what the model is or what the sculptor sees..." (J.-P. Sartre, "The Search for the Absolute," in Alberto Giacometti: Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings, exh. cat., Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1948).

In La forêt, then, the tension between materiality and immateriality, between proximity and distance, may be understood on one level as a critical reckoning with the experience of vision and representation. The disparities of scale that lend the work such an uncanny and enigmatic overtone are especially significant in this light; the composition as a whole appears to exist outside of any perspectival system, making the distance between viewer and viewed at once inherently unstable and impossible to define.

It has often been argued that works like La forêt, with their anonymous and emaciated figures, were intended to express the isolation and instability of the modern age. Speaking about the work of Giacometti, Dubuffet, and de Kooning, for instance, Peter Selz wrote in 1959, "The revelations and complexities of mid-twentieth century life have called forth a profound feeling of solitude and anxiety. The imagery of man which has evolved from this reveals a new dignity, sometimes despair, but always the uniqueness of man as he confronts his fate. Like Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Camus, these artists are aware of anguish and dread, of life in which man - precarious and vulnerable, confronts the precipice, is aware of dying as well as living" (P. Selz, New Images of Man, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1959, p. 11). Although Giacometti was involved in this period with Sartre and his circle, he explicitly denied such Existentialist readings of his art, "While working I have never thought of the theme of solitude. I have absolutely no intention of being an artist of solitude. Moreover, I must add that as a citizen and a thinking being I believe that all life is the opposite of solitude, for life consists of a fabric of relations with others... There is so much talk about the malaise throughout the world and about existential anguish, as if it were something new. All people have felt that, and at all periods. One has only to read the Greek and Latin writers!" (quoted in ibid., pp. 309-310).

La forêt was cast in bronze in mid-1950 and exhibited in November of the same year at Giacometti's second one-man show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. The catalogue of the exhibition included Giacometti's statements to the dealer describing the genesis of the sixteen sculptures on view, as well as sketches by the artist of the works (fig. 6). Of the six bronze casts of La forêt, only two (including the present example) remain in private hands. The others are housed in major museum collections around the world: the Fondation Maeght, St.-Paul-de-Vence; the Kunsthaus, Zurich; the Louisiana Art Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek; and the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg.

(fig. 1) Giacometti at work on the plaster version of the present sculpture, 1950.

(fig. 2) Alberto Giacometti, Place (Composition avec trois figures et une tête), 1950.
© 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

(fig. 3) Alberto Giacometti, La clairière (Composition avec neuf figures), 1950.
© 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

(fig. 4) Woods near Giacometti's hometown, Stampa.

(fig. 5) Alberto Giacometti, Quatre figurines sur socle, 1950.
© 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

(fig. 6) Catalogue cover for the exhibition of Giacometti's work, Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1950.

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