The art historian Laurie Wilson wrote in 2003 that, ‘Giacometti arrived in Paris in 1922 with burning questions for which he had no acceptable answers: What is Man? What is Woman?’ (Wilson 2003, p.64). Composition (Man and Woman) might be viewed as part of a process in which the Swiss artist synthesised the sources around him to find new ways of representing the human figure.
This work is a bronze cast of a composition first conceived by Giacometti in Paris in 1927. It is structured around a column-like form on the left, a plinth and a parallel crosspiece resting on the diagonal forms at the composition’s centre. These framing devices do not fully contain the composition, however, and the oblong and spherical forms on the right-hand side, for instance, overlap and jut out beyond the plinth. These aspects of the work’s structure, along with the repetition of individual elements (such as the spheres) from multiple perspectives, suggest an engagement with cubism. The French writer Yves Bonnefoy has aligned this work with the efforts of other Paris-based sculptors of the time, such as Jacques Lipchitz, who were also exploring the spatial possibilities of cubism in the late 1920s with forms that could appear in varying degrees abstract and representational (Bonnefoy 1991, p.144).
Important sources for Giacometti’s work in this period were the numerous museums housing plaster casts of recent archaeological findings (such as the Musée des antiquités nationales in Saint-Germain-en-Laye) that he visited in Paris. By the mid-1920s, he was exhibiting his work with a group of Italian-speaking artists – including Serge Brignoni and Massimo Campigli – heavily influenced by the contents of these archaeological displays, which included African and Oceanic sculptures as well as pre-archaic European sources such as Cycladic sculpture. Laurie Wilson suggests that through such encounters Giacometti became familiar with marks found at prehistoric sites that were interpreted as ‘schemata for male and female genitalia’, with males ‘symbolized by three or four parallel lines or arrows, often oriented diagonally’ (Wilson 2003, p.75). The parallel diagonals at the centre of Composition (Man and Woman) suggest one way in which the sculptor may have begun to assimilate such signs into his practice.
Later works by Giacometti evidence the refinement and reinvention of these signs, and further clarify the forms that appear in this sculpture. For example, both the rod that penetrates three of the diagonal forms and the hollow hemispheres at the top-left and bottom-right of this work prefigure the shorthand Giacometti would use for the sexes in Man and Woman 1928–9 (Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris). Here ‘man’ appears to be represented by a phallic extension, whereas ‘woman’ takes the form of a concave vessel. Equally, Reclining Woman Who Dreams 1929, which shares the basic structure of Composition (Man and Woman), takes ‘man’ out of the sculpture by removing the jarring diagonals. Furthermore, in his ‘plaques’ of 1927–8 (which first piqued the surrealist André Breton’s interest in Giacometti), the ‘schemata’ for man and woman are the sole marks on a flat plane, and the only features identifying the sculpture as a figure.
These examples of Giacometti’s formal development also suggest an engagement with ideas that anticipate his involvement in Breton’s surrealist group from the spring of 1929. Many surrealists saw the language of ‘primitive’ art as providing a means of accessing repressed human impulses, although Giacometti, according to the art historian Reinhold Hohl, remained ‘primarily concerned with questions of composition and design’ (Hohl 1972, p.79).
Unusually, this sculpture was not cast in bronze until October 1964, when the original plaster (which had been purchased from Giacometti in 1927) was found in a private collection by the prominent collector, friend and compatriot of the artist, Bernhard Kornfeld. Six bronzes and two proofs were then produced by Kornfeld with Giacometti’s permission, with the work now in Tate’s collection initially owned by the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York.
Reinhold Hohl, Alberto Giacometti: Sculpture Painting, Drawing, London 1972, p.79, reproduced p.42.
Yves Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of His Work, trans. by Jean Stewart, Paris 1991, p.144, reproduced p.147.
Laurie Wilson, Alberto Giacometti: Myth, Magic, and the Man, New Haven 2003.
Supported by Christie’s.