During the run-up for the 1956 Venice Biennale, Giacometti embarked upon a frenetic process of artistic creation as he made a series of sculptures, his celebrated Femmes de Venise, to exhibit there. The process of their creation was almost organic. Each day, Alberto worked on a clay model with the same armature, and at the end of each day his brother Diego would take a plaster cast of the day's work. Of the fifteen plaster casts made, nine were then cast in bronze, including Femme de Venise VII. These vary in their appearance and even in their dimensions. Some are thin, others wider; some have spaces between arms and torso (e.g. II & V), while others present a solid front; in some, the curves are more pronounced than in others.
The almost organic process by which Giacometti was creating these Femmes de Venise from day to day was so much like life and evolution that it marked the culmination of many of Giacometti's artistic researches. Looking at the various states of the Femme de Venise we see growth and life, each different moment of creation frozen by Diego and immortalised. At last, the constantly changing sculpture that he worked with his hands, those ephemeral, momentary glimpses of a work that would be lost in a few movements, were all caught, as though petrified, and exhibited together. The Femmes de Venise embodied the sculptural process, and as such cut to the living heart of Giacometti's art.
For Giacometti sought to present the world, and people, as he saw them, and this was an ever-changing tableau. Until 1956, most of the elongated female figures he had created had been directly modelled on his wife Annette. However, in the Femmes de Venise he worked not from a model, but from memory and imagination. His full-length depictions of men and women modelled on Diego and Annette in turn had served as prototypes, but now that universality was increased, the portrait element removed.
Giacometti always presented his men as striding, performing some action, whereas the women were static, standing with their legs together, tapping into an idea of the basic powers and energies of life as embodied in the sexes. At the same time, the sculptures of women are presented as objects of desire in a manner that is completely absent in the men. Giacometti conjures in the viewer the urge to reach out and touch Femme de Venise VII, to experience through our fingers the curves and articulations of the body. And yet, despite this, despite our ability to touch the sculpture, its distorted dimensions create the impression that this woman will remain perpetually beyond our grasp. Giacometti himself observed that women at a distance he wanted to watch, but this interest in seeing diminished and was usurped the moment that the woman was close enough to be touched. In Femme de Venise he manages paradoxically to combine both sensations in the viewer.
During the 1940s, Giacometti's interest in creating a sense of distance conductive to the full appreciation of the subject was rendered impractical and extreme by his inability to stop working the sculptures: he would create, however large the original effort, tiny works that could literally be stored in matchboxes. However, in 1946 he had a revelation about the manner in which he saw objects and people in space. This revelation in fact came in several parts, prompted by various experiences, especially the death of his concierge. The final result was to give Giacometti a new appreciation of space and the manner in which people occupy it:
'That day, reality took on a completely new value for me; it became the unknown, but an enchanted unknown. From that day on, because I had realized the difference between my way of seeing in the street and the way things are seen in photography and film,- I wanted to represent what I saw. Only from 1946 have I been able to perceive the distance that allows people to appear as they really are and not in their natural size' (Giacometti, quoted in D. Honisch, 'Scale in Giacometti's Sculpture', pp. 65-69, Alberto Giacometti: Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, A. Schneider (ed.), Munich & New York, 1994, p. 65).
Now, taller figures emerged in place of the smaller ones of previous years, and they soon evolved, growing ever taller and more elegant. In this way, he managed to condense the visual reality of a figure in space. Interestingly, Giacometti's earlier interest in sculpture groups, in the interplay of figures, was now subsumed by the intense potency of the solitary figure. Femme de Venise VII is a lone pillar-person, and its extreme verticality pierces space and inextricably links it to the air around it. The sculpture is thin, and therefore almost dwarfed by the space, and yet, in another paradox typical of Giacometti, dominates it.
This interplay between the sculpture and the space around it is accentuated by the textural surface. It is cratered, covered in ripples and creases, creating infinite plays of light. Some of these form the features of the woman, the narrow head and the protruding breasts, but the overall effect results in a complex blurring of the line at which the space ends and the sculpture begins, and vice versa, Giacometti creating yet another intriguing tension in the work. The process by which Giacometti had in previously whittled his sculptures down to near nothings had changed only a little by 1956. It is clear from the surface of Femme de Venise VII that the sculpture has still been vigourously worked. Witnesses of the artist's techniques claimed that his fingers were nearly invisible as they moved speedily from area to area, constantly articulating and rearticulating. This is a process that can be seen in the different surfaces of the Femmes de Venise. It has many ramifications on the final appearance of the piece: Femme de Venise VII appears to have been created out of pulp, the bobbled surface making it appear that Giacometti has hewn this work from some primordial ooze. This is most successfully evoked through the bronze surface, characterised by its dappled lustre.
However, the verticality makes it appear that this ooze is being dragged sky-ward, stretched against all laws of gravity, as though the Earth itself were being pulled up and forced into human form. This sculpture shows humanity in a raw state, made of sheer material, yet pulled ever up. As his friend Sartre wrote, 'these fine and slender natures rise up to heaven... they are made of the same rarified matter as the glorious bodies that were promised us' (J.-P. Sartre, The Search for the Absolute', pp. 599-604, Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, C. Harrison & P. Wood (ed.), Oxford, 1997, p. 604).