The renowned series of sculptures known as the Femmes de Venise, comprising nine individual but closely related figures cast in bronze, played a significant role in establishing Giacometti's fame and reputation as the most important sculptor of the postwar era. Christian Klemm has stated, "The Women of Venice mark the halfway point in Giacometti's mature work; they bring together the different characteristics of his figures. The evocative name, which binds the individual figures into one group despite their differences, had an enhancing effect: as the figures became legendary, they came to be regarded as the epitome of his art. The extremely small, distant heads and the innovatively sloping pedestals, from which the over-size feet grow, still make them seem like revelatory, illusionistic visions... The tension in the mingling of goddess and concubine, of Egyptian cult image and decomposing corpse, is seen nowhere as vividly as in this group" (Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001, p. 218).
Giacometti created the Femmes de Venise in response to an invitation from the French government, which had hitherto displayed little recognition of the sculptor's achievement, to exhibit selections from his oeuvre in the main gallery of the state pavilion at the 1956 Venice Biennale, which was scheduled to open in June. Giacometti also agreed to a major retrospective at the Kunsthalle Bern that would run concurrently with the Biennale. The artist was disinclined to rely heavily on older work when deciding what to send to the Biennale. He generally preferred to show his very latest sculptures when he exhibited, as his brother Diego commented, "He was never satisfied with anything and wanted to reject everything, make something better, and only did the work the day before" (quoted in R. Hohl, ed., Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, Osfildern-Ruit, 1998, p. 154). The landmark occasion of the Biennale, together with the larger Bern event, clearly called for a maximum effort, and demanded results that would serve as a direct and up-to-date statement of his work at this stage in his career.
Giacometti decided to create a series of standing nude women, and set to work in early 1956, initiating a rush of sustained and feverish activity that lasted through May. Using a single armature, Giacometti worked and reworked the clay figures almost daily. A compulsive sense of doubt and self-criticism was essential to his creative method, as the sculptor relentlessly built up, broke down, and often even destroyed his figures-in-progress. He desired that these new sculptures should be understood as having evolved by means of this exploratory, touch-and-go process. Instead of aiming towards a final and conclusive state, and then settling on a single outcome that would mark the sum of his efforts to that point, Giacometti wanted to reveal the very process of making the figures by tracking their changing and varied states. The sculptor had his brother Diego make a plaster cast of the clay figure, which required only a few hours pause in his work, whenever he had achieved a result that interested him at the moment.
The "weightless and visionary" figures, those attenuated standing women and walking men of the late 1940s by which had won Giacometti sudden international fame, had mainly been the conception of the sculptor's imagination. Around 1950, when it seemed to Giacometti that he could no longer mine this vein of expression without repeating himself and turning it into a tired mannerism, he returned--as he had done in the early 1930s following his surrealist works--to working directly from a model, nearly always his wife Annette for the standing female nudes, in order to restore a compelling sense of individual physical presence to his figures, so that they would convincingly occupy the space in which they exist. Compared to earlier sculptures, the women of the Nu debout series of the early 1950s possess voluptuous figures--large breasts and wide hips--and display an overtly sexual and fertile character that seemed surprising coming on the heels of the sculptor's previous leanly attenuated figures. When it came time to create the women for the Biennale, Giacometti wanted to affect a synthesis of all his resources, combining insights he had taken from his life studies, while still pursuing an inner vision of his subject. Giacometti, therefore, did not work from a living model--that is, his wife Annette--while modeling the Femmes de Venise. Instead he created mainly from memory, and while also capitalizing on his recent experience of having worked so intensively from life, he proceeded to shape a daily procession of female figures with the spontaneous, instinctual and practiced motions of his skillful hands (fig. 1). James Lord has described this process:
"In the course of a single afternoon this figure could undergo ten, twenty, forty metamorphoses as the sculptor's fingers coursed over the clay. Not one of these states was definitive, because he was not working toward a preconceived idea of form... Alberto's purpose was not to preserve one state of his sculpture from amid so many. It was to see more clearly what he had seen. In plaster, the revelation was more luminous than in clay. Once a figure existed in plaster, however, it stood apart from the flux in which it had developed. It had achieved an ambiguous permanence and made an apparent claim for survival. If the artist allowed it to survive, to be cast in bronze, this was by reason of curiosity and comparison, not as potential evidence of achievement" (op. cit., pp. 355-356).
Among the plaster casts that Giacometti decided to keep, David Sylvester has noted that "the last of the states was no more definitive than its predecessors. All were provisional. And from his point of view, every head and standing figure was a state, hardly more than a means towards doing the next" (Looking at Giacometti, New York, 1994, p. 85).
The Femmes de Venise ultimately came to comprise nine figures, preserved in plaster and subsequently cast in bronze, which are numbered from I to IX. Giacometti actually elected to show ten plasters that summer: six were dispatched to the Biennale, while four went to Bern. Giacometti's process of self-critical selectivity remained in force, even after the exhibitions had ended. Four of the plasters shown in Venice, and two of the Bern figures were not cast in bronze. One of the latter is in the collection of the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti in Paris. Giacometti presumably destroyed the others. Some of the plasters that had stayed behind in Paris and which Giacometti decided to preserve were subsequently cast to constitute the final series of nine Femmes de Venise we know today. Six of the figures in this definitive series were therefore not actually shown in Venice. The present Femme de Venise V, however, can be linked to its namesake venue. The plaster cast from which this bronze was made is visible as the third figure from the left side of the group of six that appear in an installation photograph taken at the 1956 Biennale (fig. 2). Bronze casts of the nine Femmes de Venise were first shown together as a group at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, in May 1958, and most recently at Pace/Wildenstein, New York, and the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, in 2005-2006.
The numbering of the nine Femmes de Venise in bronze does not necessarily reflect the specific order in which the plaster models were executed. It does seem likely, however, that Femme de Venise I (fig. 3) was done early, if not first of all, in the sequence. Closely related to the preceding series of Nus debouts (see lot 21), her figure is the most robustly naturalistic, with pronounced and expressively modeled female features; she stands like a modern version of a prehistoric fertility fetish. From this point onward, the idea of slimming elongation would take increasing precedence in Giacometti's modeling of the figures, a tendency which represents the retrospective aspect of this series, harking back to the weightless and visionary style of the late 1940s. Femme de Venise IV and the present V are I's closest sisters in regard to body type, while at the same time displaying greater elongation and leanness. Indeed these three are the only women in the group whose dangling arms are not held tight to the body, and consequently empty, light-filled spaces are visible between the arms and the sides of the body, revealing the feminine curvature of the lower torso.
The head of Femme de Venise V is among the smallest in the series relative to the height of the body. Giacometti has nonetheless imparted great beauty to its shape and has given her visage a refined character as she gazes in self-absorbed contemplation into the distance. Femme de Venise V is an appealing woman, and in many respects, within the context of Giacometti's idiosyncratic distortions of the female figure, she may perhaps be judged to be the most "physically desirable" in the group. She wears her wavy hair pulled back into a girlish pony tail, her breasts are full but firmly shaped, her buttocks protrude as small mounds of clay, and the delta of her sex is clearly defined and noticeable.
The novelist and playwright Jean Genet, whom Giacometti regarded as his favorite living author, is widely considered to have written the most illuminating contemporary study of the sculptor's everyday life and his work in the essay "The Studio of Alberto Giacometti," which Galerie Maeght published in its magazine Derrière le miroir in 1957. Genet recounted how he was repeatedly drawn to the Femmes de Venise during the numerous visits he made to the sculptor's studio:
"They give me this odd feeling: they are familiar, they walk in the street, yet they are in the depths of time, at the source of all being; they keep approaching and retreating in a sovereign immobility. If my gaze attempts to tame them, to approach them, then--but not furiously, not ranting or raging, simply by means of a distance between them and myself that I had not noticed, a distance so compressed and reduced it made them seem quite close--they take their distance and keep it: it is because this distance between them and myself has suddenly unfolded. Where are they going? Although their image remains visible, where are they?
"I keep coming back to these women, cast in bronze now... around them space vibrates. Nothing is any longer at rest. Perhaps because each angle (made with Giacometti's thumb when he was modeling the clay) or curve, or lump, or crest, or torn tip of metal are themselves not at rest. Each of them still emits the sensibility that created them. No point, no ridge that outlines or lacerates space is dead.
"I can't stop touching the statues: I look away and my hand continues its discoveries of its own accord: neck, head, nape of the neck, shoulders... The sensations flow to my fingertips. Each one is different, so that my hand traverses an extremely varied and vivid landscape... The backs of these women may be more human than their fronts. The nape of the neck, the shoulders, the small of the back, the buttocks seem to have been modeled more lovingly than any of the fronts. Seen from three-quarters, this oscillation from woman to goddess may be what is most disturbing: sometimes the emotion is unbearable... I cannot help returning to this race of gilded--and sometimes painted--sentries who, standing erect, motionless, keep watch" (R. Howard, trans., in E. White, ed., The Selected Writings of Jean Genet, Hopewell, New Jersey, 1993, pp. 317, 323, and 324).
In 1957, a year after completing the Femmes de Venise and around the time Genet published his essay, Giacometti wrote: "I have certainly been painting and sculpting to get a better grip on reality... to see better, to understand things around me better, to understand better as to be free as big as possible, to spend, to spend myself as much as possible in what I do, to discover new worlds, to wage my war... for the pleasure of winning and losing" ("My Reality", in M. Peppiatt, trans., Alberto Giacometti in Postwar Paris, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, 2001, p. 37). James Lord has observed that "With the entire accumulation of this stylistic skill--wrought by a sheer disbelief in its efficacy--Giacometti was moving towards a greater and greater simplicity of means, which showed that he was going, as he had always meant to go, toward a confrontation with what was most difficult" ( op. cit., p. 357).
The bronze edition of Femme de Venise V includes 10 casts in all, which are numbered 1 through 6 plus 3 designated artists proofs and one for Fondation Maeght. 4 of these casts are in public institutions: Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-Vence (fig. 5), Musée Louisiana, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris and Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal.
(fig. 1) Giacometti working on the plaster version of Femme de Venise V in his Paris studio, 1956. Photograph by Isaku Yaniahara. Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris.
Barcode: 2724 9383
(fig. 2) Installation photograph of six plasters in the series Femmes de Venise which were shown at the French Pavilion of the 1956 Venice Biennale. Femme de Venise V is visible as the third sculpture from the left. Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris.
Barcode: 2523 8556
(fig. 3) Alberto Giacometti, Femme de Venise I, 1956. Sold, Christie's New York, 9 May 2007, lot 6.
Barcode: 2549 4105
(fig. 4) Alberto Giacometti, Femme de Venise V, 1956. The plaster version, reworked with a pocket knife and coated with a parting compound. Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti.
Barcode: 2724 9390
(fig. 5) Alberto Giacometti with seven of the Femmes de Venise in the courtyard of the Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, 1963 or 1964.
Barcode: 2724 9406
A detail of the upper body and head will appear on page 6.