Alberto Giacometti

Hour of the Traces


Alberto Giacometti 1901–1966
Original title
L'Heure des traces
Plaster, wood and steel
Object: 686 × 362 × 286 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1975

Display caption

The fragile construction of this sculpture suggests the mysteries of the unconscious mind. The cage-like structure supports delicate organic forms. The upper shapes have been seen as skeletal or phallic. The lower suspended form could be a beating heart or a clock’s pendulum. Together these might relate to themes including space and time, eroticism and death. Giacometti said that when making his sculptures he reproduced images that were ‘complete in my mind’s eye... without stopping to ask myself what they might mean’.

Gallery label, April 2021

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Catalogue entry

Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966

T01981 L'Heure des Traces (Hour of the Traces) 1930

Not inscribed
Painted plaster and metal rods, 27 x 14 3/16 x 11 3/16 (68.5 x 36 x 28.5)
Purchased at Sotheby's (Grant-in-Aid) with the aid of the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1975
Prov: Diego Giacometti, Paris; private collector, Paris; sold by him at Sotheby's, London, 2 July 1975, lot 100 repr. in colour
Exh: Dada and Surrealism Reviewed, Hayward Gallery, London, January-March 1978 (11.18, repr.)
Lit: Reinhold Hohl, Alberto Giacometti: Sculpture Painting Drawing (London 1972), pp.82, 104, 191, iron and wood version repr. p.293
Repr: Anne Jackson (ed.), Art at Auction 1974-75 (London 1975), p.127 in colour

The artist's brother Diego Giacometti says that this sculpture was executed in 1930 and that a copy was made of it by the craftsman Bastianelli in iron and wood, the wooden parts being the three elements which are white in the original. This copy, which is reproduced in Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution, Nos.5-6, 1933, facing p.56, was sold in 1931 and has since disappeared. The original remained in his (Diego's) possession for many years, until he sold it because he feared that it might get broken by his cats. It was never exhibited because of its extreme fragility.

One of the versions, presumably this work, appears in a drawing of Giacometti's studio dated 1932 (repr. Hohl, op. cit., p.292). It is also referred to and sketched in Giacometti's famous letter to Pierre Matisse of 1947 in which he listed all his principal works and gave a brief account of his development. Writing of his work of the beginning of the 1930s, Giacometti said:

'Figures were never for me a compact mass but like a transparent construction.

'After making all sorts of attempts, I made cages with an open construction inside, executed in wood by a carpenter.'

[Here follow sketches of 'Hour of the Traces' and 'Cage'].

'There was a third element in reality that concerned me: movement.'

'Hour of the Traces' has some resemblance to 'Suspended Ball' 1930 in having a white globular form suspended on a wire within a cage, and may have been made not very long afterwards. 'Suspended Ball' was first exhibited at the Galerie Pierre in 1930, when it attracted the attention of Dali and Breton, and led to Giacometti being invited to join the Surrealist group.

The imagery of 'Hour of the Traces' is very mysterious and it seems almost certain that Giacometti himself had no clear idea of its significance at the time it was made. As he wrote in Minotaure, Nos.3-4, 1933, p.46: 'For some years I have only made sculptures that were complete in my mind's eye, I have limited myself to reproducing them in space without changing anything and without stopping to ask myself what they might mean ... But once the object is finished, I can sometimes recognise images, impressions and experiences - transformed and displaced - which have moved me very deeply, often without me being aware of it; and forms which I feel have special significance for me, even though I am often unable to identify them, which makes them all the more disturbing.'

Diego Giacometti, who sees the suspended white form as suggesting both a heart and the pendulum of a clock, finds the upper forms extremely enigmatic but tends to think of them as celestial bodies. Hohl, on the other hand, refers to the upper forms as a 'jointed doll', a 'face' and 'a male skeleton-figure with its expression of suffering.' It has been suggested by Mrs Cecily Lowenthal that the title 'L'Heure des Traces' is not only an inversion of 'La Trace des Heures' (the traces of time) but probably a pun on 'Leur détresse' (their distress).

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.275-6, reproduced p.275


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