The present highly worked drawing depicts an exquisite Nu debout on the verso and a large bouquet in an interior, recto. Drawn circa 1948-1949, it can be placed squarely in the critical period of Giacometti's career not long after the end of the Second World War, a time when he was creating his most celebrated and iconic works. When the sculptor returned to Paris from Switzerland in 1945, his entire wartime production had consisted of tiny heads and figures that fit into six small matchboxes he carried in his pockets. In a letter to Pierre Matisse, written in 1947 and published in the New York exhibition catalogue the following year, Giacometti observed that ‘a large figure seemed to me false and a small one equally unbearable, and then often they became so tiny that with one touch of my knife they disappeared into dust. But head and figures seemed to me to have a bit of truth only when small. All this changed a little in 1945 through drawing. This led me to want to make larger figures, but then to my surprise, they achieved a likeness only when tall and slender.’
By 1946 Giacometti had begun to draw elongated figures, in a rough match-stick style at first and then in a more compact but still wraithlike manner. He drew, rubbed and erased, and slowly built up a translucent skein of pencil lines that evoked the figure as he saw it, situated in the space before him, narrow in relation to his field of vision, and without mass or weight. Christian Klemm observed that ‘the frontal female figures rise from the ground like visions and are fixed to paper with almost convulsive intensity’ (in exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001, p. 150).
The nudes of the early 1950s are more robust and full-bodied than those he had rendered previously. Jacques Dupin has written that ‘the figures and heads are obtained by dense curved lines, fluid and nervous, a mesh of lines which appear subject to a circular, or more precisely, centripetal force. In its rapid whorls, the drawing carves out depth, or rather breathes it in, opens itself to it and renders it active between the strokes. It is, though, a force issuing from within beings or things gushes out like a fluid through the interstices of the drawing and the porousness of forms. The interruptions and accumulations of line are never felt as superfluous repetitions and incongruous stops since they are equivalent to the eye's mobility. They contribute to give the objects this trembling, this feeling of truth and life’ (in Giacometti: Three Essays, New York, 2003, pp. 32-33). The space that surrounds the female figure in the present drawing, defined only by a curved line that Giacometti drew with a single quick stroke of the pencil, presses inward on the figure, acting as if to force her arms to her side and squeeze the body into a narrow, towering silhouette. In The Search for the Absolute, his essay about Giacometti in the Pierre Matisse catalogue, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, ‘this woman moves within the indivisibility of an idea or of a sentiment, she has no parts, she appears totally and at once. It is to give sensible expression to this pure presence, that Giacometti resorts to elongation’ (in ‘The Search for the Absolute’, Alberto Giacometti Sculptures, Paintings and Drawings, exh. cat., New York, 1948).
These nude female figures owed little if anything to the conventions of the subject. Posed frontally as in the present work, rigidly seated or standing bolt upright, his women display nothing like the flowing contours of a Matisse odalisque, the clever and deforming linear machinations of a late Picasso nude (for which that artist did not actually work from a model), or the frenzied slashes of a de Kooning bather. Giacometti's female nude exists apart from all this. She is absolutely naked; she is completely and utterly exposed, even semi-transparent. She possesses an extraordinarily commanding presence like no other in modern art. She is towering, majestic, imperturbable, distant and untouchable. Like a religious icon, she completely dominates the space she inhabits. She stares outward; she appears impassive, yet her presence is confrontational. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that she is ‘a woman complete, glimpsed, furtively desired, a woman who moved away and passed given, refused, near, far, a woman complete whose delicious plumpness is haunted by a secret thinness, and whose terrible thinness by a suave plumpness, a complete woman, in danger on this earth, and who lives and tells us of the astonishing adventure of the flesh, our adventure. For she, like us, was born’ (op. cit.).
It was essentially from the conception and realization of these extraordinary drawings that Giacometti's large standing figure sculptures took their form and came into being. Klemm has written that ‘with these weightless elongated figures, Giacometti extended an age-old tradition of imagining man and woman as symbolic representations of the elemental. The work limited to the core of human existence is symptomatic of a post-war era that was seeking out grounds for a new start, however minimal these might be. The lofty verticality of Giacometti's figures, combined with their exquisite fragility, creates a tension with the base materiality of their composition that works to reflect the human condition caught between dignity, vulnerability and ultimate fallibility’ (op. cit., p. 150).