Although Giacometti arrived in Paris in 1922 at the age of twenty, eager to make his mark, it would be another three years before he would reject the traditional formulas of academic sculpture and begin to explore more innovative and avant-garde modes of expression. In 1925, he produced his earliest surviving essay in non-representational sculpture, a statuette of a torso in which the body is reduced to just a few angular blocks (fig. 1). When Giacometti exhibited this sculpture at the Salon d'Automne later the same year, it incited the ire of Bourdelle, his mentor at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, who chastised the young artist, "One does something like that at home, for one's self, but one does not show it" (quoted in Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1996, p. 137). Giacometti, however, understood the Torse as a turning point in his career. In 1947, when he drew up an illustrated catalogue of his work to date in a letter to the dealer Pierre Matisse, he began with this sculpture, omitting everything that he had done before. He also described to Matisse the aesthetic crisis that he had experienced in 1925, which brought about this radical transformation in his approach: "Since I wanted to realize a little of what I saw, I decided, in desperation, to work at home from memory... This resulted... in objects which were for me as close as I could get to my vision of reality" (quoted in ibid., p. 12).
Immediately after he sculpted the Torse (which, in its reductive simplicity, is more heavily indebted to Brancusi than to any other single source), Giacometti turned his attention to Cubism. Between 1926 and 1927, he produced a small but important group of Cubist sculptures --the present composition foremost among them--that Valerie Fletcher has described as "remarkably accomplished arrangements of geometric forms" (Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 24). Although Cubism had been practiced in Paris for nearly two decades by this time, it remained a vital and imposing influence, one to be reckoned with. Most importantly for Giacometti, Cubism provided him with a means of treating the figure as an autonomous object independent of resemblance (as did the art of Africa and Oceania, with which he grappled during the same period). James Lord has written, "Giacometti learned from Cubism that he could solve the formal plastic problem of creating an essentially abstract object of self-sustaining variety and interest... One regrets that he produced only ten or twelve Cubist constructions, for they possess a bluff beauty unlike any other works in Giacometti's production. The juxtapositions of convex and concave, of angle and line, of inert mass and animated space are so tensile and inventive that they leave no question as to Alberto's mastery of the Cubist idiom" (Giacometti: A Biography, New York, 1983, p. 99).
The present sculpture has been called Giacometti's "most markedly Cubist work" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1996, p. 139). A solidly massed, interlocking assemblage of cubic and spherical forms, the composition is testament to the remarkable speed and dexterity with which Giacometti had assimilated the complex geometric language of Cubism. With the exception of the upper register, which is clearly characterized as a head by the incised eye and nose and the curving contour of the cheek and jaw, the sculpture retains only a very loose evocation of human anatomy. The squared blocks and cylinders that comprise the principal mass of the sculpture do not refer directly to any parts of the body; it is only their placement that suggests their identification, for example, as arms or legs. Recognizable form, dissected and analyzed, is subordinated to the plastic imperatives of the composition as a whole. In its piling-up of geometric elements, creating sharp contrasts of form and a powerful sense of centrifugal compression, the sculpture is particularly close to Lipchitz's work from 1916-1920 (fig. 2), as well as to Gris's Harlequin from this period (fig. 3), sculpted under Lipchitz's guidance. Giacometti is known to have visited Lipchitz in his studio several times in the mid-1920s, and although their relationship quickly cooled as Giacometti came to enjoy greater success, the formal innovations pioneered by the Cubist sculptor proved a useful guide for Giacometti in the development of his own formal vocabulary.
In mid-1927, shortly after he sculpted the present work, Giacometti left Paris for several months to visit his family at their summer home in Maloja. During this period, he produced a series of portrait busts of his mother and father, in which the face is treated as a radically flattened form. Although these are superficially very different from the Cubist experiments that had occupied Giacometti for the preceding two years, they nonetheless show him continuing to probe fundamental questions about sculpture and its inherent potential for both representation and abstraction. Christian Klemm has explained, "Having, over two years, directed his comparative study of stylized geometric forms and realistic illustration toward discovering abstract configurations, he set his sights on the other pole, working from the head initially modeled closely after nature toward more strongly stylized forms" (exh. cat., op. cit., 2001, p. 68). While he would never again work in a deliberately Cubist style, he continued to view his compositions cubistes--which represent his liberation from traditional representation--as relevant to his aesthetic agenda, and as late as 1936, he exhibited a painted plaster cast of the present sculpture at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London.
(fig. a) Giacometti in his studio on the rue Hippolyte-Maindron, Paris, 1927.
(fig. 1) Alberto Giacometti, Torse, 1925. Sold, Christie's, New York, 20 November 1998, lot 747.
(fig. 2) Jacques Lipchitz, Homme assis à la guitare, 1918. Kröller-Müler Museum, Otterlo.
(fig. 3) Juan Gris, Arlequin, 1917. Philadelphia Museum of Art.