• Email
  • Print

Giacometti’s Code

Modernist, and not quite. Traditionalist, and not quite. Giacometti’s sculpture is neither realist nor abstract. Its surfaces look old, as if the pieces had been excavated. His painting is nearly colorless; his drawing, a web of hesitations. Alberto Giacometti was paradoxical. Much has been said and written about his work and about his life1 ; but now the aura surrounding his friendships with Sartre and Genet has dimmed and it is the work itself that commands attention. He was among the first to break away from the modernist dogma that art must respond essentially to other art, and to restore the connection of art and nature. And yet he was skeptical about the possibility of such a renewal. He considered abstraction an impasse for the artist, because he was unable to make connections with nature, while representational painting was beyond revival.

The oldest son of Annetta Stampa and the painter Giovanni Giacometti (1868–1933), Alberto Giacometti was born on October 10, 1901, in the village of Stampa (Grisons), in the Bregaglia valley, just below Maloja. The names of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin were constantly heard in the household; and Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918), Cuno Amiet (1868–1961), Giovanni Segantini (1858–1899), and cousin Augusto Giacometti (1877–1947), all artists then well known, often visited there. The house at Stampa was one of the main nests of the modern movement in Switzerland, of the belief that a painting is an autonomous creation, and that, as Giacometti’s father put it, “color and line are means of expression more far reaching and more accomplished than the word, and what is actually said by such means can never be repeated by the word.”2 Passionate discussions about the new art were among the earliest sounds his son would have heard. “I began to draw in my father’s studio as long ago as I can remember,” said Giacometti, who grew naturally into art after having received a continuous “natural” training. He chose to become a sculptor.

In his recent biography, James Lord quotes him as saying, “I began to do sculpture because that was precisely the realm in which I understood least.”3 After passing through the Ecole des Arts et Métiers (Geneva), where he learned little, he went to Italy (1920–1921) and then to Paris (1922), where he studied with Archipenko and Bourdelle, at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. He was joined there by his brother Diego, who became an artist in his own right,4 creating, among other objects, lamps and furniture in bronze, of a quality rarely seen since antiquity. (He created the fixtures for the Musée Picasso shortly before he died.) Except for the years of the German occupation during which he was back in Switzerland, where he later married Annette Arm, he remained in Paris (while frequently visiting his mother in Stampa) from 1927, working in the same run-down studio until the end of his life, although he could have afforded in later years a much more comfortable place. He died on January 11, 1966.

Alberto Giacometti was a vivid writer. His first published writings of the early 1930s were in a Surrealist vein and there was something playful and relishing of contradiction and paradox in his statements and writings throughout his life. In an interview with Pierre Dumayet in 19635 he said: “Resemblance? The more I see people the less I recognize them.” Asked whether he recognized his brother, he answered:

He has posed for me ten thousand times, but when he poses I don’t recognize him. I’m eager to have him pose for me in order to see what I see. When my wife poses for me, after three days of posing she doesn’t resemble herself anymore. I definitely don’t recognize her.

The following year he elaborated on his experience of drawing another woman from life6 :

This is strange. And yet I know this person. I even know what sort of hat she wore thirty years ago. When I see her in the street, her appearance is familiar to me from a long way off; the way she walks, her figure, her face. I think I could even draw her from memory without difficulty. But now, when she’s seated in front of me, I have the impression of being in front of a total stranger.

And he added, “I don’t know how I could think that I know her. I regret my weakness in accepting to do her portrait.”

No one, as far as I know, has questioned so emphatically what it means to work from life. Indeed, there are deep differences in the way we perceive someone we think we know well and the way the artist sees the same person as a sitter for a portrait. When it is not just passively seen but comes under intense scrutiny, a familiar face can suddenly become remote, transformed into an unknown landscape.

Most of Giacometti’s drawings were from life. (In a statement for his Museum of Modern Art exhibition in New York, 1965, he mentions that he “worked with the model all day from 1935 to 1940.”) But he continued to sculpt from memory, even though some of his statements suggest that he was aware of the danger that memory can lead the artist to project backward to things known and stale—to mannerism. Talking of the great difficulties he had with his work in the early 1940s, he said that when he wanted

to create from memory what I had seen, to my terror the sculptures became smaller and smaller, they had a likeness only when they were very small,…their dimensions revolted me, and tirelessly I began again, only to end several months later at the same point…. All this changed a little in 1945 through drawing.7

Likeness” was what he looked for. The way to achieve it, he thought, was through “copying,” but “copying” was always arduous and proceeded by way of “failure”—a failure to see “normally” could lead to perceiving something in an original way. “Le raté m’interesse autant que le réussi” (“A failed work interests me as much as a successful one”), he said in a BBC interview with David Sylvester in 1964.8 A few years earlier, in the preface he wrote for the catalog of the André Derain exhibition (Galerie Maeght, 1957), he expressed a similar view:

It is only when I like the really bad work of a painter, his worst canvas, that I like his work. I think that for everybody the best canvas contains traces of the worst, and the worst the traces of the best.9

Failure interested him far more than skill, or virtuosity, for which he had a deep dislike. He refused to undertake the pure single-line drawings that were fashionable in the 1930s and 1940s, produced by so many followers of Picasso and Matisse, and by Jean Cocteau. These single-line drawings, he thought, were mostly lines for line’s sake. Giacometti believed, so he told me, in the small, hesitant line, in the point-by-point approach by which a sitter’s likeness can gradually emerge. This was his connection to Cézanne. Indeed the single-line drawing was an act of generalization, and he rejected this. What we see in his drawing is the diametrical opposite of the single-line drawing—his drawings consist of line hatchings and blank spaces, which he often made with an eraser. He used the eraser frequently (unlike Picasso) and would say: “Of the two drawing tools, the pencil and the eraser, I don’t know which is the more important.”

From his first days as an artist, Giacometti was preoccupied by problems of scale. He was obsessed with how the distance from an object affected the dimensions of what was drawn. For many years, he drew at a considerable distance from the model, as, for example, the wonderful drawing of Pierre Loeb (1950, Paris, Albert Loeb Collection) recently shown in Washington, or the Stampa interiors and landscapes. During his last years, he moved closer and closer to his model—during my last visit with him, in the fall of 1965, he showed me a portrait of Caroline, his last passion and model, saying: “This is a close up.” It was painted from a distance of about three feet. He told James Lord of a still life he began to draw in his father’s studio in Stampa at the age of eighteen or nineteen, which is a striking example of this preoccupation with distance.

He began to draw a still life of pears on a table. He started by making the pears the same size he knew the pears on the table to be, as if a realistic appearance depended on the representation of known proportions. As he worked, he kept erasing what he’d done, until the pears had grown tiny. Giovanni [Alberto’s father] observed this, and apparently assumed that the tiny pears were an affectation. He said, “Just do them as they are, as you see them.” Starting again, Alberto ended up half an hour later with the same tiny pears.

Alberto was trying to draw the pears “as they are,” i.e., as he “saw” them, not as he “knew” them, to use his own words. The distance of the pears on the table from the viewer determined how they would be drawn. They shrank from what he knew to be their size to what he actually saw.

Lord describes and tries to explain a similar episode of obsession with diminishing size eighteen years later, in 1937:

He had labored hard to model from life a head which would be convincingly lifelike; he had begun the series of figures in plaster which, to his consternation, became tinier and tinier as he worked on them. Nothing satisfied him. The impotence so often experienced in intimate relationships seemed to have become a condition of creative life as well.

Lord here disregards the ways by which the work in progress could impose and dictate its own rules as Giacometti tried to follow his code of actual perception. Simplistic Freudian correspondences of the kind Lord suggests here are quite useless to explain works of art.

All of Giacometti’s friends and acquaintances knew by heart, having heard it again and again, how, while watching a film at the Cinéac (a movie theater in the small, now defunct Gare du Montparnasse), he looked at the man seated next to him and was struck by what seemed to him the immensity of the distance between his ear and his nostril—a distance he had never noticed before. Such observations were part of the difficulties of depicting, of making a “copy” that he often talked about, sometimes with what sounded like desperation. “You never copy the glass on the table, you copy the residue of the vision.” This statement, the art historian Valerie Fletcher suggests in the catalog of the recent exhibition of Giacometti’s work in Washington,10 may have been influenced by the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty; but I doubt his drawings themselves ever were. Although Giacometti was a great reader, he knew that art is not philosophy.

The truth is that in spite of some of his utterances, Giacometti remained a modernist; he believed that the work of art was independent of what it depicts, and that there was no longer a place for illusionism in art. He was a reductionist, not unlike Mondrian, though different, not neat, not fanatical. Both Mondrian and Giacometti developed austere but very different idioms to express a vision of order as against disorder; they had little else in common except austerity. Whereas Mondrian reduced his painting to nothing but the grid, Giacometti reduced his sculpture to the rod, and, even further, to a blade-like thinness; he treated clay the way a carver deals with stone, not by adding to it, as is usual in sculpting with clay, but by taking out, leaving hardly anything but the armature, the bone—a metaphor of starvation. In the grim atmosphere of the immediate postwar years in Paris, it was not astonishing that his wiry, elongated figures, his colorless, line-webbed paintings, and his densely worked-over life drawings won acclaim in the circle that included Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Jean Genet. The bourgeoisie followed only later.

Fashionable success was more understandable in the case of his earlier Cubist or Surrealist works. These he called “objects which were for me the closest I could come to my vision of reality,”11 giving them such titles as Spoon Woman (1926–1927), Woman with Her Throat Cut (1932), The Palace at 4 A.M. (1932–1933), and Invisible Object (1934). These objects seemed new; their power derives from their suggestive ambiguity and in large part depends on their titles. Klee too gave his work titles that had an ambiguous poetic significance, one of the reasons he was “annexed” (with no enthusiasm on his part) by the Surrealists; so did Miró, who always refused to be annexed. By way of the irrational, the Surrealists brought back the literary or “poetic” anecdote into the visual arts, and with it the need for titles. Without its title would we still be fascinated by the Palace at 4 AM? Its mystery heavily depends on its title, not its form. Without its title, Woman with Her Throat Cut would seem an anomalous crab-like object. This is also the case with other contemporary work, such as Julio Gonzalez’s Hair (1930) and Danseuse a la Palette (1933) or Brancusi’s The Beginning of the World (1924). In some cases, Giacometti used highly reductive symbolic forms, fantasy objects that represent a subject as it is imagined, not seen. Head/Skull (1934), originally called Tête d’Homme,12 is one of the most striking examples. As Ms. Fletcher remarks,

From one profile it resembles a head with solid facial planes, while from the other side it suggests the hollowed out, bony structure of a skull, as if to suggest that death lurks just below the surface.

Giacometti’s sculptures of the period between 1926 and 1935 fluctuated between imitations of primitive art, such as Spoon Woman or Couple (Man and Woman), and symbolic forms, such as Woman with Her Throat Cut. He later wrote about this period: “It was no longer the exterior forms that interested me but what I really felt.”13

This is true of much of the later sculpture as well, although after 1935 Giacometti gave up the poetic titles in favor of blunt labels attached to nameless heads and figures, such as Dog (1951), Homme qui Marche (1960), and Buste d’Homme (Diego) (1961). The pressure of his inner feeling for form produced an eruption of sculptures that, unlike his drawings and paintings, were not entirely done from life. About the sculpture of Dog Giacometti wrote in 1964:

For a long time, I’d had in my mind the memory of a Chinese dog I’d seen somewhere. And then one day I was walking along the rue de Vanves in the rain, close to the walls of the buildings, with my head down, feeling a little sad, perhaps, and I felt like a dog just then. So I made that sculpture. But it’s not really a likeness at all.14

Aware, as he said, that a likeness can hardly be created from memory, he still worked from memory in contradiction to his strong inclination to work from life, to extract, without mediation, a true likeness of an observed face, from the face. As a fruit is picked from a tree, not from a can. He tried and failed. When I visited him at his studio, instead of saying “hello,” he often said “Je recommence tout.” He would start a head from scratch again and again, as Rembrandt did: the three successive busts of Elie Lotar (1965), masterpieces of trembling bronze, can be considered as Giacometti’s strongest sculptural legacy.

Preceded by Derain, Giacometti wanted to return to the visual source, the face, the figure, and he wanted to make a direct connection between what he saw, and did, and felt. But he was convinced that there was no way back to the masterpieces of David or Ingres. On the other hand, Cimabue and Giotto, Egyptian and Byzantine art, the frescoes of Pompeii, the Faiyum portraits, and Cézanne he took as inspiring models. He felt that his task was to make painting “work both ways,” as he used to say: as a thing in itself, independent of subject matter, and as a “copy” of the given subject matter. Its representation—its “likeness,” or “copy,” as he put it—was, however, something unattainable unless it passed through a process of failure. But unlike Beckett’s idea of failure, Giacometti’s had a happy ending.

Giacometti often said, “The arm that most resembles an arm is the Egyptian arm.” The painting that least resembled reality was, for him, Renaissance painting. However greatly he admired, as he often said he did, such a work as Le Nain’s La charette (1641, Paris, Louvre), he was certain this kind of painting was over. Sometimes he seemed to believe that seeing as a joyful act had become completely disconnected from the act of painting, sometimes that the gift for such vision was itself lost, and now belonged to a vanished Golden Age. Giacometti often remarked ironically but with delight that although his place was with the “peintres de dimanche” (amateur painters), his work was always being exhibited with the abstractionists. He used to say that pure abstraction was impossible. Of a group of paintings by the Parisian abstractionist Serge Poliakoff, he said to me, “I see in them a running horse, a donkey.”

When he left the Surrealist group, Giacometti became the object of hostility and disdain—only “an Impressionist,” they said: nothing could be lower in their eyes. He found himself isolated again. But not for long. Giacometti’s decision to collaborate with the then famous interior decorator and designer Jean-Michel Frank (the main cause of his “excommunication” by Breton) was to become decisive:

The worlds of art and fashion being both intermingled and interdependent, success in one often goes hand in hand with success in the other. Alberto soon found himself launched in fashionable Parisian circles, to which he had entree not only as a promising artist but also as a collaborator of Jean-Michel Frank, and he was accepted immediately by the beau monde.

The tables and lamps and other objects Alberto created in collaboration with his brother Diego (who developed them further on his own) were at once the rage. His sculptures were to follow, but much later. The fashionable collectors, at least the small group of enlightened ones among them, did not abandon him when the playfulness of the 1930s gave way to gravity in the first post–World War II years. When pieces like Head of a Man on a Rod (1947) (which had some affinity with the influential Julio Gonzalez’s Head of Montserrat, 1941–1942) made their appearance, the response was immediate. But again literary implications were read into Giacometti’s frail figures, which this time were seen as having “existentialist” overtones, having the blessing of Sartre, who had first met Giacometti in 1939 and wrote an essay praising him in 1947.15 He was among the writers and poets who clustered around Giacometti, whose closest friends were Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille.

Giacometti’s wit, his irony and love of ambiguity, his finesse are not easy to describe now, nor were they easy to capture when he was alive. Writing his biography, therefore, would seem to require, as in translating poetry, a writer not too much unlike himself; it should be the equivalent of painting his portrait from life, drawing as much as possible on Giacometti’s own words. James Lord seems to attach more importance to Giacometti’s psychology than to his views on art, and seems far more interested in the intimate details of his life. In the vast numbers of sources he uses (of which 307 are listed, but there are many more), memories, facts, gossip, and fiction are combined in his somewhat breathless account. Whenever a detail is missing, Lord apparently draws on his imagination. Despite his long-standing acquaintance with Giacometti, he couldn’t possibly be sure of all that he describes. Or was he in the hotel room with Alberto’s wife, Annette, and his Japanese friend, the philosopher Isaku Yanaihara, with whom she was supposedly having an affair, when she “held out her brassiere and stockings, laughing slyly”?

In his introduction to Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Anthony Burgess writes:

The Defoe we prize is not a working journalist but a novelist whose method is that of the working journalist. To be termed an imaginative writer would have terrified him. The purpose of the pen was to render, in seemingly unconsidered immediacy, true events.16

Lord’s method in his excellent, short A Giacometti Portrait17 of 1965 was that of a working journalist. In that book, he recorded with accuracy and modesty what he observed and heard during his eighteen sittings for his painted portrait. But the sixty-eight-page book is not a biography. The immensely detailed Giacometti: A Biography was greeted favorably by reviewers who did not know Giacometti personally, but it aroused vehement criticism from Alberto’s friends and acquaintances, some of whom published a manifesto protesting the “distorted portrayal of the man we knew.” David Sylvester spoke for many who knew Giacometti better than the present writer when he wrote, “My problem with this book is that it seems highly informative when it is dealing with matters of which I have no knowledge but is constantly inaccurate when dealing with matters I do know about.”18 If any book is to come close to Giacometti, it will have to concentrate on his work itself and make careful use of his writing, still a largely untapped source.

Letters

Giacometti’s Code’ September 28, 1989

  1. 1

    See, for example, James Lord, Giacometti: A Biography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985).

  2. 2

    Giovanni Giacometti, in a letter to Cuno Amiet (January 12, 1909); see also Du (Zurich, June 1987), p. 32.

  3. 3

    Lord, Giacometti: A Biography, p. 62.

  4. 4

    Daniel Marchesseau/Jean Leymarie, Diego Giacometti (Paris: Hermann, 1986).

  5. 5

    Pierre Dumayet, “La Difficulté de faire une tête: Giacometti,” Le Nouveau Candide (Paris, June 6, 1963).

  6. 6

    Talk with Gotthard Jedlicka, “Fragments aus Tagebüchern,” Neue Züricher Zeitung (April 4, 1964).

  7. 7

    A Letter from Alberto Giacometti to Pierre Matisse, 1947,” first published in New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, in the catalog for the Exhibition of Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings (January 19–February 14, 1948). Reprinted in Alberto Giacometti (Museum of Modern Art, 1965), p. 28.

  8. 8

    Fragment d’un entretien avec David Sylvester,” l’Ephémère, Vol. 18 (Paris, 1971), pp. 183–189.

  9. 9

    Alberto Giacometti, catalog introduction for Derain in Derrière le miroir, No. 94–95 (Paris, February 1957), pp. 7–8.

  10. 10

    Valerie J. Fletcher, Alberto Giacometti: 1901–1966, exhibition catalog, with essays by Silvio Berthoud and Reinhold Hohl (The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988).

  11. 11

    A Letter from Alberto Giacometti to Pierre Matisse, 1947,” p. 18.

  12. 12

    Fletcher, Alberto Giacometti: 1901–1966, p. 106.

  13. 13

    A Letter from Alberto Giacometti to Pierre Matisse, 1947,” p. 22.

  14. 14

    Fletcher, Alberto Giacometti: 1901–1966, p. 165.

  15. 15

    Jean-Paul Sartre, “La recherche de l’absolue,” in Les temps modernes (Paris, January 1948), pp. 1153–1163.

  16. 16

    Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, edited by Anthony Burgess and Christopher Bristow, with an introduction by Anthony Burgess (Middlesex: Harmondsworth, 1966; reprinted in paper by Penguin, 1966).

  17. 17

    James Lord, A Giacometti Portrait (Museum of Modern Art, 1965).

  18. 18

    David Sylvester, “Giacometti and Bacon,” London Review of Books (March 19, 1987), pp. 8–9.

  • Email
  • Print