Giacometti created Femme assise during 1949-1950, at the height of a breakthrough period of astonishing productivity, in which he brought forth definitive masterworks, one after another, in his newly attenuated, weightless, and visionary post-war mode. In three exhibitions, his first solo shows in nearly fifteen years—at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, in 1948 and 1950, and at Galerie Maeght, Paris, in 1951—Giacometti unveiled L’homme au doigt, Homme qui marche, La Main, Trois hommes qui marchent, La Place II, La Cage, Le Chariot, L’homme qui chavire, La Clairière, and La Forêt, among other works. “With space, then, Giacometti has to make a man,” the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his catalogue preface for the 1948 show. “He has to write unity into the infinite multiplicity, the absolute into the purely relative, the future into the eternally present... The passion of sculpture is to make oneself totally spatial, so that from the depth of space, the statue of a man may sally forth” (“The Search for the Absolute,” Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1948, p. 3).
When Giacometti returned to Paris from Geneva in the fall of 1945, following the end of the Second World War, he carried in his suitcase and pockets small matchboxes that held the tiny plaster heads and figures that had been the sum product of his wartime work. “In 1945 I swore to myself that I didn’t want to let my figures get smaller and smaller, not even by an inch,” Giacometti recalled. Through the practice of continually drawing he acquired the resolve to enlarge these figures into ever taller sculptures. “Now the following happened: I could maintain the height, but they started to get narrow…tall and thin as a thread.” The artist noticed that “you don’t feel your weight. I wanted—without having thought about it—to reproduce this lightness, and that by making the body so thin” (quoted in R. Hohl, Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, Stuttgart, 1998, pp. 108 and 125).
Embodied within the unprecedented, radical, and extreme filiform configuration of Femme assise, thin and light, is the classic subject of the artist and his model—this full-length seated woman is nude. Giacometti could neither conceive nor sculpt her in any other way. Never before has a nude been so bare, exposed, and fleshless as she is here. Having been cast in bronze affords her figure some tensile strength; the original model—preserved today in the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris—is a most precious, fragile object.
As if he were drawing in three-dimensional space, Giacometti formed this figure first from twisted and joined lengths of wire armature. To this framework he applied and molded plaster—“a material without weight,” as Sartre described, “the most ductile, the most perishable, the most spiritual to hand” (ibid., p. 5)—but only in sufficient measure to lend this figure the sheer fact of presence. Rather than fleshing out the armature, the plaster seems to shrink around it, as if clinging for dear life. Apart from the suggestion of a face (with painted eyes, nose-tip, and mouth in the original plaster), a bulge for the upper chest and back, there is little else by way of detail. All four limbs, the torso, and the twin legs of the seat—the latter uncomfortably constructed like a sidewalk bicycle frame—are equally elemental and undifferentiated in texture.
From various points of view, the configuration in Femme assise of body parts and the seat becomes ambiguously complex; one may detect here a rare play, in a post-war Giacometti sculpture, of mutable, hybrid forms. The model’s legs become the two missing legs of a regular chair, while her arms comprise the back; the seat and its twin supports form the pelvis and legs of a standing woman. The shadows cast by the conflation of elongated elements in Femme assise are no less intriguing, and should suggest, in the eye of each beholder, various and sundry visual similes.
The men and women that Giacometti shaped in his hands each conform to a particular archetypal posture. “I can never make a woman in any other way than motionless,” Giacometti told Pierre Schneider in 1961, “and a man always striding; when I model a woman, then motionless; a man, always walking” (quoted in R. Hohl, op. cit., 1998, p. 135). His immobile woman never reclines, as most artists are wont to depict her—she stands upright, ramrod straight, legs pressed together, head erect, arms held to her sides. The present sculpture is Giacometti’s first, full-length seated woman since L’objet invisible of 1934, and the only such figure that he created in his post-war oeuvre. He modeled in the late 1950s several figures in clay of his wife Annette seated—these sculptures, however, depict her from head to mid-thigh only, as she also appears in various painted portraits during the same period.
Femme assise is often linked by way of contrast to the similarly filiform, but smaller L’homme qui chavire—“Falling” or “Staggering” Man, 1950—to demonstrate the different gender roles that guided Giacometti’s representation of his male and female subjects. Falling Man is a tragic figure, subject to mutable chance, prone to danger, and likely to become the victim of an early demise. Femme assise, like the long line of standing women in Giacometti’s oeuvre, is anchored to the ground, planted in the earth. She remains impassive, immobile, sometimes vulnerable, but never weak—this stillness is her great strength. While the walking man is transient, her presence is permanent and fixed; she will endure because she is immutable, unchanging, and eternal. She is a goddess, he a fallen angel.
We are conditioned to viewing, when going about our daily lives, the world as fragments of countless, sequential, and often simultaneous phenomena, in mere bits and pieces of the whole. The fleeting impression, the momentary, fluid aspect of human existence, however, held little interest for Alberto Giacometti in his art. He sought instead to discover and reveal the essential presence of his subject, nearly always another human being, as if he were experiencing an epiphany—“the goal,” he decided, “is to capture a complete whole all at once” (quoted in J. Lord, A Giacometti Portrait, New York, 1965, p. 59). Femme assise is at first encounter one such replete, whole image, as primordial and primitive as a paleolithic fetish, yet able to speak to the existential anxieties of the modern era.
Giacometti transcribed into the forms of Femme assise the lineaments of an Egyptian funerary limestone figure. He was fascinated with ancient Egyptian art and civilization, including this culture’s lore of magic and the occult. “The idea that most Egyptian sculpted images were ‘doubles,’ or ka figures,” Laurie Wilson has written, “would stay with Giacometti all his life.” She cites Gaston Maspero’s Manual of Egyptian Archeology, 1914: “The Egyptians regarded man as constituted of various entities… There was a visible form, the body to which the ka or double was attached during life. The ka was a replica of the body, of a substance less dense, a colored but ethereal projection of the individual” (quoted in Alberto Giacometti: Myth Magic and the Man, New Haven, 2003, p. 168). Compare a statement in Giacometti’s letter to Pierre Matisse, printed in the 1948 gallery exhibition catalogue: “I felt I needed to realize the whole, a structure, a sharpness that I felt, a kind of skeleton in space. Figures for me were never a compact mass but like a transparent construction” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1948, p. 36).
Space appears to press in on Femme assise from all sides, as it does on the Falling Man; space also wells up from the vacuities contained within her arms, legs, and seat stanchions. “‘In space, there is too much,’” Sartre quoted Giacometti, and explained: “This too much is pure and simple coexistence of parts in juxtaposition. Most sculptors let themselves be taken in by this; they confuse the flaccidness of extension with largesse, they put too much into their work, they delight in the fat curve of a marble hip, they spread out, thicken and expand the human gesture. Giacometti knows there is nothing redundant in a living man, because everything there is functional; he knows that space is a cancer on being, and eats everything; to sculpt, for him, is to take the fat off space; he compresses space, so as to drain off its exteriority… We know now what squeezer Giacometti used to compress space: there is only one: distance. He puts distance within reach of your hand, he thrusts before your eyes a distant woman—and she remains distant, even when you touch her with your fingertips” (ibid., pp. 3 and 6).
“Giacometti goes from known to unknown by stripping down, by progressive asceticism,” Jacques Dupin observed. “He flays appearances and digs into reality until he renders visible the essence of their relationship, that is, the presence of something sacred” (Giacometti: Three Essays, New York, 2003, p. 74).
The post-war zeitgeist, reeling from near-Armageddon and awaiting its Day of Judgment, envisioned its existential issues in the work of Alberto Giacometti, an art of making choices in an inescapable process of serial destruction and rebuilding. “To the bodies of Giacometti something has happened: do they come, we ask, from a concave mirror, from the fountain of youth, or from a camp of displaced persons?” Sartre asked. “At first glance we seem to be up against the fleshless martyrs of Buchenwald. But a moment later we have a quite different conception; these fine and slender natures rise up to heaven, we seem to have come across a group of Ascensions, of Assumptions; they dance, they are dances, they are made of the same rarified matter as the glorious bodies that were promised us. And when we have come to this mystic thrust, these emaciated bodies expand, what we see before us belongs to earth. This martyr was only a woman. But a woman complete, glimpsed, furtively desired, a woman who moved away and passed…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 yet not utterly of this earth, and who lives and tells us of the astonishing adventure of the flesh, our adventure. For she, like us, was born” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1948, pp. 16 and 20).
An early owner of the present Femme assise was a woman whose own life was an “astonishing adventure”—the dealer and gallerist Erica Brausen. Brausen became friends with Giacometti in the early 1930s, when they were neighbors in Montparnasse; after a stint in Majorca during the Spanish Civil War, during which she assisted numerous Jewish and socialist friends in escaping from Franco’s forces, she arrived penniless in London at the start of the Second World War. In 1947, she established the Hanover Gallery, which quickly rose to prominence as one of the most influential showcases of advanced art in Europe. Brausen gave Giacometti an exhibition in 1955 and thereafter served as his principal dealer in London; her personal holdings included furniture by Diego Giacometti and a collection of ancient Egyptian statuary to complement her sculptures by Alberto.
Brausen was also an early champion of Francis Bacon, another artist whose figures are “always mediating between nothing and being,” as Sartre wrote of Giacometti. Through Brausen and other mutual friends, Giacometti and Bacon became close in the 1960s—bonded one to the other, as Michael Peppiatt has recently written, by “l’air du temps through which both men had lived: the sense of alienation and isolation that post-war man had inherited, the need to distort the human image in order for it to communicate a new, terrible truth, the unrelenting awareness that all of us poor mortals are condemned to exist in a void” (Bacon Giacometti, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, 2018, pp. 171 and 173).
Three casts of the present sculpture reside in institutional collections, including The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Fondation Beyeler, Basel and Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. The painted plaster is in the collection of the Fondation Giacometti.