The years immediately following the Second World War marked the
development of Giacometti's mature style, as he moved away from the
Surrealist experiments in which he had been engaged during the early
1930s and focused on the haunting, attenuated figures which would
occupy him for the majority of his career. Like many of his
contemporaries, Giacometti fled the Paris studio he shared with his
brother Diego in 1942 and spent the remainder of the war years in his
native Switzerland. He returned to Paris in late 1945, eager to
return to his pursuit of representational art based on study from
By 1935, Giacometti had separated himself from the Surrealist movement following five years of intense involvement with André Masson, Max
Ernst and Joan Miró. These avant-garde artists, along with the
French writer Georges Bataille, had encouraged Giacometti to abandon
the more primitivist, totemic style of sculpture on which he had
focused during the late 1920s in favor of works which explored
Freudian themes of sexuality, violence, and fantasy. Giacometti threw himself headlong into the movement, creating sculptures from varied
and fragile materials such as plaster, glass, and string. Negative
space played an essential role in the creation of these sculptures,
which often conveyed disturbing themes of death (Femme à la gorge
coupée, 1932) and evocations of the artist's dreams (Palais à
quatre heures du matin, 1933). The sculptor exhibited with the
Surrealists throughout Europe and at New York's Museum of Modern Art
in 1936, however an increased interest in representation of the human
figure ultimately precipitated his departure from the group.
The post-war years between Giacometti's separation from the Surrealists and his postwar return to Paris were marked by intermittent frustration as the sculptor struggled to capture the experience of perception, with a particular focus on the optical effects of distance. During his self-imposed exile, Giacometti experimented obsessively with the creation of tiny, matchstick-like plaster representations of the human form, chiseling blocks of plaster down to virtual nothingness. "There is no escape from matter," Yves Bonnefoy has written of this sculptor's incessant explorations, "nor from the three dimensional space with which it confronts the sculptor's ambition. If he should resort to trickery, trying to use matter against matter, by exploring the infinitely small...its laws would not yield, they would simply manifest themselves differently" (in Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of his Work, Paris, 1991, p. 278). Following years of experimentation in Switzerland, Giacometti returned to Paris in the fall of 1945 clutching matchboxes filled with the fruits of his labor.
The plaster for the present work was conceived in Switzerland or immediately following Giacometti's return to his studio at 46, rue Hippolyte-Maindron, and in its scale demonstrates the artist's newfound fascination with the miniscule as well as the reductive chiseling methods with which he had experimented during the war. The subject, Marie-Laure de Noailles, was an eccentric Parisian Viscountess who was an influential patron of the avant-garde and of Giacometti himself. Noted for her friendships with Salvador Dalí, Man Ray, and a brief romance with Jean Cocteau, Viscountess de Noailles was a longtime champion of Giacometti's work, having commissioned him in 1930 to construct a large sculpture for her summer home on the Côte d'Azur.
Of the tiny plasters and the few resultant bronzes of the mid-1940s, Bonnefoy has commented,
For sculpture was just beginning, under his very eyes, to free itself from the domination of its materiality, which kept apart the components of Being, abandoning them in space. Art will reabsorb matter, as Giacometti would say, real likeness is possible at last. But it is also true that materiality and fragmentation have not yet entirely disappeared from the little statue: whence the temptation to get smaller and smaller, to plunge as deeply as possible into the abyss within which, like gold in the alembic, Being would emerge at last through the image (ibid., p. 276).