Saturday, February 6, 2010
A giant leap for Giacometti
The record £65 million(In US$104millions) paid for a work by the Swiss sculptor Giacometti has catapulted him into the mega-league of collectable artists, says Alastair Sooke.
When Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture L’Homme qui marche I (Walking Man I) became the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction this week, I couldn’t help thinking of Orson Welles’s famous speech in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man. “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance,” says Welles, playing the villain Harry Lime. “In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Clearly, Welles’s character had forgotten about Giacometti, who was born in an inaccessible valley in the Swiss Alps in 1901. When L’Homme qui marche I, estimated at £12 million to £18 million, went under the hammer for more than £65 million at Sotheby’s in London on Wednesday evening, the Swiss sculptor, who spent most of his life working in a filthy, troglodytic studio in Paris, trumped every artist who had ever lived.
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Antony Gormley's fourth plinth, Trafalgar SquareAll of a sudden, the Swiss can boast not only the cuckoo clock, but also a modern-day master to rival the titans of the Renaissance. Giacometti had even seen off Picasso, whose Rose Period painting Garcon à la Pipe (Boy with a Pipe) previously held the record for the most expensive painting.
But the sale prompts many questions, not least: is Giacometti the most important artist of the modern era? Is he really better than Picasso?
Comparisons between different artists are vexed and horribly subjective. And, anyway, it’s important to remember that it would be misguided to conflate monetary value with aesthetic worth. Just because Walking Man I went for so much doesn’t mean that, ipso facto, it is the pre-eminent work of the 20th century.
Then, there is the question of the sculpture’s rarity. Incredibly, L’Homme qui marche I, which was executed in 1960, four years after Giacometti was invited to design a group of sculpted figures for the plaza outside the headquarters of the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, exists in a numbered edition of six bronzes, some of which can be seen in public collections around the world.
In other words, the plutocrat who took such an expensive shine to Giacometti’s work wasn’t even acquiring something unique: the sculpture is numbered two out of six, and was cast in 1961. When billionaires splash out on masterpieces such as Picasso’s sumptuous 1932 painting Le Rêve (The Dream), which was bought by the Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn (who later stuck his elbow accidentally through the canvas), they do so in the knowledge that the artist didn’t make two (or more) of them.
There is no question that Giacometti is one of the greatest artists of the past century – but he is rarely considered in the absolute first rank. Born into a well-to-do family (his father was a proficient painter), Giacometti arrived in Paris in 1922. Within five years, he had taken up residence in the shabby studio on the fringes of Montparnasse where he would live and work until his death in 1966.
He first made his name as a Surrealist, championed by the movement’s founder, André Breton. His famous, and ferocious, sculpture of 1932, Woman with her Throat Cut (now in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art), is a high-water mark of this period.
Presenting the splayed form of a monstrous and dismembered figure (half woman, half insect), it rests directly on the floor, like a battered corpse discarded by a serial killer. The woman’s ribcage is ripped open; her delicate windpipe has been slashed; her small-breasted body writhes in a contorted pose associated with both physical agony and erotic rapture. A brutally compressed symbol of the aggression latent within sexual desire, the sculpture still shocks today.
Like many people, I consider it one of Giacometti’s out-and-out masterpieces – but, given the work’s violent nature, I imagine that, if it ever came to auction, it would be unlikely to command as high a price as Walking Man I. I don’t suppose that too many billionaires’ trophy wives would enjoy contemplating the sculpture over a bowl of pasta.
Towards the end of the Thirties, though, Giacometti became disillusioned with Surrealism and returned to concentrate once more on the human figure. During the Second World War, he left occupied Paris and stayed in Switzerland, where his sculptures became progressively smaller – so much so, that when he returned to France in 1945, he was able to fit all of his work from the previous four years inside six matchboxes.
Yet these tiny sculptures sparked a crucial new phase in his career. Starting in the late Forties, the artist began to sculpt the series of spindly figures, for which he is probably best known today. Typically, these anorexic men and women, cast in bronze, have a craggy, roughly modelled surface, recording every jabbing thumbprint made by Giacometti in the original plaster or clay. Their distinctive visual appearance quickly became the hallmark of the artist’s style, an instantly recognisable brand that would later prove extremely attractive to collectors – as we saw this week, when 10 bidders before the sale were prepared to pay at least $20 million to buy Walking Man I.
Giacometti was famously indecisive: while working on a sculpture, he would frequently hurl the clay from its armature in disgust and begin again. The unresolved quality of his sculptures lends his stick people a nervous, restless energy.
Many art historians have seen them as icons of Cold War anxiety and modern angst: etiolated, like the victims of Auschwitz; modern counterparts of Pompeians preserved in the ashes of Vesuvius, as though subjected to the fallout of the biggest man-made terror of the 20th century – nuclear holocaust. No wonder that the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre hailed Giacometti’s isolated figures as symbols of existential despair.
All this makes a sculpture by Giacometti seem like a surprisingly bleak choice for a collector. You might expect a billionaire to spend millions on a gloriously colourful painting by Matisse or Klimt to enliven a dining room. But £65 million for a statue that embodies existential dread? It doesn’t sound the most attractive proposition.
Yet, unlike many of Giacometti’s later figures, which stand stock-still, L’Homme qui marche I strides stoically ahead, despite his clumpy feet, which squelch into the sculpture’s base as though sinking into mud. His active pose suggests a kind of grim optimism for humanity: he is the incarnation of the 20th-century everyman, struggling on in a blasted, godless universe. Perhaps this is part of his appeal.
Walking Man I may not be the quintessential work of Giacometti’s career (there are others that are just as good). It certainly isn’t the definitive work of the 20th century – what about Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon?
But that’s the funny thing about the relationship between money and art: now that such an extraordinary price has been paid for Giacometti’s sculpture, it may go down in history as the most haunting image of the 20th century.
Would you pay $104 million for the sculpture?
The life-size bronze sculpture of a man was made in 1961 and was originally cast in an edition of six by the Swiss artist.
It was a record-breaking night for the auction house, as another piece of art was sold for $43 million, making it the most ever paid for a landscape artwork.
The painting by Gustav Klimt entitled "Kirche in Cassone" was purchased by another mystery buyer.
It was the first time in decades that the Klimt painting became available to the public for auction.
"This is a painting that was never on the market and hidden away a long time ago," Clore said.
"It was stolen by the Nazis, finally returned to its rightful owners, and now we are lucky to have it come to the market. There was a real hunger and thirst for something like this."
The night's auction had 39 works, and the total sale price was a staggering $235 million, making it the highest value sale ever staged in London.
Source:- from CNN