ALEXANDER CALDER (1898-1976)
Submarine Christmas Tree
hanging mobile—sheet metal, wood, wire, string, paint and graphite
88 ½ x 86 x 16 ½in. (224.8 x 218.4 x 41.9cm.)
Executed in 1947
Henri Seyrig, Lausanne (acquired directly from the artist circa 1950).
Delphine Seyrig, Paris, by 1969 (gifted from the above).
The Estate of Delphine Seyrig, Paris.
Acquired by the present owner circa 2000.
J. Sweeney and D. Lelong, Calder: L’artiste et l’oeuvre, Paris 1971, p. 133 (illustrated, p. 73).
Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Fondation Maeght, Calder, 1969, p. 59, no. 81 (illustrated, p. 148). This exhibition later travelled to Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum, p. 37, no. 73 (illustrated, p. 16) and Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, p. 40, no. 55.
Munich, Haus der Kunst, Calder, 1975, p. 54, no. 33. This exhibition later travelled to Zurich, Kunsthaus Zurich, p. 45, no. 33.
Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Fondation Maeght, Un Musée éphémère: Collections privées françaises 1945-1985, 1986, p. 159, no. 18 (illustrated, p. 42).
Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Calder Intime, 1989-1990, p. 229 (illustrated, p. 228). This exhibition later travelled to Mexico City, Centro Cultural del México Contemporáneo; New York, Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum and Tokyo, The Seibu Museum of Art.
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Post Lot Text
This work is registered in the archives of the Calder Foundation, New York, under application number A00792.
Condition of Sale
Created in 1947, Submarine Christmas Tree is an elegant, expansive mobile that brings together two of Alexander Calder’s great passions: energy and immateriality. Dynamic forms in silver-polished and red-painted metal—including a smiling disc and crescent shape, and radial abstract elements—dance and revolve together, suspended from a structure of fine poles and wires over two metres across. With its festive blurring of boundaries between floating and flight, sea and sky, it exemplifies the marvellous, mercurial spirit of Calder’s art. Bearing exceptional provenance, the work was owned for over two decades by the famed French-Lebanese actress Delphine Seyrig, who lent it for a major Calder retrospective at the Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul, in 1969. Over the following years it travelled to exhibitions in cities including Munich, Zürich, Paris, Mexico City and New York, making its last public appearance at the Seibu Museum of Art, Tokyo, in 1990.
Delphine Seyrig—perhaps best known for her starring role in Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961)—was a frequent visitor to the Calders’ home in Roxbury, Connecticut, throughout the 1950s. She was accompanied by her husband, the abstract painter Jack Youngerman, and often brought along other artist friends including Ellsworth Kelly; Kelly and Youngerman had met when both were American art students in Paris, as Calder himself had been some twenty years before them. Submarine Christmas Tree had first been acquired by Delphine’s father Henri Seyrig, director of the French Institute of Archaeology in Beirut, who had attended a performance of Calder’s Cirque Calder at Roxbury alongside Joan Miró and his family in early 1947, and later hosted the artist on a visit to the Lebanese capital.
Submarine Christmas Tree’s glinting elements—joined in balance by beams—represent a foundational image for Calder. In 1922, while employed in the boiler room of the steamship H. F. Alexander on a voyage from New York to San Francisco via the Panama Canal, he had witnessed a spectacle of visionary splendour. The understanding he reached in that moment can be seen to inform the energised, near-animistic view of the universe’s dynamism later embodied by his moving artworks. ‘It was early one morning on a calm sea, off Guatemala,’ he remembered, ‘when over my couch—a coil of rope—I saw the beginning of a fiery red sunrise on one side and the moon looking like a silver coin on the other. Of the whole trip this impressed me most of all; it left me with a lasting sensation of the solar system’ (A. Calder, Calder: An Autobiography with Pictures, ed. Jean Davidson, New York 1966, pp. 53-55).
This ‘sensation of the solar system’ was precisely what Calder aimed to capture in his art: a feeling of the rhythms, motions and orbits of nature’s forces, even in works whose components were nominally abstract. His first mobiles were born specifically of the desire to enliven abstract form, a direction he took after his experience of Piet Mondrian’s studio environment in 1930. ‘I suggested to Mondrian that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate’, Calder recalled; ‘… This one visit gave me a shock that started things’ (A. Calder, ibid., p. 113). The term ‘mobile’—which has an apt double significance in French, meaning ‘motive’ as well as something that moves—was coined by his friend Marcel Duchamp the following year. ‘Since the beginning of my work in abstract art, and even though it was not obvious at that time,’ said Calder, ‘I felt that there was no better model for me to work from than the Universe ... Spheres of different sizes, densities, colours and volumes, floating in space, surrounded by vivid clouds and tides, currents of air, viscosities and fragrances—in their utmost variety and disparity’ (A. Calder, quoted in C. Giménez & A. S. C. Rower (ed.), Calder: Gravity and Grace, London 2004, p. 52).
In works like Submarine Christmas Tree, Calder hybridised figurative and abstract elements to enhance the ballet of floating movement. The mobile’s title—in tune with the tendencies of the 1920s Parisian scene in which Calder had been immersed—conjures a lively surrealism that is taken up in its fluid, biomorphic forms, which themselves resonate with the work of his friends Jean Arp and Fernand Léger. Jean-Paul Sartre had aptly described the mobiles in 1946 as ‘strange creatures, mid-way between matter and life’ (J. Sartre, ‘Les Mobiles des Calder’, in Alexander Calder: Mobiles, Stabiles, Constellations, exh. cat. Galerie Louis Carré, Paris, 1946, pp. 6-19). Calder’s works engage the viewer’s experience in real time: the abstract elements could appear to some as baubles, sea creatures, or celestial bodies; the anchor floats as if weightless; disparate shapes move freely in and out of focus.
If the mobile’s unfixed, dreamlike morphology echoes its freedom of motion, a similar liberty might be said to embody Calder’s practice as a whole. He became a sculptor after having studied at the Art Students League and went on to marry his intuitive engineering skills with exuberant, freewheeling imagination. He worked prolifically between Paris and the United States, combining, as some have seen it, the intellectual depths of European surrealism with bold, assertive American inventiveness—a fusion that would later spring forth in major voices of the Abstract Expressionist movement. The larger-than-life Philadelphian formed close friendships with such luminaries as Sartre, Mondrian, Duchamp, Miró, Jean Cocteau, Marc Chagall and many others, confounding the supposed transatlantic divide of the post-war avant-garde.
Some of the very earliest objects Calder made were gifts for his family. Appropriately, given its history of friendship, Submarine Christmas Tree echoes a present the artist gave to his sister when he was eight years old. ‘Peggy once gave me a very nice pair of pliers at Christmas’, Calder recounted. ‘I made her a little Christmas tree, completely decorated, out of a fallen branch. So she wept because my gift was homemade’ (A. Calder, ibid., p. 21). Fundamentally, Calder’s was an art of relationships. His works celebrate the invisible bonds that join people, natural energies and disparate forms in a vast, universal causal web. They do not consist of single objects, but are animated by the dialogues, links and forces that operate among multiple bodies moving through the world; in this sense, as Sartre said, they are truly ‘mid-way between matter and life.’ Uplifting, dynamic and forever moving, Submarine Christmas Tree enacts this principle with spirited ingenuity.