According to Giacometti, The Palace at 4 a.m. relates to "a period of six months passed in the presence of a woman who, concentrating all life in herself, transported my every moment into a state of enchantment. We constructed a fantastical palace in the night—a very fragile palace of matches. At the least false movement a whole section would collapse. We always began it again." The woman in question is often identified as one of Giacometti's lovers, known only by her first name, Denise. In the summer of 1933 Giacometti told André Breton, the leader of the Surrealist movement, that he was incapable of making anything that did not have something to do with her.
Curator, Anne Umland: Giacometti said that The Palace came to him in a dream, fully formed. The figure on the left that stands in front of three rectangular slabs, he identified with his mother. The two skeletal forms on the right—there is a rotated cage with the suspended spinal column, and above that rises the skeleton of what looks to be a prehistoric type of bird. Those two forms Giacometti identified with the beginning and the end of the relationship with the woman of his dreams.
The portion in the center, he said he wasn't really sure what it was, but he knew that he identified it with himself. The thin pane of glass that is suspended in the middle of this piece reiterates the fragility sensed in the scaffolding of the work, because what is more fragile than glass, and prone to shatter?
So The Palace is a work that speaks both materially and metaphorically to fragile relationships. Materially in the sense that it is incredibly fragile, its parts are bone thin. And then metaphorically fragile, in the sense that relationships come and go, you can try to begin, or build, them over, but there is always the chance of collapse at the end.
Curator, Anne Umland: In this fragile construction, Giacometti has given symbolic form to memories of the end of a love affair. Its spindly scaffolding traces the contours of a dream space, hovering between the world of the imagination and external reality. Giacometti said that The Palace at 4 a.m. took shape in his mind over a period of months. The actual construction was completed in a day. Only when he had finished did he realize what it all meant.
He identified the spinal cord, isolated in its own box, and above it, the skeleton of an extinct, birdlike creature beating its bony wings in vain, with his ex-lover. Hanging from a half-broken or possibly unfinished tower in the center is an oblong shape with a ball that Giacometti identified with himself. Before it hangs a frail and precarious sheet of glass. The female figure on the left embodies his earliest memory of his mother, standing in a long black dress before a backlit curtain. The work as a whole, Giacometti said, commemorates an all-consuming passion.
Artist, Alberto Giacometti (read by actor): It relates to a period of six months passed in the presence of a woman who, concentrating all life in herself, transported my every moment into a state of enchantment. We constructed a fantastical palace in the night—a very fragile palace of matches. At the least false movement a whole section would collapse. We always began it again.
Anne Umland: The Palace at 4 a.m. has been hailed as the most magical of Surrealist objects—an assemblage of delicate parts that poetically evoke the mystery and fragility of human relationships. In 1936, Alfred Barr, the first Director of The Museum of Modern Art, acquired it for the permanent collection, the first of the Museum's many Giacometti's.
In 1933, Giacometti published a statement describing his artistic process, referring specifically to works like The Palace at 4 A.M. "For many years I have executed only sculptures that have presented themselves to my mind entirely completed. I have limited myself to reproducing them in space without changing anything, without asking myself what they could mean.... The attempts to which I have sometimes given way, of conscious realization of a picture or even a sculpture, have always failed." This work with its spindly wood scaffolding, sheet of glass, and delicate skeletons is a vertical, immaterial drawing in space.
An empty architecture of wood scaffolding, The Palace at 4 a.m. undoes conventional ideas of sculptural mass. Even early on, Giacometti once wrote, he had struggled to describe a "sharpness" that he saw in reality, "a kind of skeleton in space"; human bodies, he added, "were never for me a compact mass but like a transparent construction." Here he extends that vision to render a building as a haunting stage set.
Haunting and haunted, for the palace is lived in: isolate forms and figures inhabit its spaces. The enigma of their connection charges the air that is the sculpture's principal medium. Giacometti was a Surrealist when he made the Palace, and it has the requisite eerie mood. It was his practice, he said, to execute "sculptures that presented themselves to my mind entirely accomplished. I limited myself to reproducing them . . . without asking myself what they could mean."
Yet Giacometti did relate The Palace at 4 a.m. to a period he had spent with a woman who enchanted him, and with whom he had built a "fantastic palace at night, . . . a very fragile palace of matchsticks." He did not know why he had included the spinal column or the skeletal bird, though he associated both with her. As for "the red object in front of the board; I identify it with myself."