Fondation Giacometti -  Brothel

Pierre Matisse, Alberto Giacometti working on four figurines in London in the basement of the Tate Gallery, 1965
© Succession Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris et ADAGP, Paris)
© Pierre Matisse

After several months of campaigning, the former prostitute Marthe Richard obtained the closure of French brothels on 13 April 1946. The law abolishing the system of regulated prostitution that had controlled these establishments since the nineteenth century was now applied by the Parisian city council, which ordered the closure of the 170 establishments found in the French capital alone. As a result, hundreds of prostitutes were put out on the street.

Giacometti paid several tributes to the prostitutes in these establishments that he had frequented since his arrival in Paris. Many had become friends. In 1923–4 he wrote of his obsession with these women, who ‘attract and amaze me’ (Écrits p.387)  and who, he readily admitted, were an important part of his sex life –which occupied a not inconsiderable part of his nights. His description of the prostitutes in a café on Boulevard Barbès-Rochechouart in northern Paris, with their ‘strange, long, thin and tapering legs’ could also apply to his post-war sculptures.

One of the spots he frequented in the Montparnasse quarter was Le Sphinx, a luxury brothel where patrons could enjoy themselves without necessarily going up to the bedrooms. Its habitués included many artists and intellectuals such as Samuel Beckett but also Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Giacometti was a stalwart and found the forced closure of this ‘most marvellous of places’ so ‘intolerable’ that he even wrote about it in a seminal post-war text, The Dream, the Sphinx and the Death of T. (Le Rêve, le sphinx el la mort de T.), published in 1946 in the journal Labyrinthe. He also paid homage to this unusual Parisian brothel in two paintings made in around 1950, both titled At the Sphinx. They show naked women, some still and others moving, floating freely within a frame. That year, in a letter to Pierre Matisse explaining his works in the run-up to his exhibition in New York, he also identified his Four Figurines on a Pedestal (Quatre figurines sur piédestal) 1950–65 as ‘several naked women seen at the Sphinx’. As for his hieratic Four Women on a Plinth (Quatre femmes sur socle) 1950 standing on their heavy pedestal, it represented ‘girls I often saw in a little room on Rue de l’Echaudée’ who were at once ‘close and threatening’ . This sense of distance, which Giacometti described as insurmountable despite his desire to be with these women at the other end of the brothel, seems to have echoed the distance which he felt he could not overcome in his representation of reality.

Christian Alandete

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