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Giacometti’s Code’

In response to:

Giacometti's Code from the May 18, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

It is unbecoming to rebuke one’s critics, nor would I undertake so thankless a task today were it not for the responsibility which any seeker of the truth must be prepared to accept concerning what he finds.

The critic I mean to admonish is Avigdor Arikha, a painter also prone to writing, whose article entitled “Giacometti’s Code” appeared in The New York Review of Books‘ issue of May 18, 1989. Alberto Giacometti seems to be admired by everybody, not only for what he did but for what he was, and I would be the last to cavil at it, having written copiously of my own admiration, especially in a biography of the artist published four years ago. Arikha has no new principle of admiration to propose. His article is a sober, albeit somewhat laborious, recapitulation of well-known Giacometti data and lore. He refers repeatedly, sometimes unknowingly, to the biography and concludes by condemning it. His condemnation is not the first, of course, to have appeared, far from the first, but most of the others were made in good faith, if not always with good sense, and therefore needed no response.

Arikha asserts that Giacometti’s, or, I suppose, any person’s, biography, “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.” Come on, Avigdor, take a look in your dictionary! Then ask yourself, and tell the public, why you repeatedly portray your own features. As for Giacometti’s words, everybody interested knows that his widow, Annette, has for twenty years obdurately refused to allow republication of his fascinating, though deliberately recondite, texts, a refusal, needless to say, applied to the biographer. “Whenever a detail is missing, Lord apparently draws on his imagination,” says Arikha, supporting this presumption of appearance by saying I could not have been in the hotel room where Annette and Isaku Yanaihara were alone. I wasn’t. But Yanaihara was, wrote a diary and published it: See my Note No. 12 to Chapter 51, and Bibliography No. 60. Arikha implies that one may doubt whether Annette and Yanaihara were, in fact, having an affair. Nobody in Paris who knew them, and he says he did, was in the least doubt over this, and The New York Times (March 15, 1982, p. C13) found the news fit to print.

But these are details. What counts for conclusive condemnation by Arikha is this: “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.’ ”

1.) The biography was not necessarily greeted favorably by reviewers who did not know Giacometti personally. Rosalind Krauss, for instance, said the book was not only bad but harmful.

2.) It did not arouse vehement criticism from all of Alberto’s friends and acquaintances—nor from a single member of his family—but mainly from those sensitive to the hurt of truth specifically felt by Annette Giacometti, a hurt for which I myself expressed sympathy in print. There were also those who joined in the protest out of baser motives, and they know who they are. There were even one or two who had never laid eyes on Alberto, but of course a great man never has so many friends as the day after his death.

3.) This manifesto was not a spontaneous out-pouring of indignation. Signatures to it were, in fact, pressingly solicited by Annette Giacometti’s secretary, Mary Lisa Palmer, in a “confidential” form letter dated February 21, 1986. The manifesto was not published by any friends and acquaintances of the artist but was placed as an advertisement by Madame Giacometti’s representative and paid for by her. In America this representative was a lawyer from Philadelphia named Frank L. Corrado, Jr. The advertisement appeared in The New York Review of Books on February 26, 1987 and later in The London Review of Books on March 19, 1987.

4.) David Sylvester did not “speak for many” when he published his criticism but for himself alone, and his “problem with this book” is more equivocal, more prejudicial and, indeed, more problematical than Arikha could have known or, for that matter, than David Sylvester himself may have foreseen. A full year before publication of the biography I gladly took occasion to show Mr. Sylvester a copy of the typescript, and the book threafter underwent only the slightest alterations. After reading 5/8 of the work David wrote to me on October 4, 1984 from Barcelona: “It’s a remarkable achievement,” he said, “and I’ve found it highly illuminating, partly because of the information it contains that’s new to me, partly because of its insights.” To be sure, he added, “Here and there I’ve found statements of fact that seemed to me questionable and in one or two cases wrong. Would it be useful if I took them up with you?” I asked him to but he never did. In conclusion he wrote: “Alberto and Diego are in your debt.” The next I heard from David was when in The London Review of Books I read that the biography was constantly (my emphasis) inaccurate in dealing with matters he knew about. The matters he knew about, it should be said, were those most important to anyone’s understanding of Giacometti, for he had known well the artist, his brother, wife, mistress and a great many of their friends. The about-face, however, came as no surprise, for in the meantime the biography had been published, Madame Giacometti’s storm had begun to brew, David had signed the incriminating document, blind now to illumination, and warily put it about that his eyes had only been opened to the prevalence of inaccuracies when he’d finished reading. It would have been braver to be more brazen.

Well, all this would seem a very trifling passage of wind in the vast teacup of cultural priorities if it did not concern Alberto Giacometti. But it does. He was a great artist, a great man and lived a great life. On all counts he is entitled to honorable and conscientious representation. What prompted Monsieur Arikha to clamber belatedly aboard the creaky bandwagon of condemnation is unclear, and maybe it was in all innocence that he selected the compromising witness to testify on his behalf. It would have been better for everybody had he picked up the telephone and given me a call. Since he didn’t bother to, your readers are entitled to know how far more correctly he might have observed Giacometti’s code by doing so.

James Lord
Paris, France

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