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In a photograph from 1930, an abstract bronze sculpture of two copulating figures hangs on the wall of a polished Parisian dining room. Published in the magazine Art et Industrie, it’s one of the few pieces of evidence that the erotic statue ever existed.

“Bas Relief” is an early work of famed Swiss-born sculptor Alberto Giacometti, who is best known for the spindly “Walking Man” figures he made after World War II. Following the divorce of the couple who commissioned it, “Bas Relief” vanished.

Lost works by famous artists have long invited intrigue, as art historians try to piece together their locations based on sketches, copies and records – documents that can date back centuries. Some artworks have been the subject of extensive investigations, such as Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci’s long sought-after fresco “The Battle of Anghiari,” which may have been found hidden behind a false wall. Others turn up serendipitously, such as a painting believed to be by Caravaggio, that was discovered in an attic in 2014 and was expected to make up to 150 million euros ($171 million) at auction before selling privately for an undisclosed sum.

Finding a lost work from Giacometti, the most expensive sculptor at auction ever, would be monumental – and a new exhibition suggests there may still be more out there to discover.

At the recently re-opened show “In Search of Lost Works,” curators at the Institut Giacometti in Paris highlight nearly 50 objects from the sculptor’s early career that have never been found – their existence spotted in old photographs or documented in the pages of the artist’s notebooks.

Some of the missing works have been reconstructed for the exhibition, and sit alongside authentic pieces.

Curators at Giacometti Institute in Paris have displayed 48 missing works from Giacometti's early career, including "Small Man," one of his first sculptures.

The two-year project to identify the little-known sculptures was uniquely challenging, as Giacometti crafted a solitary, temperamental persona for himself and often exaggerated his penchant for destroying his own work.

He portrayed himself as “a man perpetually dissatisfied and prey to daily existential drama,” the exhibition curator Michèle Kieffer writes in the show’s catalog.

“When it proved impossible to come out of the creative impasse, the gesture of destroying the work… became part of the whole character.”

Missing objects

Giacometti was an obsessive artist, who always kept his notebooks with him no matter where he went, Kieffer noted.

It was in these pages that Kieffer and her team found extensive inventories of artworks made during the 1920s and ’30s, with notes on which had been sold, shown in salons, stored away or destroyed. Confounding their research, however, were conflicting dates, incomplete notes and drawings that didn’t match any known works.

Some of the sculptures he sketched never left the page.

Using these notebooks, as well as letters Giacometti wrote to his family and photographs of his studio, they identified each of the missing artworks featured in the show.

The playful plaster work "Composition" (1926-1927) predates the artist's Surrealist period and is still missing today.

Some of the works were likely disposed of to make room in the artist’s small studio, explained the institute’s creative director Christian Alandete, who said that Giacometti’s early creations may have not been carefully preserved by buyers, as his name was not then widely known.

In addition, his early, experimental forms were often fragile and sculpted in plaster, a cheaper medium prone to damage. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that Giacometti could afford to cast figures in sturdier bronze. One of his first successes, “Gazing Head” (1928-1929), was collected at the time. While 12 versions were made in materials including plaster and marble, most have not been located today.

Giacometti returned to the form of "Walking Woman I" (1932-1936), simplifying the figure until it was an entirely new piece.

In letters, the sculptor would sometimes refer to destroyed works. But his accounts of what happened to them could be frustratingly vague.

Writing to his gallerist in 1954, Giacometti said that his mid-1920s sculpture “Small Man” was “broken and destroyed for a while and I regret it, feel sometimes like making it again, it was my first figure.”

Giacometti never recreated the work, but he was known to return to old forms and transform them. “Walking Woman” (1932-33) began as a languid feminine figure with a head and arms, before he did away with both entirely to produce something simpler.

A reconstruction of "Silence Bird," which only exhibited once before it was accidentally destroyed in Max Ernst's studio.

Even when Giacometti planned gestures of grand destruction, they didn’t always pan out.

In 1933, he exhibited the erotic wood and plaster sculpture “Silence Bird” for a Paris art salon, scribbling in his notebook his intention to “destroy the large cage.” But he never got the chance. Following the show, he moved it to artist Max Ernst’s studio, where it accidentally broke.

Violent delights

The Giacometti Institute’s show focuses on the artist’s earlier works, created when he was a student in Paris, and then as a member of the Surrealist movement.

“In order to understand this period, it’s interesting for us to know (the works he made), as well as the works that don’t exist anymore,” Alandete said over the phone.

What the curators found was an artist who continually experimented with new styles, flirting with cubism, the avant-garde and the visual language of African and Cycladic sculpture. His early focus on the human form was interrupted for a spell, after he met Surrealism’s co-founder, Andre Breton, and joined the movement, leading him to create sexually and violently charged objects.

Like fellow Surrealists Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst, Giacometti was influenced by Sigmund Freud, who rose to prominence at the turn of the century with his radical ideas on dreams, the subconscious mind and sexual urges. Giacometti also took an interest in the writings of the late Marquis de Sade, whose banned literary works explored the dark undercurrents of human desire.

One of Giacometti's celebrated Surrealist works, which still exists today, is the titillating "Suspended Ball."

During this period, Giacometti’s works include “Suspended Ball” (1930-31), which consists of dangling geometric shapes reminiscent of sex organs, and “Woman with her Throat Cut” (1932), a bronze insect-like feminine figure splayed out like a murder victim.

“(His sculptures are) really how you project your own fantasy,” Alandete said. “With ‘Suspended Ball,’ for instance, it’s been described as something that’s very erotic, but if you deconstruct the sculpture it’s a ball suspended on the edge of a crescent.”

Giacometti's "Woman with Her Throat Cut," which is still in permanent collections today, mixed eroticism and violence, themes that Surrealists often explored.

Though Giacometti was not quite the mercurial, cloistered artist he claimed to be, he took substantial risks in order to develop his singular vision. Despite his success with the Surrealists, he left the group to return to his own vision, producing the works that would make him famous today. And while psychological themes still played a prominent role in his textured and often haunting creations, the sculptor chose to refocus on the human form.

“He was not interested anymore in working with fantasy. He wanted to… work from reality,” Alandete said. “He was a solitary artist in the sense that he really had his own vision of what sculpture should be.”

In Search of Lost Works” runs through June 21, 2020, at the Giacometti Institute in Paris.