In 1951 Giacometti created sculptures of three different kinds of animals: two horses (fig. 1), a dog (fig. 2) and Le Chat, offered here. As Valerie Fletcher has noted, all three were supposedly executed in plaster during the course of a single day (Giacometti, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 165). Each of the sculptures is life-size or even larger. For lack of space in his cramped studio, Giacometti had to leave the two huge horses outdoors in his courtyard, where the plaster eventually dissolved in the rain. The smaller dog and cat were thankfully preserved and cast in bronze.
To mitigate the all-consuming and solitary nature of his work in the studio, Giacometti enjoyed being outdoors and in the street, and indeed he was an inveterate prowler of the boulevards, side-streets, alleys and quays of Paris. His famous walking men--"a man, always walking," as he described them--and city square sculptures stemmed directly from his daily and nightly wanderings, as he made his way to neighborhood cafés to socialize with friends, or simply walked for hours on end, in good weather or bad, to think and engage with his surroundings. He peered into the faces of passersby, met their gaze, and eyed the prostitutes as they were plying their trade, having been driven into the streets by the officially mandated closing of brothels following the end of the war. "In the street," he said, "people astound and interest me more than any sculpture or painting" (quoted in R. Hohl, ed., Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1998, p. 135). It was in the world--the street--not the studio, where Giacometti experienced the key revelatory moments that transformed and guided his art.
The non-human creatures that he encountered along the way interested him no less than people, and indeed, he identified with them in sincere and meaningful ways. He did not fail to notice the haggard and overworked dray horses as they pulled at their heavy cartloads. Dogs of all kinds, both leashed and free, were to be seen everywhere. Giacometti in 1964 recounted the origin of his Le Chien to James Lord: "For a long time I'd had in mind a memory of a Chinese dog I'd seen somewhere. And then one day I was walking along the rue de Vanves in the rain, close to the walls of the buildings, with my head down, feeling a little sad, perhaps, and I felt like a dog just then. So I made that sculpture. But it's not really a likeness at all. Only the sad muzzle is anything of likeness" (quoted in loc. cit.).
More elusive than the others, as befits their habits, were cats--some with homes, many without, who lurked about the streets that Giacometti liked to wander, suddenly crossing his path, slipping in and out of sight (fig. 3). Many such felines would remain anonymous, never to be seen again, but those from his own courtyard or neighboring streets became familiar acquaintances. Picasso admired cats, the more feral the better: "I don't like high-class cats that purr of the couch in the parlor, but I adore cats that have turned wild, their hair standing on end. They hunt birds, prowl, roam the streets like demons. They cast their wild eyes at you, ready to pounce on your face. And have you noticed that female cats in the wild are always pregnant? Obviously they think of nothing but love" (quoted in Brassaï, Conversations with Picasso, Chicago, 1999, p. 60). In 1943, Picasso modeled a sculpture of a cat, lowering its hind quarters to defecate on the street (Spies, no. 278; fig. 4).
Diego, Alberto's brother, loved cats, and allowed them the run of his studio. Alberto felt very much the same way. "In a burning building," he once declared, "I would save a cat before a Rembrandt" (quoted in J. Lord, Giacometti: A Biography, New York 1985, p. 299).
Each of Giacometti's animal sculptures is appealing in its own way, according to the individual nature of the species and how people relate to them. They may have served as totemic symbols for different states of the artist's mind, for the life and struggles of an artist generally. From the extent photographs, the two horses astonish in their large size, and for the fact that their bodies are so thin in relation to their size, with armatures that carry remarkably little plaster on them. Their appearance is the very antithesis of a horse's normally powerful and brawny bulk, but neither are they pathetic sway-back nags. Before they were sacrificed to the elements, the pair of horses stood immobile, with hooves planted firmly and heads erect and alert, as if ready to break into a trot.
The dog carries somewhat more flesh on its bones, but its rib cage is nonetheless painfully apparent, and with its nose to the ground, it ambles in pursuit of some potentially rewarding scent. The novelist and playwright Jean Genet described Le Chien in an essay on Giacometti he wrote in 1957: "He prowls and sniffs, muzzle level with the ground. He is gaunt" (E. White, ed., "The Studio of Alberto Giacometti," The Selected Writings of Jean Genet, New York, 1993, p. 316). The dog's bandy-legged gait has a comic if forlorn quality about it--he is a canine Quixote. The dog's posture bespeaks a weakened and downtrodden existence, with which, as noted above, Giacometti had sympathized during a downcast moment of his own.
By contrast, in his treatment of the cat, Giacometti appears to admire the creature and identify with its determined, purposeful stride in a more positive way. Genet commented on "the splendid cat in plaster, from muzzle to tip of tail, almost horizontal and capable of passing through a mouse hole. Its rigid horizontality reproduces the form a cat retains, even when curled into a ball" (ibid.). The ramrod posture of the cat, partly tensed, with its prey in sight and ready to pounce, instantly reminds the viewer that this creature is by indelible instinct a skillful predator, and so it acts in its struggle for existence. The dog seems old and hungry--we should probably be concerned for its welfare and even its short-term future. Fear not, however, for this very lean but scrappy cat--it will surely endure, survive, and carry on, in its mysterious and inscrutable ways, so typical of this magnificently independent and indomitable species.
Giacometti had never done sculptures of animals previously, but it is nonetheless unsurprising that he undertook to feature these subjects at this time. For the past several years he had created a remarkable series of one-of-a-kind sculptures with figures, working from memory and his imagination: Homme au doigt, Le Nez, Le Main, the two versions of La Place, Figurine dans un cage, Le Forêt and L'Homme qui chavire, to name a few. His conception and treatment of the three animal subjects was consistent with this approach. Giacometti's extreme characterization of the horses, dog and cat--they are actually rather humorous caricatures of these species--combined with the attenuated, weightless style that he had been practicing at this time, resulted in an ideal match of content with form. On these grounds alone one may properly assess Le Chat to be a perfect work, a masterpiece--one among many that Giacometti created during this famously prodigious period of his career.
Le Chien, together with its equine and canine mates, come near the end of this phase in Giacometti's work. Following the methods he had been practicing in his drawing and painting, the sculptor had already begun to work in plaster directly from the model, usually his wife Annette and his brother Diego. Thereafter Giacometti would limit himself to creating standing female figures, and heads and busts of both women and men (mostly the latter, in the likeness of Diego--see lot 13), which display a weightier degree of mass and a more palpable sense of physical presence. He occasionally modeled very thin, elongated women as he had done in the late 1940s, but he was no longer interested in unusual and imaginary subjects that not suit this new agenda.
Giacometti never again featured animal subjects among his sculptures. He in effect ceded the animal domain to Diego, who made it his own and subsequently developed a variety of delightful animal motifs, whose fantasy and charm cast a magical spell, which he often employed as decorations on the furniture he began to produce during the 1950s. Among these creatures were Diego's own renderings of horses, dogs and cats. In 1961 Diego modeled the first version of his popular Le chat maître d'hôtel, a feline raised up on its hind legs and holding a tray for visitor's cards and messages (fig. 5), the ultimate domestication of Alberto's plucky street cat.
The plaster version of Le Chat was first shown publicly in Giacometti's premiere solo exhibition in Europe, at the Galerie Maeght, Paris, in 1951; it is presently in the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris. Casts from the bronze edition are located in the Fondation Marguerite et Aimé Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence; the Museum Berggruen, Berlin; and the Stiftung Alberto Giacometti, Zurich.
(fig. A) Alberto Giacometti, with Diego, Annette, and the plaster version of Le Chat; photographed circa 1952 by Alexander Liberman. BARCODE 2366 2056
(fig. 1) Alberto Giacometti, Deux Chevaux, plaster, 1951 (no longer extant). Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger.
(fig. 2) Alberto Giacometti, Le Chien, plaster, 1951. Photographed on the windowsill of Galerie Maeght, Paris, by Ernst Scheidegger.
(fig. 3) Robert Doisneau, Paris, Cats, at Night, 1954. BARCODE 2475 2084
(fig. 4) Pablo Picasso, Le chat accroupi, bronze, 1943. Musée Picasso, Paris.
(fig. 5) Diego Giacometti, Le chat maître d'hôtel, première version. Sold Christie's London, 24 June 2009, lot 324.