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…

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