Giacometti modeled this Femme debout of 1957 at a momentous juncture in his career, when he was at the very height of his mastery and his achievement was being recognized and honored on an international scale. This sculpture is especially significant for being closely related to, and having been modeled around the same time as Giacometti’s landmark Femmes de Venise series, the celebrated group of standing female figures that debuted in two retrospective exhibitions, both of which opened on 16 July 1956, at the XXVIII Biennale d’Arte Venezia and the Kunsthalle, Bern. The sculptures of this key year look back on Giacometti’s development since his meteoric rise as a leading modern sculptor soon after the end of the Second World War, and–as time would soon tell–forward to his culminating achievement in the series of four Grande femme debout figures of 1959-1960, which, together with models for Homme qui marche and Grande tête, he created for the Chase Manhattan Plaza project in lower Manhattan. These sculptures proved to be the largest works he ever sculpted, and would have been cast in gargantuan size at the Plaza site. This extraordinary plan, unfortunately, was never carried out.
The sequence known as the Femmes de Venise comprises nine individual but thematically connected figures executed and first shown in plaster, and subsequently cast in bronze. “The Women of Venice mark the halfway point in Giacometti’s mature work,” Christian Klemm has stated, “they bring together the different characteristics of his figures. The evocative name, which binds the individual figures into one group despite their differences, had an enhancing effect: as the figures became legendary, they came to be regarded as the epitome of his art. The extremely small, distant heads and the innovatively sloping pedestals, from which the over-size feet grow, still make them seem like revelatory, illusionistic visions... The tension in the mingling of goddess and concubine, of Egyptian cult image and decomposing corpse, is seen nowhere as vividly as in this group” (Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001, p. 218).
The present Femme debout, at just over 27 inches (nearly 70 cm.) in height, is the largest of around ten other standing women Giacometti also modeled in 1956, which have been preserved. The rest of this group includes figurines a few inches in height to larger statues around 16 inches (40 cm.) tall. Like their taller sisters who travelled to Venice and Bern, all such works of this subject stem from a fundamental conception that Giacometti set forth in the large Femme au chariot, which he modeled in his Majola studio during 1942-1943, while waiting out the war years in his native Switzerland. His production of this period consisted otherwise of tiny upright figures and heads on small bases which he brought back to Paris in pocket-sized matchboxes. Giacometti resolved, however, that these miniature sculptures should grow no smaller, and the unprecedented visionary works of 1947-1948 suddenly sprang forth, rising tall and lean, as creations of memory and imagination. These radically innovative sculptures, together with a selection of earlier surrealist works, constituted Giacometti’s first post-war solo show, which Pierre Matisse held in his New York gallery in 1948. This breakthrough exhibition propelled him into the international limelight as the most daring and prescient sculptor of the day.
Uncertain how he might further mine this extreme style, Giacometti decided during the early 1950s to return–just as he had done during the mid-1930s, when he distanced himself from the surrealist movement–to sculpt the figure in the presence of a live model. This sea-change in his studio method led to the first great busts of his brother Diego, and those of his wife Annette. He now conceived and worked the head or figure not from his mind’s eye, but as an immediate representation of a corporeal being perceived in real space, which he imbued with volumetric, physical presence. Although still bolt upright and immobile, and exaggerated in their thinness, Giacometti’s standing women took on a fuller-bodied, even voluptuous aspect, as evident in the series Nu debout I through IV, 1953, and Nu d’après nature (Annette), 1954. With an exaggerated hour-glass figure between ample breasts and broad hips, Giacometti’s new standing women asserted their physicality while serving as contemporary incarnations of ancient fertility fetishes.
The dialectical impetus nonetheless remained a potent force in Giacometti’s creative sensibility, resulting in leaner, sometimes even beanpole-like figurines that sustained the notion of extreme attenuation in his sculpture. By mid-decade Giacometti must have sensed a growing and unavoidable momentum that called for a conciliation of these previously contradictory tendencies in his work. And indeed this impulse resulted in the definitive series that had been, as it were, a lifetime in the making–Giacometti intended his Femmes de Venise to mark this signal moment of accomplishment. The timing was propitious. In early 1956, the French arts ministry, which had previously overlooked the well-publicized achievement of the Swiss-born artist who had spent most of his career working in Paris, invited Giacometti to exhibit selections from his oeuvre in the main gallery of the state pavilion at the 1956 Venice Biennale. Giacometti had already agreed to a major retrospective at the Kunsthalle, Bern, which would run concurrently with the Biennale.
The prestigious occasion of the Biennale, together with the even larger Bern event, clearly called for a maximum effort. While deciding which pieces to include in the Biennale, Giacometti preferred not to rely too heavily on his older sculptures, which seemed more appropriate for the Bern overview of his career. He welcomed the prospect of the Biennale for the incentive it gave him to conceive a new group of sculptures not yet seen anywhere in public, which would serve as a definitive statement of his work at this stage in his career. He decided that these latest, state-of-his-art sculptures should be a series of standing nude women. He set to work on them in early 1956, initiating a rush of sustained and feverish activity that lasted through May. He worked each and every Femme in the series in clay on a single armature which his brother Diego prepared for him. “In the course of a single day,” James Lord observed, “a figure could undergo ten, twenty, forty metamorphoses as the sculptor’s fingers coursed compulsively over the clay” (Giacometti: A Biography, New York, 1985, p. 355).
Whenever Giacometti achieved a result in clay that interested him, for its own sake–and as importantly for the next development in this process that it might suggest–this figure was granted a reprieve for as long as it took Diego to make a plaster cast of it, which required only a few hours pause in the sculptor’s efforts. The sculptor would then proceed to rework the cast model with liquid plaster and his knife, and to occasionally highlight passages with paint, perhaps while he had already returned to the original armature to commence the next Femme de Venise. “The last of the states was no more definitive than its predecessors,” David Sylvester observed. “All were provisional. And from his point of view, every head and standing figure was a state, hardly more than a means towards doing the next” (Looking at Giacometti, New York, 1994, p. 85). Giacometti eventually put aside a sufficient number of such worthy candidates for show, about fifteen plasters in all. Of these, Giacometti dispatched six to Venice, and four to Bern. Of the ten plasters he finally decided to preserve, nine–bearing the numbers I through IX in their titles–were later cast in bronze.
In contrast to the Nus debout of 1953 and 1954, modeled from Annette d’après nature, Giacometti returned in the Femmes de Venise to a subjective visualization of the female form that was more myth than natural representation, as he transfigured the corporeal embodiment of a living woman into a haunting apparition. The women nevertheless retain–the result of the sculptor’s insistently detailed handling of the matière of plaster (as later cast in bronze)–a profoundly physical presence, an intensely expressive tactile aspect; each figure is an earthlike topography of peaks, pits, crags and recesses, formed as if from volcanic magma erupting from the sculptor’s innermost creative consciousness.
The Femmes de Venise display two fundamental, contrasting body types. Femmes II, III, and VI through IX are the slenderer of the two kinds, with arms pressed closely to the figures’ sides, giving the effect of absolute, monolithic verticality. Femmes I, IV and V, on the other hand, are more expressly womanly in silhouette–and all the more akin to primitive fertility fetishes, or goddesses as idols–displaying broad shoulders, with cut-out sections between the arms and torso. They possess pinched, wasp-like waists, with large hands resting on broad hips, suggesting a cradle-like shape emblematic of their child-bearing powers. The sequence in which the Femmes de Venise were created does not necessarily follow by order of their numbering, but it does appear likely that I, IV, and V were modeled early in the sequence, and Giacometti subsequently transformed this overtly sensual aspect of the women into a simpler configuration, as a more abstract and deliberately iconic presentation of this theme.
The present Femme debout is clearly similar to the early type, and is in many respects the smaller relation of Femme de Venise IV. It is impossible to say whether Giacometti executed this Femme debout prior to, alongside, or following his completion of the Femmes de Venise. It may possibly reflect a development in the famous series which Giacometti wished to further explore on a more intimate scale. Femme debout certainly complements the larger sculptures, and comparison with them reveals qualities which are even more telling here in its table-top size. This sculpture invites close-up examination and study. Its smaller scale and reduced surface area allow the expressive effect in even the most minute details of the sculptor’s handling to register to even more riveting, dramatic effect than in the larger sculptures. One senses in every millimeter of Femme debout a powerful concentration of feeling, a startling and compelling intensity. Giacometti worked at white heat while creating the Femmes de Venise, going right down to the wire to get getting these sculptures to their destinations on time. Femme debout perhaps reveals an even more potently compressed articulation of the feelings he had been pouring into the Femmes de Venise.
The standing women that Giacometti created during 1958-1959, after completing the Femmes de Venise and other figures such as the present Femme debout, display an even more pronounced tendency toward thinness and elevation, with a new simplicity of contour, that anticipates the monumental configuration of the very tall women which would anchor his plan for the Chase Manhattan Plaza. Giacometti created four such figures during 1959-1960 for this prospective commission, the Grande femme debout I-IV, averaging 8½ feet (260 cm.) in height. He remained uncertain, however, of how this quartet of giantesses, together with a walking man and large male head, would suit the modern high-rise architectural environment in which they would be situated. The project remained on hold until the fall of 1965, when Giacometti visited New York, his only trip to America, to view his retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art. After examining the site near Wall Street numerous times, the sculptor finally decided that a single standing woman, towering over 25 feet in height, would best create the effect he desired amid the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan. On his return to Paris, he asked Diego to prepare an armature for the huge maquette, but subsequent illness, and the artist’s death in January 1966, marked the end of this project.
"I keep coming back to these women,” the novelist and playwright Jean Genet, whom Giacometti regarded as his favorite living author, described his response to the Femmes de Venise, suggesting as well the central role of the standing woman in Giacometti’s creative imagination. “Around them space vibrates. Nothing is any longer at rest. Perhaps because each angle (made with Giacometti's thumb when he was modeling the clay) or curve, or lump, or crest, or torn tip of metal are themselves not at rest. Each of them still emits the sensibility that created them. No point, no ridge that outlines or lacerates space is dead. I can't stop touching the statues: I look away and my hand continues its discoveries of its own accord: neck, head, nape of the neck, shoulders... The sensations flow to my fingertips. Each one is different, so that my hand traverses an extremely varied and vivid landscape... This oscillation from woman to goddess may be what is most disturbing: sometimes the emotion is unbearable” (trans. Richard Howard, in E. White, ed., The Selected Writings of Jean Genet, Hopewell, NJ, 1993, p. 323).