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A New Way of Seeing

Looking at Giacometti Macrae)

by David Sylvester
Chatto and Windus, (to be published in March 1996 by Henry Holt/John, 256 pp., £25.00

Why has it often been thought that concentrating on abstract argument, remote from ordinary perceptions, is the highest activity of a person, the nearest to the divine? Because Aristotle and the Christian theologians have told us so, and their fiction has passed into the language we use when we distinguish reason from emotion, or intellect from imagination, or science from art. Fully within the rationalist tradition, Kant in the Critique of Judgment categorized the visual arts as free works of imagination, and thus inaccessible to reasoning and to explanation, as well as the domain of unaccountable genius. This has become the conventional wisdom.

Partly as a consequence of meeting and talking to Giacometti not long before he died, I came to doubt this traditional picture of the mind. It began to seem a convenient academic myth, and a mere invention. “In the beginning was the logos,” or rational principle (“The Word” in the Authorized Version), makes articulate reason the source of all things and the sole clue to reality. But is it not obvious within our experience that there are in fact many different kinds of thought associated with the making of things and that some kinds of thought, typically human, are remote from rational discourse and are no less interesting?

Talking with Giacometti, I felt him to be the equal of anyone that I had ever met in the intensity, the concentration, and the continuity of his thinking. From his earliest beginnings as an artist he had made his art into a series of thoughtful experiments attached to a series of linked inquiries, each arising from past failures and, less often, from past successes. It would not have been easy for him at any stage to give an explicit account in words of his inquiries, and of their outcomes. His intentions went into his carving and modeling and drawing and painting as he “gazed” (his chosen word) at what he was doing, and as he continually corrected it. Looking at any object that he had made, he thought of alternatives that he felt impelled to follow up, not knowing whether they would prove to be better, but believing that perhaps they might be. In retrospect we can see that in his replies to many questions, he was able to recapture in words some of his earlier thinking and some of his past and present intentions, but hardly ever completely and hardly ever with certainty.

Looking at Giacometti consists of Sylvester’s accounts, written at different times over some years, of Giacometti’s working methods and of his ambitions as a sculptor, painter, and draftsman, and it includes many quotations from Sylvester’s conversations with the artist. The book also includes an interview in which Giacometti responds to the critic’s questions about his methods. Giacometti sometimes talked like a French philosopher (Sartre was a model), and he was evidently delighted to think about the many possible distinctions between appearance and reality relevant to his work.

Giacometti’s portrait of Sylvester is reproduced on the dust cover at the front and back of the book, and appropriately so. The book is a remarkably intimate study of the artist’s thought and of his ambitions: a portrait in words by the sitter as he looks back at the portrait painter. Sylvester has revised virtually everything he had written previously about the subject, including his catalog to the 1965 show at the Tate Gallery in London, which he organized. The critic’s struggle to revise his prose seems to match the artist’s own struggles, always revising, always destroying his work and starting again.

Alberto Giacometti was born in Italian Switzerland in 1901, the son of a painter. He was drawing from life at the age of nine and made his first sculpture when he was thirteen. When he was twenty-one he went to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1930 he joined the Surrealist group but in 1934 he was expelled from it because he had resumed using a living model and this was contrary to Surrealist principles of absolute freedom. He had become obsessed with the nature of representation and by the philosophical question of what could be meant, in the context of visual art, by a likeness and by truth. But the emotional power and spikiness, even terror, of his Surrealist sculptures (Man & Woman, Slaughtered Woman, The Invisible Object) are not altogether discontinuous with the minuscule representations of real persons that he made ten years later, after the war. The earlier sculptures draw upon emotionally charged memories, not upon confrontations with people and objects that are physically present. They allow for the uncontrolled play of chance and for the conviction that sometimes comes from coincidence or accident as an artist works. Chance was always important to Giacometti as an element in art:

Once the object has been constructed, I have a tendency to rediscover in it, transformed and displaced, images, impressions, facts, which have deeply moved me (often without my knowing it).

In unconscious memory, chance collocations take over from analytical control in generating the emotions associated with image-making; the swings between agitation and stillness that are so characteristic of Giacometti’s work in the 1920s and 1930s came from memories of past experience. When he turned from memory to models during the 1940s he changed his life and he changed his manner of thinking. It was as if he had undergone a moral conversion, dedicating himself to a strict objectivity of his own devising, and setting his own standards of truth.

Both in sculpture and in drawing his aim in front of the model was to achieve what he called a “likeness.” By “likeness” he meant a reproduction in plaster or bronze, or on the canvas, of the precise visual sensations that he had in the presence of the perceived forms within the model. He said: “I know it is utterly impossible for me to model, paint or draw a head, for instance, as I see it, yet this is the one thing I am trying to do.” “As I see it” meant: “As I feel—have the sensation of—the object confronting me as a visible presence in the space before me.”

Sylvester points out that for the last thirty years of his life, Giacometti’s sculpture was virtually restricted to three subjects, a standing man, a walking man, and a standing woman, all three nearly always looking straight ahead. Frontality in sculpture and in drawing was essential to him because he was trying to realize in his work the sensation of a spatial presence confronting him. He wanted to be faithful to his sensations as he looked at the model “gazing” back at him. Under the artist’s gaze as he worked, the body of the model, he found, must become a mere sketch of an attenuated body supporting its returning gaze, standing apart and independent, and directly gazing back at the artist. He was not, like Degas with his dancers, catching the objects depicted as they moved about in their own world; rather he was bringing the sculptor and model together within the same space: a representation, one might say, of visual proximity and, for Giacometti, of the strangeness of that proximity.

Sylvester tells the celebrated story of Giacometti traveling from Geneva to Paris with a set of tiny human figures in matchboxes, the product of several years of solitary effort. In his pursuit of a satisfying likeness, the figures had contracted, and contracted further, under his refining gaze. Even in his earliest years, when he was, to the irritation of his father, drawing and painting from life, his representations irresistibly, and in spite of his conscious intentions, shrank always to a pathetic size. That is how the object, a pear or a human figure, presented itself when he started to draw it or to model it. It would present an altogether different appearance when he was not seeking to create a “likeness,” but only intended to handle it or to embrace it or to name it—the normal intentions we expect people to have toward an object. Then, with the full panoply of its non-visual characteristics, it would necessarily return to its “real” size and height. Following suggestions from Sylvester, and drawing on Giacometti’s own words quoted in this book, I think this shrinking can perhaps be understood.

First, Giacometti set himself a target, which he believed to be virtually out of reach, of representing a pure visual sensation of the object, while discarding all his collateral knowledge of the properties of the object as ordinarily experienced and known through being handled in a normal situation, outside the studio. His artist’s gaze was to be a very rare and peculiar kind of intense vision: vision detached from its universal biological function as a prelude to approaching and getting and touching and naming and using. Only when the artist concentrated on vision itself could vision spin loose and away from its moorings in ordinary, hence practical and conventional, cognition and recognition. The bulk and materiality of a human figure, its stature and thickness, are perceived through our anticipation of touching the figure and manipulating it, and also through our anticipation of walking around it.

In pure vision, directed only at a sensed visual likeness, and with all anticipations of contact and perambulation suppressed, the figure refines itself to a profile and to a surface with just enough materiality to support a characteristic returning look. Evidently such a pure vision is an ideal construct, something that Giacometti on each occasion aimed at, not something that he habitually and easily found. Staring out from a café at people passing on the pavement across the road, Giacometti would see these figures shrink as soon as he thought of the possible ways he might make “a likeness” of them, as opposed to acknowledging them as the physical creatures in motion that they actually were.

Sylvester recalls here another setting for finding a likeness: imagine Giacometti sitting in a brothel in Paris and looking across a polished floor at a group of women standing together as they wait for clients. As soon as he thinks of drawing them or thinks of making a figure, he places them in his mind’s eye in their own space, cut off from the rest of the people in the room; they confront him with new sensations as he draws or makes a figure. The conventions of drawing, and the picture frame, provide him with a ready-made picture space, but in sculpture he has to suggest indirectly the relation between the figure and the surrounding space that enclosed it. Giacometti argued that the sculptures, figures, and heads produced by early civilizations were, in general, relatively small:

I think that this actually was the size that instinctively seemed right, the size one really sees things. And in the course of history, perception has been mentally transposed into concept. I can do your head life-size because I know it’s life-size. I don’t see directly any more, I see you through my knowledge. Actually this has always been the case, but to a greater or lesser degree.

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