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Portrait of A Genius But

Alberto Giacometti

by Peter Selz
The Museum of Modern Art, 120, 112 illus. pp., $3.95

A Giacometti Portrait

by James Lord
The Museum of Modern Art, 80, 12 illus. pp., $1.50 (paper)

Until 1961-62, when he was awarded two well-known sculpture prizes, first that of the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, then that of the Venice Biennale, Giacometti was considered an artist of good repute rather than of eminence. He had as champions a restricted but vocal coterie who admired and bought his work, whereas for the wider art public he was a disconcerting rather than a commanding figure who stood outside identifiable groupings. No one doubted either the seriousness of Giacometti’s purpose or the real artistic worth and interest of what he produced. Yet people were never gripped by his paintings and sculptures because they looked tentative, fragmentary, and uncompleted. And true enough: Giacometti is an artist who struggles and stutters without ever arriving at a definitive formulation of his vision.

During the last three years, however, the view of Giacometti’s work that prevailed earlier has been overturned, and though he is now in his sixty-fifth year he has been “discovered” and taken up like some bright stripling of the avant garde who might still be in his middle twenties. Giacometti’s works are to be found in galleries, apartments, museums, and exhibitions; laudatory texts roll from the printing presses, ambassadors and cultural attachés line up outside his studio for interviews, while journalists have taken to calling him “the finest artist working in Paris.” Yet all this has come to pass without any significant change occurring in Giacometti’s own outlook, methods, or achievements.

We do not have to seek far for an explanation of this newly excited interest, because it can be traced to a concerted effort, on both sides of the Atlantic to promote Giacometti to a place in the much depleted front rank of fashionable modern sculptors. Thus it happens that, at this moment, Giacometti has two full-scale retrospective exhibitions running concurrently. One of these, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (going on to Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco), is duly commemorated in a volume edited by Peter Selz with 112 illustrations and texts by various hands. The other (200 items) has been staged at the Tate Gallery in London. There’s nothing, we are left to conclude, so effective as an onslaught in mass when the work itself is unconvincing.

Yet the effect of this prestige-seeking maneuver is bound to be unfortunate for Giacometti himself in so far as it persuades him that he has arrived and deprives him of the doubt-ridden solitary position he has hitherto enjoyed. For, artistically speaking, his work has a very different value from that of the more publicized and popular, though unquestionably lesser, talents—for example, Moore, Calder, Zadkine, and Marini—with whom he is now to be aligned. Unlike them, Giacometti is not a fabricator but a sincere, genuinely gifted, and honorable artist. Surveying his work as a whole, one may be excused for feeling that it is slender, even repetitive and uninventive, by comparison with the astounding achievements of Rodin, Matisse, Picasso, or Laurens; yet unlike the clumsy toys of Calder, the hollow decorative artifacts of Brancusi, or the bone and stone absurdities of Moore, the images Giacometti makes have a human connotation, and moreover he has made a distinguished as well as a meaningful contribution to the art of our day.

In the course of his text Selz writes that “like other artists of his generation [Giacometti] is engaged more in the adventure than concerned with the result.” This is a total misreading of all that Giacometti stands for. He is not speculatively playing with the techniques of either sculpture or painting but using them, as they should be used, in an effort to achieve a result which should correspond as exactly as possible to what his eye really has seen. “Art,” he has said, “is simply a means of seeing,” just as on another occasion he remarked that “Art like science is an attempt at understanding.” Unfortunately it is very rare that Giacometti achieves the result he desires, probably because no artist can reasonably hope to see, to analyze his sensations, and record them simultaneously while trying to produce a consummate work of art. For this reason Giacometti, who seems incapable of recognizing defeat, persists in continually repeating the same inconclusive experiment, which for him is far more a method of self-torture than an adventure. Giacometti seeks reassurance through his art and has a definite intention whenever he embarks on a drawing, a painting, or a sculpture. Obsessed by the odd workings of the human eye, he hopes to discover through the processes of art some truths about the nature of reality which are hidden beneath appearances. His prime concern is not with the shape and facial characteristics of an individual human figure, nor with the feelings that figure may inspire in him, nor with the colorful vagaries of light. Giacometti likes to imagine himself as a sort of detached, all-penetrating eye which is concerned only with the form-giving relationship between a figure and the space around it, as well as with the spatial interval which the eye must traverse between the figure and himself. That is to say, whatever he does is, as he thinks, realistically proportioned and yet a progressively elaborated record of the manifold sensations to which his eye has responded while looking at a particular subject. He has on this account certain Impressionist affiliations and an artistic approach comparable to that of Cézanne, all of which explains why he feels bound to work from nature rather than from memory or imagination.

But the data of sight are highly complex, so complex indeed, as Giacometti has remarked, that in order to know something about his visual experience he has to try and be a humble copyist. Admittedly, visual sensations can, to some extent, be caught in a drawing or a painting rapidly executed before the sensation fades, but it is an almost impossible task to achieve visual verisimilitude by the much longer modeling process. And when, as with Giacometti, the artist also has a desire to give a sense of enduring monumentality, to dispense with any sensation of movement, the passage of time or impending change, his dilemma becomes more acute. Thus Giacometti’s creative life is beset with all sorts of insoluble problems, of which let it be said he seems almost to relish the frustrating effects.

He draws, builds, destroys, paints, models [writes Mr. Selz]—one activity leading into the other without interruption. Nothing is ever finished. When painting, he builds up, paints over, makes changes, and finally stops, hoping to achieve the goal next time. He may turn his clay models over to his brother Diego for casting, but when he sees the plaster he is likely to hack away at it and when confronted with the bronze, to paint on it, in constant process of growth, or rather search, that will never end.

Growth? Search? These seem curious and inappropriate words to introduce. For Giacometti does not progress from one work to the next, alas, nor does he seek a new line of attack or an alternative solution. And in any case it has by now become evident that his destructive processes are involved with a certain amount of procedural play-acting. His failure to measure up to his own conception of what his art should be is largely self-induced. For in the last resort Giacometti is not content to stand by the purely visual standards of verisimilitude to which he claims to adhere. Ultimately an aesthetic sensibility intervenes to urge him to correct what looks like a deformity or a distortion, or to try and give more volume to his flattened bronze sculptures by painting them in flesh tones. He is thus led into further contradictions of which he himself should be the first to disapprove. For in effect they cause Giacometti to fall into the unnecessary error of turning out easily recognizable, typical Giacomettis instead of creating afresh each time out of an authentically inspired vision.

In one of the rare moments of insight in Mr. Lord’s unctuously overwritten, repetitive account of having his portrait painted, he draws attention to:

the utter impossibilities of what Giacometti is attempting to do. A semblance, an illusion is, in any case, obviously all that can be attained, and he knows it. But an illusion is not enough. This inadequacy becomes literally day by day, I think, less acceptable, less tolerable—almost in a physical sense—even as he strives to go on, to go further. There is always, perhaps, a possibility of going a little further, not very fare but a little further, and in the realm of the absolute a little is limitless.

Giacometti’s despair, doggedness, and frustration are indeed writ large in the pages of this booklet, whose text is heavy with remarks such as:

The painting is going worse and worse,” he announced, “It’s impossible to do it. Maybe I’d better give up painting forever. But the trouble is that if I can’t do a painting, I can’t do a sculpture either. It’s the same thing.”

or again:

Now I’ve got to undo everything. One should try to succeed in undoing everything and then doing it all over again very quickly, several times in the same sitting. I’d like to be able to paint like a machine.”

or again:

If only someone else could paint what I see, it would be marvellous, because then I could stop painting for good.”

Surely it is time to pose the question of why Giacometti goes on trying to do what he knows he can never achieve. And of why, since he knows he can’t, he talks so much about it. David Sylvester has written that

Giacometti’s notorious self-criticism is not the self-immolation of one who doubts his own powers; it is the outcome of his awareness of the magnitude of his ambition. And his notorious destructiveness of his work is the very opposite of the perfectionist’s who aims at achieving a solitary gem-like masterpiece before he dies. His destructiveness is a necessary clearing of the ground so that he can go on.

Yes, but is there not also something of a gimmick, of a will to run true to form, about his whole attitude nowadays? If Giacometti were really so anxious to “go on,” he could easily shift his ground and address himself to any number of equally valid alternative possibilities for a creative effort. After all, unlike so many of the superficial but smartly patronized practitioners of today, he is not obliged to depend for his continued success on exploiting a single popularly acclaimed model. He must, one can only conclude, suffer from some temperamental weakness. For Giacometti, let us not forget, is at heart and in his methods a genuine, creatively intentioned artist, and a whole body of distinguished work is there to prove it. How easy it should be for him therefore, given all that he has learned from experience, to “go on” and make a still greater and more complete contribution to contemporary sculpture. Why must he insist on a continually repeated courting of failure when this carries with it such a loss of satisfaction both to himself and to the world? Giacometti’s self-torture, like his renunciation, under the strain of the great challenge becomes all the more pathetic if one considers that he is almost alone today in taking man as his theme. And what is more he obviously has a deep awareness of the human qualities in man. Listen to him talking to Jean Genet: “I’ll never succeed in putting into a portrait all the strength contained in a head. The mere fact of living already demands so much will-power and energy…”

Attempts have been made, by Sartre and other writers, to present Giacometti as the great existential artist, intent on expressing the loneliness, the solitude, in which every person and object must live out an allotted life-span. Genet is perhaps the writer who has expressed this idea, in a long essay on Giacometti, most evocatively:

He has such a respect for things. Each one has its own beauty because it exists “alone” and contains in itself the irreplaceable. Thus Giacometti’s is not a social art, because that would mean establishing a social bond between things—man and his secretions. Rather is it an art of superior hobos whose purity is such that mere recognition of the solitude of every being and every thing would suffice to unite them. “I am alone,” the object seems to say, “and therefore tied to a destiny which you are powerless to change. If I am what I am and nothing else, I am indestructible. Being what I am, and that unreservedly, my solitude finds an echo in yours.

How justified are such attempts to read literary and philosophical undertones into Giacometti’s paintings and sculptures? The artist himself denies their existence, at least as a conscious element, and from his point of view the following snatch of dialogue from Mr. Lord’s book is most revealing:

On this particular day he mentioned Le Nain especially, saying that the paintings by him in the Louvre were to him among the most beautiful works there. “The figures in them express human feelings,” he said, “and that becomes rarer and rarer in paintings as we approach the present.” I observed that Cézanne expressed much human feeling in certain of his picits true and essential significations he does it in spite of himself, whereas Le Nain does it deliberately. That makes all the difference. As for me, I’m incapable of expressing any human feelings at all in my work, I just try to construct a head, nothing more.” “That isn’t everybody’s opinion,” I said. “In some of your sculptures and paintings I find a great deal of feeling.” “You may find it.” he said, “but I didn’t put it there. It’s completely in spite of me.”

Now if “loneliness” is not implied by Giacometti’s cult of the single thing and his inability to envisage a group united from within by some common action or emotion, can we account for it in some other way? I think we can, and the answer lies simply in Giacometti’s will to see things clearly, which obliges him to focus on one point at a time. If I may quote yet again from Genet:

This capacity for isolating an object and giving it an abundance of its true and essential significations is only made possible by the historical denial of the person looking at it. He must make an exceptional effort to disengage himself totally from history, to such an extent that he is not even a sort of eternal present but rather a person embarked on a dizzy and uninterrupted dash from a past to a future, oscillating from one extreme to another without the possibility of rest. If I look at a cupboard in order “at last” to know what it is, I eliminate everything which is not it. And the effort which I make brings my curiosity into play. This human being, this observer ceases to be present, even ceases to be present as an observer. He cannot help withdrawing into a past and a future which is undefined. He ceases to be there so that the cupboard can remain, and so that all bonds of an emotional or utilitarian nature between the cupboard and himself are cut.

Giacometti’s misfortune, I believe, is that the more fixedly he looks the less completely is he able to see, with the result that he falls ever more hopelessly under the spell of the realizable emotive fragment. And in this connection we must look back to those pre-war works of his done under the impact of Surrealism, where disconnected objects and vestiges of human forms—“objects without pedestals and without value, to be thrown away” as he has described them—played such an important role. What are the later “Hand” (1947), “Cage” (1950), “Nose” (1947) “Figure in a box” (1951) or “The Leg” (1958) if not extensions of these? Apparently Giacometti has never been able to free himself from his erstwhile fear of “external reality,” which thirty years ago pushed him into becoming “absorbed in the construction” of objects and thus enabled him to short-circuit the feelings they aroused in him. Surely the reason why Giacometti finds it impossible to “go on” now is that he fails to connect. Thus what he offers us is either a discontinuous image of some menacing presence which he has observed confronting him, or else an insubstantial record of a meaningful vision of reality which he has attempted but with which he has found himself incapable of coping.

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