“I know it is utterly impossible for me to model, paint or draw a head, for instance, as I see it, yet it is the one thing I am trying to do” (Giacometti, quoted in D. Sylvester, Looking at Giacometti, London, 1994, p. 121).
Annette Arm, wife and muse of Alberto Giacometti, featured in a large number of his drawings and paintings, and yet before 1960 she had been the direct model for only one sculpture. This changed with Buste d'Annette (dit Venise), which marked the first instance when Giacometti turned his attention to Annette again in three dimensions. This was the springboard for an important series of sculptures of Annette which Giacometti created between 1962 and 1965. This cast of Buste d'Annette is itself historic: it was created during the artist's own lifetime, by 1962, and forms part of a very rare edition, one example of which was painted by Giacometti. It was acquired by a private collector in 1964 from the dealers Aimée and Marguerite Maeght, who represented Giacometti for a number of years and were fundamental in helping to build the reputation which his art still commands today.
Giacometti had first met Annette while he was in Geneva during the Second World War. She was 22 years younger than him, yet they appeared to have a strong bond. In 1946, she joined him in Paris, and a few years later the artist, whom many of his friends had regarded as a perennial bachelor, married her. From 1946 until Giacometti's death twenty years later, Annette served as one of Giacometti's most important muses and inspirations. The only other model who could compete with her in terms of prominence within his works was his brother Diego. Many of his depictions of Annette were in paintings and drawings, and with the exception of a single 1946 sculpture, it was only in the final decade of his life that he immortalized her features in three dimensions in a celebrated series of works.
Giacometti was notoriously demanding of his models, who were expected to pose absolutely immobile for hours on end within the famously ramshackle surroundings of his studio in the rue Hippolyte-Maindron. Stories abound of the squalid, cold room with its precarious beams holding up a threadbare roof that did little to stop the flow of rain, which in turn was caught in buckets which themselves supposedly leaked. Annette, who had initially carried out some secretarial duties for Giacometti, had soon managed to become indispensable to him as a model.
By the time he first created the sculpture from which Buste d'Annette was cast, Giacometti had been painting and drawing Annette for a decade and a half. The fact that he chose this moment to turn once more to sculpture as a medium may reflect the upheavals that were taking place in his art and in his life– prompted in part by the Japanese professor of philosophy Isaku Yanaihara. From the mid-1950s, Giacometti had carried out campaigns of painting in which he attempted to capture Yanaihara's likeness; he felt that his inability to fathom him in his works was a crisis that needed to be overcome. Meanwhile, Annette and Yanaihara had also, apparently with Giacometti's blessing, became close. This resulted in a complex interrelationship– that was little simplified by the artist's own encounter with Caroline, a young prostitute who became one of his great infatuations. Relations between Annette and Giacometti turned increasingly fraught. Perhaps it was a reappraisal of his wife's character under the stress of these trials that prompted his decision to turn to her features in his sculptures; in an intriguing parallel, it was also in 1960 that he had first turned to sculpture as a medium for a portrait of Yanaihara. Looking at Buste d'Annette in the context of this backdrop, Giacometti appears to have been disingenuous when he claimed, “Personally, I am quite incapable of expressing any human feelings in my work. I just try to construct a head, nothing more” (Giacometti, quoted in Y. Bonnefoy, op. cit., 1991, p. 376).
In his sculptures, Giacometti had been increasingly drawn to working from life, having sometimes eschewed it, not least in his full-length figures. He was tantalized by the presence of his subject in front of him and the seeming divide between the head he saw and the one he could model. This affected every aspect of sculptures such as Buste d'Annette, most importantly its scale. As Giacometti explained, “I'm trying to give the head the right size, the actual size it appears to someone who wants to see it all at once, with complete visibility. What impresses us about its appearance can be seen only from a certain distance” (Giacometti, quoted in D. Honisch, “Scale in Giacometti’s Sculpture,” A. Schneider, ed., Alberto Giacometti, Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, New York, 1994, p. 65). He was attempting to convey the reality of physical distance in his sculptures– and also psychological and emotional distance.
For Giacometti, it was the head in particular that presented a problem in terms of depiction: it contained the brain, the character, the personality, the face, the eyes. As he said, “The head is what matters. The rest of the body plays the part of antennae making life possible for people and life itself is inside the skull” (Giacometti, quoted in Y. Bonnefoy, op. cit., 1991, p. 377). The awareness of this appears both to have frustrated him and spurred him onwards, not least in his portraits of Annette. Giacometti's belief in the primacy of the human head was part of his quest to strip back reality to a kernel of raw truth; it may have been in part with this in mind that he said, apparently joking, that he would like Annette to cut off her hair, making it easier to see her head (see ibid., p. 508). He was trying to convey a reality through his sculptures, which were filled with a tentative materiality, evidenced in Buste d'Annette by the incredible turbulence of its surface, a legacy of the probing, darting movements of the artist's own hands when he originally modelled her features. There is a sense of fragile mass to Buste d'Annette that is accentuated by its scale, which makes it all the more tantalizing an expression of her physical and psychological presence.
Buste d'Annette may have gained its title through association with the 1962 Biennale in Venice, where Giacometti had a large-scale exhibition and was awarded the prize for sculpture. At the same time, it recalls the Femmes de Venise that he had created half a decade earlier, which had been shown at the 1956 Biennale. Those sculptures had resulted in an increasing scrutiny of life itself, as he approached reality more and more from a figurative perspective, relying increasingly on studies and less on memory, tethering his sculptures to the visual world.
Buste d'Annette was first owned by Galerie Maeght, whose proprietors, Aimée and Marguerite Maeght, were the legendary post-war dealers who founded the eponymous foundation in Saint-Paul-de-Vence which is still so respected, both for its exhibitions and its collection; indeed, its Giacometti courtyard is well-known in its own right. They had entered the art world almost by chance: Pierre Bonnard had seen a lithograph by Aimée in his shop window and began chatting, and soon they were supplying him with groceries during the privations of the Second World War. Through Bonnard, they also came to know Henri Matisse, and became involved with both their works. They opened a gallery in Paris in 1947, and were soon making an approach to Giacometti. This succeeded in part because Aimée offered to cast all the sculptures in his studio in bronze. This was an expensive process– indeed, expensive enough that his dealer in New York, Pierre Matisse– the son of the artist– had been reluctant to cast more than a few works at a time. It therefore impressed Giacometti, who admired bronze as a material. This makes it all the more appropriate that this bronze cast of Buste d'Annette was cast as one of these precious commitments to the artist.
Alberto Giacometti in his studio, rue Hippolyte Maindron, Paris. Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson.