Giacometti's extraordinary Homme qui chavire is an instantly recognizable emblem of its era. Caught in the instant he loses his balance, the legendary Falling Man, as he is known in translation, exists in a state of perpetual instability and in a moment of transcendence as he hurls towards the future. His arms flail wildly, his head snaps backwards and his knees buckle just as he is about to drop from his cylindrical pedestal to whatever it is that awaits him. The figure's shock and lack of control are exceedingly palpable in this dramatic image. Giacometti's creation of this sculpture in 1950 coincided with his production of other career-defining bronzes, all featuring his signature attenuated figures, either standing like sentinels or in mid-stride across a plaza. But the image of the man stumbling on the unsteady terrain of the modern world is perhaps Giacometti's most literal attempt to personify his own existential preoccupations in the years following the war. And to the Existentialist philosophers themselves, this very image became the clear and undisputed signifier of the maddening uncertainty that defined an entire generation.
The image of the falling man first appeared in a 1947 sketch of the artist's studio; the sculpture came about only three years later. Evidently, the idea for this work had occupied Giacometti's thoughts for some time, even long before he conceived of the image itself. Yves Bonnefoy claims that Giacometti's Staggering Man, as he titles the work, is the most direct reference to the artist's wounded physical state following a car accident some years before, when he was struck down as he walked along the street by an intoxicated driver. The incident shattered his foot and left him with a limp, and the lingering memory of the experience must have helped in the animation of this sculpture. But for contemporary Existentialist writers such as Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett and Jean-Paul Sartre, Homme qui chavire was a very physical manifestation of their prose: "There I was, motionless and icy, plunged in a horrible ecstasy" (J.P. Sartre, La Nausée, 1938, translated from the French by L. Alexander, New York, 2007, p. 131).
In the catalogue for the retrospective on the artist's work, Christian Klemm explains the significance of Homme qui chavire to the leading French intellectuals of the post-war age: "Giacometti's Man Falling was in fact to become a central icon in the Existentialist view of his work. This sculpture, one of his slenderest, most fragile figures, seems about to topple from its small, cylindrical pedestal. Yet it holds its position by throwing the head back ecstatically; it seems to emerge straight out of Sartre's Nausea or Camus' The Stranger in an extreme moment when the ground seems to open to the choice of life or death. Man Falling is a human being in precisely the situation in which his transcendental destiny becomes apparent" (C. Klemm, Alberto Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, op. cit., p. 184).
The solitary man, in his many incarnations throughout Giacometti's production, was understood to be the artist's self-portrait. Archival photographs commonly show Giacometti as a lanky, often laconic-looking figure, with his shoulders slumped and walking down a rainy Parisian street. We can see this likeness readily in Homme traversant une place par un matin de soleil and Homme qui marche, which the artist even admitted were representations of himself. These sculptures were created at the end of the 1940s, around the same time as the figure in the present work, which has the incinerated appearance and bodily proportions as these other sculptures. In all of their various forms, the lone man was the embodiment of the isolation and anxiety symptomatic of post-war Europe, and Homme qui chavire in particular proved to be a fertile source of inspiration for artists for many years after its creation. Frozen in time yet in motion towards the future, alone yet unable to escape the obstacles of the urban throng, this solitary figure has come to symbolize the great existential dilemma of the 20th century.
The present sculpture is numbered 5 from a bronze edition of 6, and, according to Mary Lisa Palmer, it is the only painted cast from the edition. Occasionally Giacometti would enhance the patinas of select casts by applying paint directly onto the bronze, and we can see how this technique highlights the surface of the present work. The practice was also an allusion to the polychrome, empyreal funerary figures of ancient Egypt, whose elongated proportions Giacometti also reinterprets in the present sculpture. Although allusions to the past were common in Giacometti's work, his aesthetic was undeniably modern. The figure itself is a simple assemblage of a few connected lines, yet Giacometti is able to portray the kinetic physicality of his 'man' with just a few simple gestures. With the support of a small armature, Giacometti first created this work in clay, molding and pinching his form to achieve a highly tactile final figure. Next, he relied on his brother Diego to cast the work in bronze, preserving every nick and impression that he had created in the original clay. This splendid cast, which was made in 1951, bares all the markings and fine details of this hands-on process.
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Isabel and Other Intimate Strangers, Portraits by Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon, 2008, illustrated in color in the catalogue
Height: 23 3/8 in. 59.3 cm
A. Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1950, illustration of another cast p. 22
Jacques Dupin, Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 1962, illustration of another cast p. 249
Raoul-Jean Moulin, Giacometti Sculpture, London, 1964, illustration of another cast pl. 7 and on the cover
Reinhold Hohl, Alberto Giacometti, New York, 1971, illustration of another cast p. 253
Alberto Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, 1978, no. 60, illustration of another cast p. 92
Charles Juliet, Giacometti, New York, 1986, illustration of another cast p. 69
Andre Kuenzi, Alberto Giacometti, Lausanne, 1986, no. 102, illustration of another cast p. 270
Alberto Giacometti Skulpturen-Gemälde (exhibition catalogue), Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, 1987-88, no. 96, illustration of another cast p. 215
Mercedes Matter, Alberto Giacometti, New York, 1987, illustration of another cast p. 77
Herbert and Mercedes Matter, Giacometti, New York, 1988, pp. 90-91, illustration of another cast
Tahar Ben Jelloun, Alberto Giacometti, Paris, 1990, illustration of another cast p. 77
Alberto Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), Galerie Beyeler, Basel, 1990, cat. no. 19, p. 46, illustrated in color and p. 47, illustration of another cast
Yves Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti, A Biography of His Work, Paris, 1991, illustration of another cast p. 327
Alberto Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1991-92, no. 122, illustration of another cast p. 219
Angela Schneider, ed., Alberto Giacometti, Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, Munich, 1994, illustration of another cast pl. 62
Alberto Giacometti, 1901-1966 (exhibition catalogue), Kunsthalle, Vienna & Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, 1996, no. 134, illustration of another cast p. 166
Alberto Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York & Kunsthaus, Zurich, 2001-02, no. 126, illustration of another cast p. 186
Ángel González, Alberto Giacometti: Works, Writings, Interviews, Barcelona, 2006, illustrated p. 111
Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, 2009, no. 92, illustration of another cast p. 109
Galerie Maeght, Paris
Count d'Arschot, Belgium
Thomas Gibson Fine Art, London
Private Collection, Switzerland
Thomas Gibson Fine Art, London
Acquired by the present owner from the above