During 1948-1950 Alberto Giacometti created a series of multi-figure compositions that proved to be the most astonishing development in his work when they were shown in his second exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, in December 1950. The most recently created, post-war highlights of his previous show at this venue—the landmark, breakthrough event in Giacometti’s career, held in January 1947—had been large, sometimes life-size, and single attenuated figures and body parts, mostly male. The filiform, standing figures in Giacometti’s newest group sculptures were predominantly female, establishing the paradigm to which the artist would generally adhere for the rest of his career—woman as goddess and muse, modeled full-length, upright, immobile, viewed as if from a distance; man as head or bust only, pensive, spatially more approachable, but imposing nonetheless in his hieratic, mountainous aspect.
Giacometti initially conceived these groupings as situated in une place, that is, the representation of encounters between figures in a cosmopolitan street setting. The present Composition avec neuf figures, better known as La Clairière—“The Glade”—is the most populous of three multi-figure groupings composed on and integrated into rectangular bases; the other two are Composition avec trois figures et un tête (La Place)—“The Square”—and Composition avec sept figures et une tête (La Forêt)—“The Forest.” While the figures in La Clairière are exclusively female, a male head acts as a spectator among the women in La Place and La Forêt. Also related to the place idea is an array of four female figures set atop a raised plinth, Quatre femmes sur socle. Two other versions of the “square” conception, titled Place I and Place II, each comprise four men walking in the proximity of a single standing female. Men cross paths on the street, but with no woman present, in Trois hommes qui marchent. Pierre Matisse featured bronze casts of each of these subjects in his 1950 Giacometti exhibition.
Only when completed did La Forêt (March 1950) and La Clairière (June 1950) suggest to Giacometti their natural, landscape settings. The artist associated the initial place he created—the composition with three figures and a head—with sable (“sand”), not as a locale, but as the primal, elemental idea from which La Forêt and La Clairière ultimately issued. The fundamental constituent in each of the group sculptures (apart from the trio of walking men), is the thin elongated female figure; she, as one among several or many, is the object of the artist/viewer’s gaze, the latter embodied in the head or surrounding male figures when present in the sculpture.
As the introduction to the 1950 exhibition catalogue, Matisse translated passages from a recent letter in which Giacometti explained the genesis of these new sculptures (exh. cat., op. cit., 1950, pp. 3, 5, 6, and 9): “Every day during March and April 1950 I made three figures (studies) of different dimensions and also heads. I stopped without reaching what I was looking for but was unable to destroy these figures which were still standing up or to leave them isolated and lost in space. I started to make a composition of three figures and one head [La Place], a composition which came out almost against myself (or rather it was done before I had time to think about it), but almost immediately afterwards I wished for things less rigid but not knowing how to realize them.”
In “things less rigid,” Giacometti was indicating his reservations regarding the validity of the calculative process he had employed in composing the figurines in their shared space—place—the base on which they rested. The artist had not needed to deal with such issues since the mid-1930s, when at the end of his early surrealist period he had ceased bringing together multiple elements in a sculpture and turned instead to modeling solitary figures from life or memory. The solution to this problem in 1950, however, soon became apparent, most unexpectedly, but with a convincing result that satisfied Giacometti: “A few days later, looking at other figures which, in order to clear the table, had been placed on the floor at random, I realized that they formed two groups which seemed to correspond to what I was looking for. I set up the two groups without changing their positions and afterwards worked on the figures altering neither positions nor dimensions."
Giacometti elected to follow the happenstance placement of the figures just as he had found them, and so they appear in the completed La Forêt and La Clairière. By loosening the strictures of deliberative creativity and laying himself open to fortunate accident, then trusting the outcome, the artist was still in touch with the subconscious impulse of his surrealist period. Deeper memories, together with metaphorical associations, subsequently came into play, evoking the pasture meadows, the thick, dark forests, and the rugged, rocky terrain in the Bregaglia Valley of Alpine Switzerland, where Giacometti had grown up and still visited his elderly mother in their family home. “To my surprise, the Composition with Nine Figures [La Clairière] seemed to realize the impression I had received when seeing a glade (it was like a pasture grown wild, with trees and shrubs on the edge of a forest) which had greatly intrigued me. I would have liked to paint it, make something of it but I had left with the feeling I had lost it."
“The Composition with Seven Figures [La Forêt] reminded me of a forest corner seen for many years (that was during my childhood) and where trees with their naked and slender trunks, limbless almost to the top and behind which could be seen granite boulders, had always appeared to me like personages immobilized in the course of their wanderings and talking among themselves.”
La Clairière conjured the profusion and varieties of vernal growth in light-filled forest clearings, to which ancient mythologies ascribed the presence of youthful feminine spirits, nymphs, and other lesser deities in the animist pantheon. Similar thoughts likely occurred to Giacometti as he spent admission-free Sundays in the Louvre, studying and drawing objects on display in the antiquities rooms, including small, female fertility idols from Old Kingdom Egypt and the prehistoric Cycladic islands. While alluding to members of the oldest profession displaying their charms, as Giacometti himself noted, the figurines in Quatre femmes sur socle were in part similarly inspired.
Turning to figures in groups was the inevitable result of already having created many single figures of women and men; Giacometti pursued this development as a necessary step to enrich the variety of his production while avoiding rote repetition among his most characteristic subjects. The sculptor only needed to look around at the many plaster figures that crowded every tabletop and filled each corner in his cramped studio to imagine the potential inherent in multi-figure combinations.
The chance arrangement of the figures in La Clarière, each in its own scale, abnegates any conventional sense of distance and consistent perspective, demonstrating that “less rigid” state Giacometti had been seeking. There is no single, definitive vantage point—this sculpture virtually reinvents itself for the viewer each time one approaches it. The propinquity of the nine women, despite their ostensible immobility, spins out a spiraling network of interactive relationships, perceived in the spatial field or aura that surrounds each figure, as well as in the material substance itself from which it is formed. In these conjoined and overlapping fields of attraction, solitude is no longer singular, but plural.
“The figures keep us at a distance; they carry their remoteness inside them and reveal their profound being,” Jacques Dupin wrote. “The gravity of their bearing, the ascetism of their demeanor and their gaze which traverses time and traverses us too without flinching, without suspecting our opacity and stupefaction, gives them the appearance of divinities. They seem to await a primitive cult. Disposed in groups in a gallery or a studio, gathered in clusters on a single pedestal, they form an assembly of sacred figures whose distance accentuates their enigmatic likeness and their obsessive questioning” (Giacometti: Three Essays, New York, 2003, pp. 28-29)