As Giacometti embarked in 1947 on the first of the famously thin, elongated figures of standing women and walking men, some nearly life size--those signature works that were soon to become icons of the post-war zeitgeist--he modeled three sculptures that represent parts of the human body: La Main (fig. 1), Le Nez (fig. 2) and Tête sur tige (fig. 3). Christian Klemm has pointed out that in these works Giacometti returned to the lessons he had learned as a young man while studying in Bourdelle's Académie de le Grande Chaumière, when he "found it easier to form individual parts than whole figures," as Christian Klemm has noted. "[Now] acting on that inclination in his first works in many years to approach life size, he opted for the fragmentary" (exh. cat., op. cit., 2001, p. 146).
While working on these three body parts, Giacometti conceived the idea for a fourth sculpture--a leg--to complete the series. While there is no evidence that Giacometti actually commenced work on a leg during the late 1940s or early 1950s, the idea seems to have lingered in his mind for more than a decade. As he recounted to Dr. Eduard Trier in 1960, "I had this sculpture in my imagination, behind my eyes since 1947... It was not possible then to make a large figure with different well-determined parts, and yet I had the desire to define an arm, a leg, a belly. Only the possibility of making the part of a whole remained with me and that corresponded to my vision of things. I did not want to simultaneously see the eyes, the hands, the feet of a person who is held two or three meters from me, but only the part that I was trained to look at was the sensation of the existence of it all" ("Apropos de 'La Jambe,'" in M. Leiris and J. Dupin, eds., Alberto Giacometti: Écrits, Paris, 1990, p. 85).
"One day, in 1958," Giacometti continued, "it became urgent to finish something with this leg as quickly as possible after years I had seen it in my imagination without having the strong desire to carry it out... But what counted as least as much was the desire, the physical pleasure to have in front of me the precise height and dimension of a foot--the knee has so much height and the top of the thigh has this precise point above me--and what counted as much was the angle, the direction of the foot, of the leg, of the thigh with a certain manner, the knee with its fixed point" (quoted in ibid., p. 179).
Giacometti completed La Jambe early that year and had it cast in bronze, in time to include an example in his exhibition of recent works at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, which opened in May 1958. His ultimate conception of this solitary limb had become larger than life, an approach that he would have been reluctant to undertake earlier on, but which now seemed timely and essential to the development of his work. He was under consideration, as were Calder and Noguchi, to execute an outdoor project for the Chase Manhattan Plaza, then under construction in lower Manhattan. Having recently completely his celebrated series of Femmes de Venise, Giacometti had begun to ponder the creation of supremely large standing women for a public square, the Grandes femmes debouts, which would turn out to be the tallest figures he ever created (fig. 4). La Jambe stands Janus-like like in the sculptor's career, drawing inspiration from an earlier idea, finding fruition while he look forward to the crowning works of his final period.
The need to finally create La Jambe might well have become ineluctable toward the end of the 1950s, and not merely as a preliminary formal endeavor toward working on a scale hitherto unprecedented in the sculptor's work. For it should be considered that no other sculpture in Giacometti's oeuvre stems so directly and compellingly from a single event in the artist's life, and stands as the physical representation, an extension as it were, and in the most meaningful way, of his own body. The leg had to be done, to embody and reveal what amounted to a central and crucial element in the sculptor's most deeply held and sustaining personal mythology, and like the other three body parts, to exorcise troubling memories that continued to haunt him. Francis Ponge has noted that like La Main, La Jambe "was probably inspired by the memory of the exodus of 1940," when as Giacometti and his brother Diego fled Paris ahead of advancing German tank columns, they witnessed the horrifying sight of human body parts laying in the debris of towns that had been indiscriminately bombed and strafed. "But it also recalls the accident of 1938," Ponge added (in op. cit., 1990, p. 543)--when Giacometti was struck down on a Paris street late at night, an event that he could never forget, and one, as he claimed, that altered his life. As Thierry Dufrêne has stated, "the accident of 1938... served the myth of the artist's life to which Giacometti was very much attached" (The Studio of Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2007, p. 344).
In his biography of Giacometti, James Lord has pieced together the essential, credible facts of this incident. On the night of 18 October 1938, eight days after he celebrated his 37th birthday, Giacometti had dinner with Isabel Delmer, a married Englishwoman with whom he was having an affair. He was unhappy with this relationship and was undecided on whether he should continue it or break off with her. After walking Isabel to her door, Giacometti was making his way home along the place des Pyramides when a speeding automobile emerged from the rue de Rivoli, sideswiped the sidewalk and knocked him down, before passing under an arcade and crashing through a shop window. His right shoe had come off; his foot appeared misshapen and had begun to swell. A police car took him to the nearby Bichat hospital, together with the driver of the car, an American woman from Chicago, Mrs. Nelson, who was drunk but unhurt (she immediately afterwards skipped town and was never heard from again). Giacometti's pain increased as the night wore on. In the morning Diego and some of the artist's friends arrived and transferred him to the Clinique Rémy-de-Gourmont. Dr. Raymond Leibovici, an eminent surgeon, took X-rays which revealed Giacometti's right foot to have been crushed and broken in two places. Surgery was not required, however--Dr. Leibovici was certain that after the bones were set and his foot placed in a cast, Giacometti's injuries would fully heal in ten to twelve weeks.
Giacometti appears to have prematurely put too much pressure on his injured foot, which disrupted and prolonged the healing process. He took to walking with a cane, which he continued to use for the next several years, and thereafter he showed a slight limp in his gait. He often told the story of his accident to friends, journalists and even passing acquaintances, apparently embellishing the details as time passed. The art historian Carola Gideon-Welcker made the following notes of a conversation on this subject she had with Giacometti on 19 August 1955. Notice, for example, how the artist's foot, actually broken in two places, has become smashed into twelve pieces, with potentially far more dangerous consequences. Giacometti mentioned to her his sensation that there were "...two people in him, in 'dédoublement.' One is lying on the ground with a twisted foot, the other floats above and observes the situation from above, coldly and impartially, as it were. Wants to get up, foot at a right angle to where it should be. His shoe has been torn off, shredded as though by a series of knives. Socks undamaged. A passer-by comes and wrenches his foot back into position. The car careens into a coffee house. General public becomes involved. A police car stops, invites him to get in. Opposite him a beautiful, inebriated girl, the car-driver. 'Oh, you're the one I hit?' Is admitted to the Hospital Bichat, later moves to a private clinic where he stays six weeks. Strangely 'arrogant' gait with two crutches, then with his foot in plaster. Complicated fracture of the foot (in twelve places), which is saved by careful treatment, otherwise it would have been amputated. His hopeless love (Isabel) visits him, and many different experiences contribute to make his stay in the clinic of the best times for him" (R. Hohl, ed., Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, Osfildern-Ruit, 1998, pp. 93-94).
The novelist-philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre included an account of Giacometti's accident in his autobiography, Les Mots (The Words), published in 1964. Giacometti was upset that Sartre had misstated the facts, and even worse, that the writer had interpreted the event as a signal existentialist moment, a notion with which the sculptor completely disagreed. Later that year Giacometti recounted in conversations with Professor Gotthard Jedlicka and Giorgio Soavi:
"Sartre told his story of my accident the way it suited him. But it was completely different. And his conclusions were wrong. In Stampa I sat down and wrote exactly what happened, down to the last detail-- twenty-eight pages! And as I realized as I was doing it that it was as meaningful-meaningless, as meaningless-meaningful, as my life, as life itself is.
It was this way--I had a model. I was walking to and fro in my studio in front of this woman. She was standing still. I said to her: 'Look how well one can walk on two legs. Isn't it wonderful? Perfect balance.' I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, turned around and suddenly without losing my balance. 'Perfect, isn't it? That really is extraordinary.'
Later, but on that same night, I accompanied my girlfriend [Isabel Delmer] on foot from the Café de Flore to the other bank of the Seine. Our relationship had been so unsatisfactory for so long that I had decided that evening to break with her. 'I am losing my footing completely,' I had said to her among other things. On the way back I was crossing the place des Pyramides looking for a taxi. A car came rushing at me across the square. I ran to the traffic island but that didn't help. I was hit, thrown down. I didn't feel the slightest pain, it happened so quickly. But I knew all the same that something had happened to my foot, because it was sticking out from my leg like a part of my body that didn't belong to me anymore. I grabbed at it, pulled it back into place, and it remained in that position, and I thought everything was all right again... They x-rayed my foot and only then did they discover that it was broken. It took a long time to heal. But it was a good time for me; hadn't I predicted or anticipated what had happened? Isn't it strange how something you say can come true like that? And once again my life took care of bringing to an end a situation which had become unbearable for me" (R. Hohl, ed., op. cit., pp. 93-94).
Thierry Dufrêne has analyzed the rupture between Sartre and Giacometti that followed on the publication of Les Mots: "For Giacometti, there wasn't a shred of truth in the abusive interpretation that Sartre based on his idea of Giacometti, an interpretation that also served his idea of the absurd, namely, that the price of freedom was a total lack of meaning in life on earth, because of death. For Giacometti believed in his destiny, or at least, he believed in an instinct that served him as an unconscious guide: what happened to the body was a means whereby the spirit and desire could find a solution to a crisis. Indeed, on the morning of the accident, Giacometti felt that he was 'losing his footing' and did not know what direction to take, whether in his love life, with Isabel, or in his art, where reality was escaping him. The accident revealed him to himself, and that is why every detail--as deformed by Sartre--counted: night, the enigma of Les Pyramides. It was partly willed coincidence, for its seeming victim it soon became a meaningful one" (op. cit., exh. cat., 2007, p. 344).
"The Leg most likely had its sources in this accident of 1938," Klemm has written, "as well as Giacometti's obsessive interest in feet. This piece touches on [Georges] Bataille's notions of base materialism, his penchant for the lowly, and the reviled. Like Head on a Rod and The Hand, Giacometti's The Leg has a severed, mutilated aspect. In contrast to Bataille, however, whose privileged territory was the lowest and whose intent was to devalue the elevated and the ideal, Giacometti sought to raise what was low: a foot is lifted out of the dust and placed on a pedestal, and a leg becomes a memorial" (exh. cat., op. cit., 2001, p. 146).
"A bizarre creation came from the rue Hippolyte-Maindron in 1958," James Lord declared, "amid portraits of Annette and Diego, figurines, busts and the first studies for the Chase Manhattan Plaza. It is called The Leg, because that is what it is: a bronze leg truncated below the hip. It rather resembles the branch of an old tree, and would look exactly like one were it not planted on a large and obvious foot. The foot gives identity to the whole. That, the sculptor explained, was his purpose. He stated that he had in mind to execute this work ever since 1947, the year when he produced The Nose, The Hand, and Head on a Rod, all three made to concentrate in a single part the whole existence of the individual, and all isolate in space to achieve their effect. These works refer metaphorically to the symbolic resources of a lifetime. The Leg may have been a definitive step toward the freedom to confront a reality greater than the artist's own... Years of walking with a cane, and with a happy sense that he had encountered a necessity, not an accident. Because of it, he had been able to make important progress in his work" (op. cit., pp. 387-388)
La Jambe matches in scale the legs of the enormous four Grandes femmes debouts that Giacometti executed for possible use in the Chase Manhattan Plaza project, a commission he never fulfilled. This solitary leg is, however, a male limb, although it is larger than the legs of Homme qui marche (fig. 5)--now the world's most expensive sculpture--which was also modeled as a prospective part of the New York figure ensemble. La Jambe is neither ramrod straight and static, like the legs of the standing women, nor is it caught in the act of walking, as in Homme qui marche. Instead, La Jambe exists in an intermediate state, slightly bent at the knee, purposefully flexed, as if ready to push off and set itself in motion. This part of the body stands for the whole; and so it is for Giacometti that the certitude of the implanted foot, the potential of the leg to bend, raise itself and step forward, together describe the struggle to define and empower oneself, or to simply carry on--as Samuel Beckett declared, "I can't go on, I'll go on." (quoted in L'Innommable, Paris, 1953).
Giacometti showed a cast of La Jambe in his individual exhibition at the 1962 Venice Biennale. He was awarded the state prize for sculpture, although he had hoped to receive the Biennale's grand prize for both his sculpture and painting. La Jambe also featured in a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in June-October 1965, an exhibition that subsequently traveled to Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Giacometti came to New York to attend the MoMA exhibition, his only visit to America. During his stay, he visited the recently completed Chase Manhattan Plaza, and again took an interest in the large sculpture project. Giacometti envisioned a single standing female figure at least 23 feet in height, and when he returned to Paris, he had Diego prepare an armature for it. This gigantic woman would have been the crowning achievement of his career, but work on her ceased in late 1965, when Giacometti became critically ill. He died in January 1966.
The larger-than-life figures Giacometti created in his final years are imposingly hieratic archetypes that embody the grandeur of the human form, both male and female, in motion and at rest. For Dieter Honisch, these sculptures display a "sense of personal exposure; the meaninglessness of individual existence and in spite of that, its dignity, the unrelatedness of human beings, their isolation and their aimlessness; the inability to believe and accept ideals, the desire to survive, to find one's place..." (quoted in A. Schneider, op. cit., p. 68). While the great standing women, the walking man and large male head represent Giacometti's ambition to achieve an absolute, universalist vision of the human body, La Jambe stands as his most compelling affirmation of the value of individual experience and the humanist will in the shaping of one's life--and for Giacometti, his art--in the face of the overwhelming anxieties and uncertainties of the modern era, when all other circumstances appear bent on rendering our existence absurd and meaningless.
2 ARTIST PHOTOS:
Giacometti in his studio, circa 1960. The upper part of the plaster version of La Jambe is visible in the right foreground.
Giacometti standing next to the plaster version in progress of Homme qui marche, circa 1960. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger.
(fig. 1) Alberto Giacometti, La Main, 1947. Sold, Christie's, New York, 4 May 2010, lot 30.
(fig. 2) Alberto Giacometti, Le Nez, 1947. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger; Alberto Giacometti Stiftung, Zurich.
(fig. 3) Alberto Giacometti, Tête sur tige, 1947. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger; Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung, Zurich.
(fig. 4) Alberto Giacometti, Grande Femme debout II, 1959-1960. Sold, Christie's, New York, 6 May 2008, lot 36.
(fig. 5) Alberto Giacometti working on Homme qui marche, with Grande Tête in the foreground, circa 1960. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger.