Grande femme debout I [Large Standing Woman I], 1960
Alberto Giacometti, Swiss, 1901–1966
105 1/2 × 12 7/8 × 19 3/4 in. (268 × 32.7 × 50.2 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Brown Foundation Accessions Endowment Fund
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Large Standing Woman I
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
In 1901 Alberto Giacometti was born into an artistic family in an Italian-speaking area of Switzerland. After studying in Geneva, Italy, and Paris, Giacometti settled into a Parisian studio in 1927 with his brother, Diego, who worked as his assistant and was the subject of several of his works. After working for a few years in the dream-like Surrealist style, he returned to reality and struggled to “represent actuality without resorting to the familiar clichés of sculptural convention.” Unfortunately, he was artistically frustrated and produced no major works during this time.
He regained his artistic vision and productivity in the post-war era and created many sculptures known primarily for their skeletal forms and sense of isolation. These mature works earned him international fame; yet his work suffered as he battled with acute anxiety and self-doubt. After a mental and emotional crisis in 1956, his work improved and gained intensity. He created Large Standing Woman I in 1960 to fulfill a commission from Chase Manhattan Bank to produce a set of sculptures for their outdoor plaza. Giacometti continued to work until his death in 1966, although his productivity waned considerably because of the demands his celebrity status made on his time.
The woman represented in this sculpture stands nearly nine feet tall and is characterized by her extremely emaciated, almost totemic form. She gazes expressionlessly forward with her arms at her sides and her disproportionately large feet anchored to the ground. With no hair and small breasts and hips, her roughly surfaced form is not particularly feminine nor her nudity noticeable. She stands impassively as an aloof, unattainable being, entirely removed from life around her.
The elongated, gaunt figure is unmistakably in the style of Giacometti’s mature works. Giacometti sculpted this piece in plaster and then cast it in bronze. The extreme thinness of the woman suggests a sense of insubstantiality. This aspect is heightened by the impression that she’s being eaten away by her surroundings, as suggested by the gouged surface of the sculpture, a technique that Giacometti spent years developing.
Although the sculpture is by no means imposing in terms of mass or volume, it nevertheless has an enduring quality and a universality derived from the lack of distinguishing features of the woman. Large Standing Woman I stands like a sacred being, gazing on indifferently with no desire to take part in the life swirling around her. It is her stillness and detachment that make her so remarkable, particularly amid the frenetic energy of contemporary life.
This particular style of Giacometti’s sculpture had its beginnings in the post-war era, stimulated primarily by the dynamism of a liberated Paris that was saturated with radical existentialist thought. Existentialism, with its definition of man as an isolated, suffering creature in an illogical and uncaring universe, proved comforting to many Europeans who were unable to cope with the widespread devastation and displacement after the war. It provided them with a means of separating themselves from the chaos of the world around them. Many perceived Giacometti’s sculptures as “metaphors for the human condition of post-war Europe,” yet his work should not be limited to a specific time and place, but rather appreciated for its universality.
- How would you describe this figure? Consider materials, texture, and proportion in your answer.
- Note the dimensions of the sculpture. If you were standing next to it, how would you feel? How this figure relate to your own?
- Observe the surface texture of the sculpture. How would you describe it? How might Giacometti have created such a texture?
- How has Giacometti manipulated the figure’s proportions? How do these alterations contribute to the mood of the sculpture?
- What techniques does Giacometti use to create a sense of monumentality in this work?
- Analyze Giacometti’s use of line in this sculpture, how he has grounded the composition with a central line from the top of the head to the base of the sculpture. How has he emphasized this line and its position in space? What sense does it add to the sculpture?
- In looking at this sculpture, what emotional reactions do you have? What specific details—material, texture, composition, size—inform that reaction?
- Giacometti has omitted this woman’s facial features, hands, and feet. What might that choice tell us about the message of this sculpture, about the way Giacometti might have wanted viewers to understand it?
- In your opinion, is this a representation of monumentality and strength, or insubstantiality and fragility? What details in the work inform your opinion?
- How would this sculpture relate to the space around it? Try imagining it in other spaces, like your classroom, an open field, a crowded bus station, or others. How would a different location change the sculpture’s effect?
- How might this sculpture communicate the anxieties, fears, and new Existentialism that permeated a postwar Europe?
• Research Greek and Roman sculpture from antiquity and note the proportions of the figures. Note the length of the limbs and size of the feet and hands. Now compare your measurements to this Giacometti sculpture. How are the proportions of this figure different or not realistic? What is Giacometti saying about his subject matter by making the artistic decisions he did?
• Compare this work to other figurative sculptors, such as Auguste Rodin or Henri Matisse. Consider the artistic choices made by each artist. Describe each artist’s style and approach to the human form?
• Research Existentialism and the state of Europe in the 1960s after the war: Why did Giacometti’s sculpture capture the post-war feelings of the time? What about his work were people able to relate to?
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
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All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.