Alberto Giacometti: When I walk down the street and I see a girl walking ahead of me, all dressed up, I see a girl. When she is in the room and naked before me, I see a goddess.
Jean Genet: For me a naked woman is a naked woman. She doesn’t make much of an impression. I certainly can’t see her as a goddess. But I see your statues the way you see naked girls.
Alberto Giacometti: Do you think I manage to show them the way I see them?
(From J. Genet, The Studio of Alberto Giacometti, 1957).
Femme de Venise V relates to a series of standing female figures Alberto Giacometti specially conceived for the French Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1956. Comprising nine bronze casts, the group is a poignant example of the artist’s working method and a moving expression of the obsessive quest that governed his Post-War artistic creation.
The ‘Femmes de Venise’ series was created at a time of wide acknowledgement of the importance and relevance of Giacometti’s work. In 1955, three major retrospectives of his work were organised internationally: David Sylvester curated a show in London, James Johnson Sweeney organised a show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and in Germany, Paul Wember oversaw a travelling exhibition. The following year, recognition came from Giacometti’s natal and adoptive countries: France asked the artist to represent the nation at the Venice Biennale and the Kunsthalle Bern proposed to organise a major retrospective of his work. For the occasion, Giacometti set to work on a new series of sculptures. For the first few months of 1956, the artist incessantly modelled a single figure, a standing woman, which – in the context of those landmark exhibitions – seemed to summarise the artist’s deepest artistic ambition and the philosophical nature of his creative endeavour.
In 1956, at the end of his work on the single standing figure, Giacometti was left with at least ten plaster casts. He exhibited six of them in Venice as a group and sent the remaining four to Bern. Eventually, he cast nine of them into bronze; he titled each of them ‘Femme de Venise’ and numbered them from I to IX, without however following any specific chronological order or making any distinction between the two exhibited groups. The group of figures had been created through a fascinating working process. Instead of working on each specific figure independently, Giacometti worked on a single clay model throughout, so that each of the nine bronze sculptures of the Femmes de Venise descends from the same, unique source. Sylvester explained such process in 1956: ‘During the whole beginning of the year (1956), Giacometti worked on a single standing figure, always on the same armature and clay, as he was used to do. But this time, in the days when he liked what he had created, he made a plaster cast of the momentary status of the statue, before resuming his work’ (quoted in Alberto Giacometti: Plâtres peints, exh. cat., Paris, 1984, n.p.). The Femmes de Venise thus from a very special group: descending form the same origin, they appear as the ghost-like traces of a long journey of transformation.
The group of nine bronze Femmes de Venise would be exhibited together for the first time in 1958, at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York, as part of the show Giacometti: Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings from 1956-1958. The photographer Herbert Matter would document the display in a series of photographs that – for their own artistic quality – enhanced Giacometti’s intent and poetics. Giacometti was captivated, he wrote to Pierre Matisse: ‘Thank you for the photograph of the 9 of Venice (…) It is very beautiful, I am delighted, I had never seen my sculptures so clearly, it was worth to make them only to have this photograph. It has to be included in the catalogue’ (quoted in L’Atelier d’Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., Paris, 2008, p. 362). Matter’s isolation of the sculptures in a white space and under a tarnished light gives the group an almost hallucinatory dimension, in which the sculptures appear even more like the scissions of the same, evolving idea. Giacometti’s enthusiasm for the photograph suggests that to the artist the Femmes de Venise acquired a particular significance in their proximity: together, the group reinforces the underlying principle of transformation and transience that was at the core of Giacometti’s entire artistic quest.
The entirety of Giacometti’s Post-War oeuvre was dominated by a unique, pressing question: how to paint, draw and sculpt the perception of a living presence. In his practice, Giacometti relinquished any received wisdom and set out to tackle representation as though for the first time, relying uniquely on his sense of perception, rather than on academic tricks or avant-gardist principles. What ensued was an art of constant re-assessment. As the living presence in front of the artist shifted, evolved and imperceptibly changed, Giacometti’s brush, pencil or clay also followed, in a series of incessant adjustments from which apparent haziness ultimately surged the image of a presence in space. Giacometti explained the constant alternation of success and failure that relentlessly pushed his work forward: ‘I sometimes think that I’m capturing the phenomenon, but then I lose it again, so that I have to start from the beginning. This is what makes me hurry, makes me work’ (quoted in A. Schneider, ‘As if from Afar: Constants in the Work of Alberto Giacometti’, pp. 71-75, in Alberto Giacometti: Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, exh. cat., Berlin, 1987, p. 71). Femmes de Venise is an extraordinary materialisation of such process. Across the series, the female standing figure grows, shrinks, is flattened and then rounded, eroded and developed, following the artist’s flowing vision, tracing the stages of his advancement.
Within this process, the existence of each of the Femmes de Venise depended on the destruction of the preceding one. Every time Diego – Giacometti’s brother – captured in plaster a transitory result, the artist would be ready to resume his work on the clay model, to push his search further, destroying that momentary success to venture ahead, at risk of a future failure. Asked in 1961 if he had ever had the feeling of being running on the spot, Giacometti replied: ‘Not at all, I think that I make a little progress every day. Oh yes, I really believe that, even if this progress is hardly visible. And, increasingly, I believe that it is not every day that I make progress, but every hour’ (‘Entretien avec Pierre Schneider’, pp. 229-237, in A. Giacometti, Écrits: Articles, notes et entretiens, Paris, 2007, p. 237). The Femmes de Venise series is a moving expression of Giacometti’s persistence, giving visibility to the multiple essays of his relentless quest. The artist’s biographer James Lord observed:
‘In the course of a single afternoon this figure could undergo ten, twenty, forty metamorphoses as the sculptor's fingers coursed over the clay. Not one of these states was definitive, because he was not working toward a preconceived idea of form (…) Alberto's purpose was not to preserve one state of his sculpture from amid so many. It was to see more clearly what he had seen. In plaster, the revelation was more luminous than in clay. Once a figure existed in plaster, however, it stood apart from the flux in which it had developed. It had achieved an ambiguous permanence and made an apparent claim for survival. If the artist allowed it to survive, to be cast in bronze, this was by reason of curiosity and comparison, not as potential evidence of achievement’ (J. Lord, Giacometti: A Biography, London, 1986, pp. 355-356).
While Giacometti would often paint and sculpt from life, inflicting on his favourite models, such as his brother Diego or his wife Annette, long sessions of rigorous immobility, for the Femmes de Venise the artist worked from memory. In this regard, the series is a compendium of the artist’s conceptions of the female standing figure. From scrawny and spectral (Femme de Venise VI) to rigid and austere (Femme de Venise II), the female form evolves to express multiple facets of the same primordial idea. Of the group, Femme de Venise V is one of the most voluptuous examples: her breasts are heavy and her solid hands lend to her hips and womb a sense of impregnated weight and substance. Besides Femme de Venise V, only two other figures in the series maintain their arms detached from the body, creating a sinuous, expressive gap between the limbs and the curves of the female bust.
Within the series, Femme de Venise V appears as a particularly strong example of a singular effect of disproportion that was characteristic of Giacometti’s unique vision. As the head of the figure acquired a minute fragility, her feet, as squared and heavy as anchors, conveys ideas of force and solidity. The female body develops between these two opposite poles, drawing energy from both in a process that lends a sense of compelling presence to this upward, standing figure. Lord eloquently described this effect: ‘The heads of the female figures are disproportionally small, their body elongated, and the feet, as always, disproportionally large. Aesthetically, the two disproportions make for a single effect of ascending vitality. When a spectator’s attention is fixed upon the head of one of these figures, the lower part of her body would lack verisimilitude were it not planted firmly upon those enormous feet, because even without looking directly at them, one is aware of their mass, which counterbalances the smallness of the head, and between the two poles the remote but approximate body springs to life with instantaneous surge’ (J. Lord, op. cit., p. 356). In philosophical terms, the grounded feet of figures such as Femme de Venise V came to symbolise Giacometti’s complex relation to the visible world. While the body of the figure quivered and thinned as the artist struggled to capture the essence of his perception of another human being, these remarkable feet affirm Giacometti’s solid rooting in the physical realm of the visible world. Lord explained: ‘Comparable to the force of gravity, [the force that drove the sculpture’s fingers] kept those massive feet so solidly set on the pedestal that they affirmed the physicality of the figure as the one aspect of his creativity which the artist could absolutely count on, all the rest being subject to the unreliability of the mind’s eye’ (ibid., p. 357).
It was one of Giacometti’s dear friends, the much-admired writer Jean Genet, who would write one of the most compelling passages on the Femmes de Venise. Published by the Galerie Maeght in 1957, in the review Derrière le miroir, as part of the essay ‘L’Atelier d’Alberto Giacometti’, Genet’s text brings to the fore the rich, complex visual experience that the viewing of these standing female figures had to offer. Giacometti’s struggle in perceiving a figure while sculpting gave birth to an equally challenging, elusive encounter when, once cast, the Femmes de Venise confront their viewer:
‘They still give me this odd feeling: they are familiar, they walk in the street, yet they are in the depths of time, at the source of all being; they keep approaching and retreating in a sovereign immobility. If my gaze attempts to tame them, to approach them, then – but not furiously, not ranting or raging, simply by means of a distance between them and myself that I had not noticed, a distance so compressed and reduced it made them seem quite close – they take their distance and keep it: it is because this distance between them and myself has suddenly unfolded. Where are they going? Although their image remains visible, where are they?’ (J. Genet, ‘The Studio of Alberto Giacometti’, pp. 309-329, in J. Genet, The Selected Writings, Hopewell, 1993, p. 311).