Guggenheim
Alberto Giacometti
Four Women on a Base (Quatre femmes sur socle), 1950

Bronze
73.3 x 41.2 x 18.8 cm
Fondation Giacometti, Paris
© Alberto Giacometti Estate / VEGAP, Bilbao, 2018

Introduction

“Working from life, I ended up creating tiny three-centimeter sculptures. I did it despite myself. I couldn’t understand it. I started big and ended minuscule. Only the minuscule struck me as a resemblance [to the model]. I understood it later: a person is not seen as a whole until one draws away and the person becomes tiny.” [1]

When he was only 21, Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) moved to Paris from his native Switzerland to study sculpture, and it was there he began to concentrate on the study of the human figure. In his search for a style of his own, the artist ceased during this period to copy directly from life, working from memory instead, and concentrating specifically on people’s heads. After the Nazis occupied Paris during the Second World War, Giacometti moved to Switzerland in 1941 and started living in a hotel room in Geneva. Filled with anguish by the Holocaust, influenced by the postulates of existentialism, and inspired by the ideas of the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, the sculptor changed the way he worked. From then on, the scale of his figures and the materialization of space became his fundamental struggle. His works became smaller and smaller, even minuscule. Some, in fact, were no bigger than a pinhead. It was while he was living in Geneva that he met his future wife, Annette Arm, who was to become his principal model. He returned to Paris in September 1945, and the focus of his artistic practice shifted onto an investigation of the space of representation. At that point, he decided to add bases or pedestals to his sculptures so as to separate them from the ground, while on other occasions he circumscribed them within “cages” delimiting a virtual space. These resources helped the artist to capture movement at a precise instant.

In his first attempts after his return to Paris, the figures of his sculptures continued to get smaller, and when he tried to make them taller, they ended up becoming very stylized. In 1950, he created the piece Four Women on a Base, where he proposes a view of four standing women seen from a certain distance. The extremely thin and elongated female figures are nude and stationary. Giacometti was determined that his sculptures should successfully capture what he saw and recalled. The figures are small, it might be said, because they seem to have been made to create a sensation of distance. In fact, the work was inspired by a scene that remained etched on his mind: the image of four naked prostitutes at the far end of a Paris brothel [2]. At that moment, the distance between him and the prostitutes seemed unsurmountable, even though he wanted to walk across the room, and made as much of an impression on him as the women [3]. The anatomy of these female figures could be described as skeletal, since their bodies are reduced to linear structures placed alongside each other in a fairly harmonious arrangement. Giacometti’s procedure consisted of adding material to iron frameworks until he had formed bodies that apparently lacked muscles, had few characteristics, and were stripped of practically any trace of humanity. They are figures that seem corroded by time, as if they had been dug out of an ancient tomb in an archaeological excavation.

During the period when he created this piece, Giacometti was interested not only in the investigation of the space surrounding his sculptures, but also in the existentialist search for the absolute through the appearance of his works. On this subject, Jean-Paul Sartre himself had written a text [4] in 1948 for Giacometti’s first exhibition in Paris, when he had already cast off his Surrealist mantle. Sartre writes there of how Giacometti continually recommences his work, and stresses his destruction of works which, he says, “were made to last only a few hours”. As far as Giacometti’s procedure is concerned, he is known to have worked scrupulously and minutely with his hands in his studio, day and night. His figures concentrate everything he has experienced throughout his career in connection with the human figure and head.

As Sartre asserts, Giacometti achieves “the extreme reduction of humanity in distance”. This applies perfectly to the sculpture Four Women on a Base. Sartre also points out that the men and women with elongated silhouettes that this artist creates are themselves the metaphor for the contracted existence, “half-way between being and nothingness”, which becomes prevalent after the traumatic experience of the Second World War. He speaks too of the “absolute distance” of these sculptures, which are impossible to approach and can only be contemplated from a distance, for proximity reveals none of their secrets.

Questions

Look closely at this work by Giacometti. Move away from it and then go back towards it several times. What do you notice when you see it at close quarters? What disappears when you see it from a certain distance?

Why are there four figures? Might there be some symbolism associated with this number?

In his work, Giacometti is trying to represent the four figures in action. If you were the artist, how would you represent a figure in action? Create a pose with your bodies that shows they are in motion.

The work is entitled Four Women on a Base. Why do you think the figures are all women? Who do you think they might be? What action do you think they are performing? Look carefully at the position of their bodies and their faces. What extra details would you have to add to make it possible to deduce their identities?

The sculpture is made in bronze, closely associated with Giacometti’s work from then on. Since the early 1950s, bronze had become economically affordable, making it a favorite material among numerous artists, Giacometti included. What characteristics does bronze give to a figure? Imagine a different material had been used. What would the piece gain and what would it lose from an aesthetic point of view?

The figures are lined up on a base. Why do you think the artist decided to put them up there? If you look closely, you will see the two shorter women are at the ends, while the taller ones are in the middle. What could be the reason for this distribution? Why are they arranged in a line rather than as a group forming, for example, a circle?

Activities
Photography and construction: figures in space and in the distance

The class can be divided into several groups of four or five students. One person from each group takes a digital photograph of the other group members, who are posing at a certain distance and performing an action agreed among everyone. This emulates the sensation Giacometti might have felt as he observed four women in the distance.

After looking at the photograph together, trace the principal lines of the bodies of the people in the photograph. This can be done directly with a digital image editing software, or the photograph can be printed and the basic lines of the figures drawn on it with a felt tip pen. In both cases, the drawing will serve as a means of both representation and synthesis. This drawing will be used afterwards as a sketch on which to base the construction of the figures.

To make this sketch, make a detailed study of the parts of each person in the composition that you want to emphasize, as if you were drawing basic primary lines. In other words, focus on getting rid of everything that might be considered superfluous and leaving only what is essential.

Once the sketch is ready, each group moves on to the material representation of the scene. First set up a wire framework (it can be inserted in a polystyrene base) following the drawn lines representing the postures of the people in the photograph, and then build up the image by laying clay over it.

Apply the clay progressively to form the figures, covering the whole of the wire frame almost as if it were a three-dimensional drawing. Finally, place all the figures in the action on their base, just as they appear in the photograph. Their main characteristic will be that they are not exactly faithful reproductions of the people in the photograph. They will be very thin and elongated, almost distorted, and they will have very small heads and altered bodily proportions, creating a certain sensation of spirituality. The idea is for this final work to be displayed for viewing from a certain distance.

When the piece is finished, think about the following questions:

What sensations does the final work arouse in you after seeing it in a photograph and a sketch, watching your classmates make it, and finally seeing it finished in clay?

How did working as a team contribute to the result? How did you interpret the bodily appearance of each group member? How did you organize the space of the representation? Which of the procedures you have followed are similar to Giacometti’s? And which are dissimilar? What have you learned from this activity? What could have been better about it?

VOCABULARY

Existentialism: a philosophical movement of the 19th and 20th centuries centering on the study of the human condition, emotions, individual commitment, and freedom. Existentialism situated the human being as the nucleus of philosophical reflection, and defined this being as unbound and totally conscious of itself. Among the leading exponents of this school of thought were Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

RESOURCES

https://www.fondation-giacometti.fr/en/database/163694/quatre-femmes-sur-socle

https://www.fondation-giacometti.fr/fr/database/163694/quatre-femmes-sur-socle

http://proa.org/documents/Giacometti-PressKit.pdf

NOTES

[1] “Tate Modern presents the UK’s first major retrospective of Alberto Giacometti for 20 years”, http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/giacometti

[2] Information adapted from: http://www.elmundo.es/cultura/2017/05/09/5911714322601d47518b45df.html

[3] Link to the article: “El sublime espacio de Alberto Giacometti” (2004), by María García Yelo: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/38823895.pdf (García, 2004, p. 238)

[4] This text was subsequently included in 1960 in the publication La república del silencio, volume III of Situations, published by Losada, Buenos Aires.