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.

Finally “Large sculpture is only small sculpture blown up.”

Reality for Giacometti is what he, as an artist, “directly sees,” and “every day reality looks a little different to me, and always a little more fascinating.” But what he directly saw, the reality and its fascination, was in part determined by his dominant concern, namely, envisaging different possibilities of representation, and various kinds of likeness, that he would find convincing. This is evidently why reality every day looked a little different to him. Talking to him on one occasion in 1966, I became quite sure that a philosophical point had for many years been clear in his mind: that for any serious artist engaged in drawing or painting or modeling or carving from life, what counts as the perceived reality for him is in part determined by the possible forms of representation which he, the artist, was envisaging at the time. The sculptors of the Renaissance and the sculptors of the Cyclades, as they worked on their human figures, saw different likenesses in height and size because they brought to the work a different repertoire of forms of representation. In his work and in his thought Giacometti had turned as far away as he could from two familiar forms of representation: from impressionism and from any kind of naive realism.

There is a philosophical point here, philosophical because it concerns the interpretation of “reality.” Apart from visual art, the real nature and the real size of an object are in part determined for most of us by the conceptual scheme which, for practical or for scientific reasons, we are employing at a particular time. If we look at a chair or a person, common objects in our medium-sized world, we are aware, as we classify them, of the chair’s likely uses and the person’s likely reactions. But if we are interested only in the appearance of a chair or a person and the sensation that the appearance leaves with us, some elaborate form of representation is needed to capture the sensations. A draftsman, painter, or sculptor is also exploring reality, but he is using a particular scheme of representation, one among many possible ones, when he determines what he really sees. In place of a conceptual scheme and of a preexisting theory, which are necessary for practical cognitive purposes, a visual artist is equipped with a set of possible spatial forms which, taken together, serve to pick out the salient features of the object before him. He is pursuing a truth that is buried in his own peculiar forms of representation.

For Giacometti the supreme difficulty in schemes of representation—or, as he would say, the absolute impossibility—lay in the representation of space, or, more precisely, of objects-in-space.

I have often felt in front of living beings, above all in front of human heads, the sense of a space-atmosphere which immediately surrounds these beings, penetrates them, is already the being itself: the exact limits, the dimensions of this being become indefinable. An arm is as vast as the Milky Way, and this has nothing mystical about it.

As Sylvester remarks, Giacometti allows nothing to appear certain about the relation between mass and space either in his drawings, with their multiple outlines and cross-hatchings, or in the jagged and indented surfaces of the sculptures. Giacometti saw human figures either as emerging out of space, uncertainly differentiated and looming like dark clouds in his drawings and sculptured figures, or as shrunken into themselves and wrinkled in the process of shrinking. Comparing Giacometti’s sculptures with some of Matisse’s, Sylvester observes that Matisse presents a figure “seen whole and entire now, in an instant of time, in any instant of time, meaning outside time; the Giacometti sculptures seem to present figures as they are perceived while the time passes.” The time spent is visible in the struggle for a likeness, while Matisse’s genius was of the classical kind which eliminates all the “marks of contrivance,” in Kant’s phrase. In Giacometti’s work, no detail of the figure is put there as if its statement of a likeness claimed to be absolutely true. The contrast with Matisse leads Sylvester to a particularly apt and memorable sentence: “The greatness of Giacometti’s art is that it is tentative but is not vague.”

It may be asked, what is the peculiar value of this very exact expression of tentativeness and of this apparently self-indulgent uncertainty in representing spatial reality and the external world? Why do so many people experience an intense pleasure in a room in a museum that is full of Giacometti’s work? Is it that the work has gaiety and lightness, because heavy materiality has slid away? Probably the question can only be answered by comparisons and contrasts with other artists. Both Matisse and Giacometti were preoccupied for most of their lives by the representation of femininity as they perceived it and sought to represent it: women for them have been a source and symbol of happiness. The utter definiteness of color and outline in a Matisse painting of a modern odalisque, or of a woman near a sunlit window in the south of France, draws upon a tradition that is both pictorial and literary. A hundred associations crowd in so that the forms and the subject matter fit together both exactly and easily in spectators’ minds. Except for the sometimes transcendent beauty of color, we learn without difficulty to see the model as Matisse saw her: lucidly outlined against her particular background, definite and unambiguous in the way she is situated in space, and also against the historical background of European painting.

Then we turn to another realization of femininity. Giacometti’s sculptures of women, thin, tapering, and still, but also agitated on their surfaces, seem to be waiting and looking, but are otherwise wholly inactive. Their posture and their apparent passivity set them apart from the parallel male figures, who are usually in some way active, sometimes walking, sometimes pointing an arm. Giacometti stresses an ideal femininity as strongly as Matisse does, but through various overlapping suggestions which are individually rather muffled and uncertain but which, taken together, become more definite. One virtue of the sculptor’s tentativeness and of his clearly expressed uncertainty is that they prevent any too immediate and unquestioning responses to traditional representations of women in art. In the course of his tentative carving and modeling he effectively discarded the traditional female forms preserved in the work of Rodin and Maillol. He visibly and obviously went behind these forms in pursuit of some individual vision, unrealized and peculiar only to one occasion. The result for the observer is surprise, a new experience, a new way of seeing the difference between men and women as it is sensed.

One traditional way of representing spatial relations, and therefore of seeing and of enjoying them, requires that within the picture there should be beautifully marked and exactly observed intervals between objects; it is as if the objects are cut out of the space encompassing the picture. Space becomes, from an aesthetic standpoint, a system of clearly marked intervals between masses, like intervals in music, and from the exact markings we receive a particularly intense sensation of space. Seurat presented objects in space in this classical style, conspicuously in his beautiful sketches of ships and harbors. Giacometti proceeded in the opposite direction, whether in his portraits or in his sketches of his studio and in all his other representations of the visible world. Intervals are made uncertain by multiple lines and by cross-hatching, and outlines are smudged, and we are in effect asked to recognize that exactness in the pictorial representation of objects in space is not to be looked for, and is, in fact, altogether impossible. In such a vision objects emerge without much definition and are soft to the eye, with a kind of morbidezza. Because, as an artist, Giacometti thought of looking at objects as a kind of visual and unphysical confrontation, and because he thought of the objects as looking back at him, either literally or metaphorically, space for him was not an empty universal background, but the point at which the particular object held in view disappears.

Sylvester remarks that Giacometti’s sculptures and his canvases seem to compel the spectator to reconstruct the painful progress of the artist as he struggles unsuccessfully toward a true representation. He writes, “We are building [the figures] in our consciousness as we go,” and this seems to me exactly right. Giacometti was at once solitary as an artist and at the same time didactic in a philosophical spirit. He intended his tentativeness to be manifest in the smudged marks on a canvas and in the sculpted figure, with its irregular lumps and indentations. Finding a likeness was to be understood as an anxious, active process and not as a revelation that is complete.

Giacometti’s pursuit of a “likeness,” as he conceived it, and of “truth” according to “his way of seeing” served a deeper purpose and illustrated a philosophical point; and I think he knew that it did, at least by 1966, after many years of thinking about visual perception, about its conditions and its limits. He knew that anyone gazing at the model with a view to representation confronts the impossibility of stripping away all the conventions of representation which in history have become appropriate to the model. But he can, with the skills in his hands and with the intense concentration of his gaze, achieve some temporary victory both over the dominance of convention in seeing and also over his prior knowledge of the object.

When most of us are looking at the outside world, we accept that we will not be aware of the variety of the possible representations of the objects we see. Some part of l’expérience vécue which has been lost can be recaptured only by the will to construct a “likeness” in a form of representation, and by discounting everything else. The pleasure of the construction comes from the process itself, from the elaboration of the medium, and from some surprised recall of the original sensation. From the standpoint of the artist portraying a person, or drawing a table or a room, “everything is appearance,” as Giacometti said to Sylvester. The artist knows that when the constraints of conventional and stereotyped forms are removed, every person may have his own “way of seeing,” just as every person has his own way of walking and his own way of talking. Temperament and subjectivity determine the artist’s struggle to find a likeness that convinces him as he works. There was a teasing element in Giacometti’s temperament, a disposition always to take two steps forward and one step back, both in his drawing and modeling and also in his development as an artist. His habit of destroying his own work, then making a fresh start, was not like the ordinary pursuit of perfection or finality, because he did not believe that there could possibly be finality within his ambitions. He seems to have enjoyed stopping and starting as a form of self-discovery and as the experimental testing of his own aesthetic ideas.

In many respects he now seems the extreme opposite of Picasso, who exhibited dominance, mastery, if not facility, or at least certainty and confidence, without any suggestion of tentativeness. With respect to tentativeness the two contemporaries sometimes compared to Giacometti are Beckett and the philosopher Wittgenstein—the latter comparison is Sylvester’s. The shrinking of Beckett’s stories and plays is strangely reminiscent of Giacometti’s thinning of his sculptures: the persons represented become ever more bare and concentrated, as if to suggest that much previous art and literature has been padded and over-furnished with a view to a trivial and distracting verisimilitude. But I think there is an important difference. Beckett’s shorter pieces are shrinking toward nothing, toward extinction and ultimate silence, and they seem finally to convey a deep pessimism about finding any truth through fiction. Not so Giacometti’s sculptures and portraits: in the unsuccessful struggle of the figures to become more rounded and more monumental, they are still inspiring and supremely elegant in their contractions, and they are often gay in their uprightness on the plinth or on the imagined street.

There is a kind of artist, and a kind of thinker, who follows a lifelong course of his own, comparatively solitary, staying in a single studio or room, as Giacometti did in Paris, and not being greatly concerned by the public’s response to his work, but always expecting to fall short of his own intentions; therefore he works without showmanship or rhetoric and without even the ordinary arts of presentation, and largely detached from the spirit of his age. The beauty of the work of such artists resides in the visible intensity of their concentration, and in the recklessness of their losses, as they try to be loyal to their own sensations.

Among philosophers Spinoza in his very abstract thought had this character, but he was much more somber in its expression. There is a sense of play in Giacometti’s small figures, and sometimes in the tall ones; and his portraits—of his brother Diego, his wife Annette and his model Caroline, Sartre and Genet, and Sylvester himself—are wonderfully particularized and life-like, looking at the viewer straight in the eye with their entire faces, to make a surprising confrontation of lookings.

If a painter or sculptor, in the act of representation, eliminates, as far as he can, both conventions of representation and any preconceptions of the object, he will be left with the visual sensations of the object which stand out in his odd and solitary mind, as he looks and as he works on that particular occasion, with his own current formal inventions present to him. This vision of salient features is what Giacometti called “seeing in my way”; the way of seeing naturally changed over the years, but it never hardened into becoming habitual. Sylvester regrets that in his later years Giacometti did not establish a definite style but persisted with his experiments, and that he allowed his uncertainties, and stops and starts, to continue until the end. He could not bear it if his perceptions lacked problems, became habitual, and a part of the furniture of his mind. While he worked, he had to go on thinking about the wonderful unattainability of visual “rightness.” This thought was his supreme pleasure, a pleasure that he passes on to others. Vision itself was his subject—the haunting strangeness of appearances.

Sylvester’s book, a very close reading of Giacometti, suggests something also about the pleasures of thought. Rational thought of the kind mentioned at the beginning of this review, methodical and argumentative, provides the pleasures that come from agreement, and some acceptance within the community of competent thinkers; it has a reassuring finality. The processes of rational thought are delightful because they converge and can be fully shared and repeated and can become a public possession. They are secured and underpinned by the logic and by the conventions which we have all learnt to observe. Giacometti’s thought as an artist was of its nature divergent, peculiar to him and to his temperament and to his vision, and not to be fully shared or repeated or imitated; rather it was an escape into the cluttered studio from the shared habits of the community. Only the works belong to the community, not the processes of thought that led to them. I think it would be a gain in clarity to discard the old psychology of separate faculties, with its distinction between reason and imagination, and to substitute for it the contrast between convergent and divergent thought.

With extraordinary flair Sylvester reconstructs, hesitantly, some of Giacometti’s thinking; as does Giacometti himself in this book, also hesitantly and only in glimpses. One sees how very difficult it is to think about (and to talk about) visual sensations of objects in space except by continually trying to represent the objects and the space through other objects and in another space: that is, except by being an artist.