The Comité Giacometti confirms the authenticity of this sculpture. It will be included in the catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Fondation Alberto and Annette Giacometti.
The year 1947 was pivotal in Giacometti's career. After several frustrating years in which he found himself capable of sculpting only the most diminutive figures, sometimes no more than a few inches high, he succeeded in 1947 in producing an impressive series of life-sized and over-life-sized compositions (fig. 1). He also sculpted his earliest monumental interpretations of two themes that would preoccupy him throughout the remainder of his life: the standing woman and the walking man. Finally, after exhibiting almost nothing for nearly a decade, Giacometti attracted the attention of the dealer Pierre Matisse, who offered him a one-man show at his New York gallery in January 1948. In his biography of the artist, James Lord has written,
"The year 1947 was a wondrously productive one for Giacometti. He made several life-size sculptures of women, one of a man walking, another of a man pointing, both also life-size, a quantity of smaller figures, some busts on pedestals, a head of a man with his mouth open stuck onto a road, a grotesque sculpture of a small grimacing head, with an extravagantly elongated nose, suspended inside a cage, as well as numerous paintings, portraits of Diego and of his mother, plus studies of heads related to the busts and, as usual henceforth, a quantity of drawings. When the end of the year approached, Matisse came to select works for the New York exhibition. There were plenty. Dominating all the rest were those slender, large-footed women" (Giacometti: A Biography, New York, 1983, p. 283).
The present sculpture, Femme Leoni, is one of the most important works from this watershed year, exemplifying the gaunt, elongated proportions that would become the hallmark of Giacometti's post-war oeuvre. As early as 1959, critics proposed that Giacometti had intended these fragile and emaciated figures to express the alienation and instability of the modern age. The artist himself, however, vigorously denied such Existentialist readings of his work. Instead, he explained the distinctive proportions of his post-war sculptures as a means of rendering the human body not as he knew it to be but as he actually saw it--that is, at a distance. A figure viewed from afar, he argued, appears pronouncedly thin and as a consequence relatively tall. He criticized both Rodin and Houdon for sculpting naturalistically proportioned figures, and claimed, "The works that I find the most true to reality are those that are considered the least" (quoted in M. Matter, Alberto Giacometti, New York, 1987, p. 211). Giacometti dated this fascination with the structural conditions of vision to a particular day in 1945: "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" (quoted in A. Schneider, op. cit., p. 65).
Paradoxically, the illusion of distance that informs Giacometti's post-war figures almost always coexists with a palpable sense of materiality. In the present work, the elongated feet and sturdy base anchor the figure firmly to the ground, while the craggy and furrowed handling suggests a surface seen from extremely close up. Beyond this phenomenological function, Giacometti's irregular modeling also imbues his figures with a disturbing expressive power, the ridges and troughs of bronze evoking the craters and scars of wounded flesh. Valerie Fletcher has written, "While Giacometti's post-war works were not created either as deliberate images of humanity brutalized by the socio-political events of the era or as images of Existentialist angst, neither can they be entirely dissociated from their context" (in Alberto Giacometti, 1901-1966, exh. cat., Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 42).
Sculptures such as Femme Leoni also possess an undeniable erotic charge. The protuberant breasts and rounded hips endow the figures with an element of frank sexuality, while their cracked and striated surfaces again suggest ravaged flesh. Moreover, the figures appear fixed and immobile, passive objects of male scrutiny. Indeed, Giacometti recalled that one of his sculptures from 1950, Quatre figurines sur base, had been prompted by the sight of four women at Le Sphinx, one of the most famous brothels in Montparnasse: "Several naked women seen at the Sphinx while I was seated at the end of the room. The distance which separated us (the polished floor) which seemed to me impassable in spite of my desire to cross it, impressed me as much as the women" (quoted in Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1996, p. 165). The distinctive coiffure of Femme Leoni has suggested to scholars that the sculpture was based from memory on Isabel Delmer, a British beauty and artist's model with whom Giacometti lived briefly after the war; she left him on Christmas Day of 1945 for a musician and composer named René Leibowitz.
Another possible source of inspiration for works such as Femme Leoni is the art of antiquity. During his early years in Paris, the artist is known to have spent every Sunday at the Louvre, when admission was free, copying the works that impressed him most, including Egyptian burial figures and archaic Greek korai. Particularly striking is the affinity between Giacometti's standing women and marble statuettes from the Cyclades, probably fertility figurines. The statuettes depict nude women standing rigidly frontal, their heads held high. Their faces are featureless except for a stylized nose, their sex is emphasized by an incised V, and their feet are narrow and elongated. Although thin and fragile in profile, the idols exude a hieratic and commanding presence that seems to imbue Giacometti's waif-like sculptures as well. The artist himself explicitly acknowledged the tension in his work between the woman as an object of devotion and an object of desire: "When I am walking in the street and see a whore from a distance, all dressed, I see a whore. When she is in the room and naked before me, I see a goddess" (quoted in ibid., p. 227).
The plaster version of Femme Leoni was first exhibited at an important retrospective of Giacometti's work at the Kunsthalle in Bern in 1956. It was displayed alongside four similar but much later female figures, from the series that would subsequently become known as the Femmes de Venise. The five sculptures were titled Figure I-V in the exhibition catalogue and were all dated 1956 (the correct date for the Femmes de Venise). Photographs of the installation reveal that the present work originally had very slender legs and no feet, with the ankles simply tapering into the socle. Giacometti appears to have re-worked the sculpture after the Bern exhibition closed in July 1956 and before the first bronze cast was made in November 1957. A photograph of the artist's studio in 1957 shows the plaster in an intermediate state, with small feet and a tall, square plinth. The plaster is also very battered, suggesting that Giacometti may have altered the composition to prevent damage during the casting process. The modifications undertaken in 1957 are also consistent with the style of the contemporary Femmes de Venise. In its final version, Femme Leoni has the wedge-shaped base typical of Giacometti's figures from the 1950s, in contrast to the flat base that he used for his sculptures in 1947-1948.
The first bronze cast of Femme Leoni was commissioned in 1957 by Peggy Guggenheim, who saw the plaster in Giacometti's studio during the autumn of that year. The title of the work refers to Guggenheim's Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Venice, which now houses the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. A total of eight bronze casts of Femme Leoni are known to exist. The present example was cast before October 1960 and was sold directly to the collector Harvey Kaplan via Pierre Matisse (fig. 2). It has remained in Kaplan's collection ever since.
(fig. 1) Sculptures in Giacometti's studio, circa 1948. Barcode 23669475
(fig. 2) Letter from Giacometti's dealer, Pierre Matisse, to the owner of the present sculpture, 1960.Barcode 23671034