The year 1947 was a pivotal one in Giacometti's career. Since the beginning of the decade, he had found himself capable of sculpting only the most diminutive figures, sometimes no more than a few inches high. The whole of his surviving wartime production fit in several matchboxes that he carried in the pockets of his overcoat when he returned from Geneva to Paris in 1945, following the Liberation. He realized that he reached a sterile end with these miniscule figures: "I swore to myself that I didn't want to let my figures get smaller and smaller, not even by an inch. But now the following happened: I could maintain the height, but they started to get narrow--narrow, tall, and thin as a thread" (quoted in R. Hohl, Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, New York, 1998, p. 108).
In 1947, he succeeded in producing an impressive series of life-size compositions--the first of his famously ethereal, wraith-like figures of standing women and walking men, which were soon to become his signature works and icons of the post-war zeitgeist. At the same time, he modeled three large-scale sculptures that represent parts of the human body: La Main (fig. 1), Le Nez, and the present head. He also conceived the idea for a fourth piece, La Jambe (fig. 2), to complete the series, but he does not seem to have executed it until 1958. Christian Klemm has pointed out that in these works, Giacometti returned to the lessons he had learned as a student in Bourdelle's Académie de le Grande Chaumière, when he "found it easier to form individual parts than whole figures... [Now] acting on that inclination in his first works in many years to approach life size, he opted for the fragmentary" (Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001, p. 146). Giacometti later recalled that at this time, "All I could do was to make a part which would stand in for the whole, and that, moreover, was the way I saw things" (quoted in Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1996, p. 161).
These body part sculptures are, however, no mere preparatory exercises. On the contrary, they are among the most powerfully expressive works in Giacometti's mature oeuvre, the bony fingers of La Main outstretched in desperate supplication, the head in the present Tête thrown back in a silent, agonizing cry. Valerie Fletcher has written, "Unlike most of Giacometti's busts, this sculpture has obvious emotional connotations. With the head tilted back, hollow sightless sockets, and mouth open as if screaming, Head of a Man on a Rod evokes multiple associations in a psychological drama reminiscent of his earlier Surrealism. Although not intended as an overt symbol, it could represent humanity beseeching or straining against fate, prey to a primal fear" (Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 128).
The severed, mutilated aspect of these sculptures, held up by slender rods (Tête sur tige, La Main) or hanging on a wire (Le Nez), only enhances their emotional effect, concentrating the whole existence of the individual in a single part, dramatically isolated in space. In the present instance, the head mounted on a metal rod also suggests the barbaric practice of decapitating one's enemies and mounting their heads on pikes. Indeed, the composition may have been inspired by a human skull from New Ireland (Oceania), adorned with wax, chalk, paint, and beads, that Giacometti is known to have seen at the Museum für Fölkerkunde in Basel (fig. 3). James Lord has declared, "In all Giacometti's oeuvre there is no other work so overtly meant to show that man will be made into dust... Neckless, wracked backward in a grisly rictus, it is set on its rod as on a pike, the mouth agape, a soundless black hole, eyes bulging but sightless, a death's head" (J. Lord, Giacometti, A Biography, New York, 1985, p. 285).
Although the anguished sentiment of Tête sur tige has an obvious rapport with the themes of alienation, vulnerability, and angst expressed in the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Giacometti was never affiliated with the Existentialist movement. Patrick Elliott has explained, "It was more a case of he and Sartre having, independently, evolved a similar way of understanding the world" (in exh. cat., op. cit., 1996, p. 23). Indeed, Tête sur tige offers an unmistakable window into the artist's inner life as he contended with the reality of the outside world during the immediate post-war period. The accelerating evolution in Giacometti's work in 1945-1947 stemmed from a sequence of hallucinatory revelations that the sculptor experienced as he re-integrated himself within the cosmopolitan life of Paris, which was emerging from the deep, nightmarish sleep of the Occupation and (despite continuing privations) slowly returning to life.
In December 1946, Giacometti published a visionary text in the art journal Labyrinthe, which he titled Le Rêve, Le Sphinx et la mort de T. The essay opens by recalling a nightmare that Giacometti had suffered following his final visit to a favorite brothel, which had been closed down in October by a new city ordinance, and proceeds to recount the death earlier that year of his friend Tonio Pototsching, who had acted as caretaker of the building in which the sculptor had his studio. As Klemm has pointed out, "In his text there is a point of reference for each of the new sculptures" (exh. cat., op. cit., 2001, p. 146). Summoned by Pototsching's girlfriend to assist her, Giacometti saw his friend just moments after his death, lying on his bed in a room adjoining his own: "I saw him dead, with his skeletally thin limbs stretched out, opened up and abandoned far from the body, with his enormous swollen belly, his head thrown back and his mouth open... Standing motionless by the bed, I looked at the head, which had become an object, an insignificant, measurable, little box. Just at that moment, a fly crawled up to the mouth's black hole and slowly disappeared into it" (quoted in M. Peppiat, Alberto Giacometti in Postwar Paris, exh. cat., Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, 2001, p. 31).
Tête sur tige, sculpted the following year, clearly recalls that incident, but also refers more generally to Giacometti's preoccupation with death and its imminence, with the fine line that separates the living from the dead. In the same text, the artist goes on to describe how Pototsching's death reinforced a phenomenon that he had begun to experience earlier in 1946: "During that period I had begun to see heads in the void, in the space that surrounded them. The first time I saw a head I was looking at freeze, become fixed in that single instant forever, I trembled with terror as never before in my life, and a cold sweat ran down my back. This was no longer a living head, but an object which I looked at as I would look at any other object; yet not quite, not like any other object, differently, like something that was dead and alive at the same time. I let out a cry of terror as if I had just crossed over a threshold, as if I had gone into a world that nobody had seen before. All the living were dead, and this vision came back often, in the metro, in the street, in restaurants or with friends. That waiter at the Brasserie Lipp who stood motionless, bending over me, his mouth open, with no connection to with the previous moment or with the following moment, his mouth open, his eyes fixed and unwavering" (quoted in ibid., pp. 31-32).
Tête sur tige thus encompasses allusions not only to the corpse of Pototsching, but also to Giacometti's revelation of living beings immobilized in the void and to his own involuntary scream as he perceived the presence of death within the living. He had addressed this idea as early as 1934 in Tête Crane (fig. 4), a head which on one side appears complete and living, the mouth gaping open as if gasping for breath, while the other side is jagged and bony like a skull. But whereas the opposing states of alive and dead--living mass and hollow skull--are indicated in Tête Crane in stylized, symbolic form, they are conveyed in a vastly more immediate way in the present sculpture. Klemm has explained, "In Head on a Rod, the viewer is immediately assailed by the presence of an impaled head that seems alarmingly alive" (exh. cat., op. cit., 2001, p. 146).
The encounter with Tonio Pototsching's corpse in 1946 was not the first time that Giacometti had been in close proximity to the moment of death. In 1932, an acquaintance named Robert Jourdan died in Giacometti's presence from an overdose of opium. A year later, Giacometti's father Giovanni fell ill; the artist traveled from Paris to the hospital at Glion in Switzerland as soon as he received the news, but he arrived too late and only saw the corpse. More formative than either of these experiences, however, was an event that transpired in 1921, when Giacometti was only twenty years old. At that time, he accompanied an elderly Dutchman named Peter van Meurs on a trip through the Alps, en route to Venice; the gentleman was ill and died en route, as Giacometti sat at his bedside. The incident traumatized the young artist, and he often spoke about it later, asserting that it had profoundly changed his life. Lord has explained, "In that instant, everything changed for Giacometti. He said so, and never ceased saying so. The subsequent testimony of his lifetime showed that it was the truth. Until then he had had no idea, no inkling of what death was. He had never seen it. He had thought of life as possessing a force, a persistence, a permanence of its own, and of death as a fateful occurrence which might somehow enhance the solemnity, and even the value, of life. Now he had seen death. It had been present for an instant before his eyes with a power that reduced life to nothingness. He had witnessed the transition from being to non-being. Where there had formerly been a man, now there remained only refuse" (op. cit., pp. 57-58).
The death of van Meurs remained very much on Giacometti's mind in the post-war period. By his own account in Le Rêve, Le Sphinx et la mort de T., he described the incident in detail to his friend Roger Montandon the day after his final visit to the brothel and his ensuing nightmare. As he attended the dying Dutchman, Giacometti recalled, he sketched him, capturing "his cheeks more sunken and his almost motionless open mouth barely breathing"-- the precursor to the agonized Tête sur tige, modeled more than a quarter-century later (quoted in M. Peppiat, op. cit., p. 33).
In 1948, the year after he sculpted Tête sur tige, Giacometti received his first solo exhibition in almost fifteen years, at Pierre Matisse's gallery in New York. Matisse had been closely following developments in Giacometti's work since before the war, and he was the sole dealer who had both the interest and the means to support the sculptor's renewed efforts during the early post-war period. New York, rather than Paris, would soon become the leading venue in the expansion of Giacometti's reputation, and the exhibition at Matisse's gallery introduced the art world there to his formidable body of recent work. The exhibition opened in January 1948 and featured twenty-nine sculptures, two paintings, two drawings, and a lengthy catalogue essay by Sartre, now a classic text on the artist. More than two-thirds of the works on view dated to the preceding three years, among them the original plaster version of Tête sur tige, which was prominently displayed (fig. 5).
The exhibition proved to be a major event on the cultural scene, with turnout so high that Matisse decided to extend the viewing. According to Lord, "Influential collectors, curators, and artists came to see it, talked about it, and proclaimed its importance" (op. cit., p. 289). Giacometti was delighted at this response, writing to Matisse, "In Paris everyone wants to have the catalogue, and those who have seen it find it very, very good" (quoted in J. Russell, Matisse: Father and Son, New York, 1999, p. 162). But even with this sudden renown, one thought was foremost in Giacometti's mind. From his family home in Stampa, he wrote to Matisse, "No sooner do I think of it than I long to be back in Paris and at work on my sculptures. Everything I have done so far is just a beginning" (quoted in ibid., p. 161).
The present work, an unnumbered example, was cast in 1952. In 1957, the plaster Tête sur tige was cast by the Susse Foundry in an edition of nine: seven numbered bronzes (0/6 through 6/6, of which 5/6 is housed today in The Museum of Modern Art). An additional unnumbered bronze was cast for the Foundation Maeght in 1964. The Alberto Giacometti Foundation owns a very similar but slightly smaller plaster version of the sculpture, also dated 1947, from which no bronzes have been cast; its head is less tilted, with more gouged surfaces, and it is accented with a few painted strokes.
(fig. a) Giacometti in 1950, holding Tête sur tige.
(fig. b) Giacometti's studio in 1947, with Tête sur tige.
(fig. 1) Alberto Giacometti, La Main, 1947. Sold, Christie's, New York, 4 May 2010, lot 30.
(fig. 2) Alberto Giacometti, La Jambe, 1958. Sold, Christie's, New York, 8 November 2006, lot 46.
(fig. 3) Modeled head from New Ireland (Oceania). Museum für Völkerkunde, Basel.
(fig. 4) Alberto Giacometti, Tête Crane, 1934. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
(fig. 5) Tête sur tige exhibited at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1948.