Go figure

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 52, Autumn 2017

Page 6

The more Giacometti looked, the less he could see. But even as his sculptures shrank, Martin Gayford says, his influence grew

Much of the greatest figurative art of the 20th and 21st centuries – by Freud, Auerbach and Bacon – has come from repetition: depicting a few familiar models, again and again and again. Van Gogh, who was greatly admired by all those painters, noted that "one and the same person may furnish motifs for very different portraits". But Giacometti, another idol of the so-called 'School of London', went yet further.

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) might be regarded as at least a mentor, if not the godfather of Bacon, Freud and their circle. This perhaps begins to explain why so much attention has been paid to him, critically and by the art market in recent years. He was the person, more than anyone else in post-war art, who revived the notion of working from life, who made it seem filled with existential mystery.

This was why he was just as much a model for certain painters as his great rival, Picasso. "Giacometti was very hostile to Picasso," recalled Lucian Freud, who knew both men. "Of course, Picasso was stimulated by people disliking him." The tiny, spartan studio Giacometti maintained on rue Hippolyte-Maindron, it has been suggested, was the model for the equally cramped and messy working spaces favored by Auerbach, Bacon and Kossoff.

In this tiny, cold room, splattered with plaster, Giacometti worked with astonishing frequency over many years from certain sitters, particularly his brother Diego and his wife Annette. He estimated that the former might have sat for him "ten thousand times" and yet "when he poses, I don't recognize him". It was the same with Annette: "after three days, she doesn't look like herself".

Such varying reactions to familiar individuals might seem strange, even deranged; but they take us to the heart of Giacometti's contribution to art. He insisted on the sheer difficulty of representing the things and the people around us.

This is, of course, the opposite of what most people in the 20th century instinctively believed – and still believe now. They think, as David Hockney has put it, "that the world looks like a photograph", all the artist has to do is copy. Giacometti disagreed, and also believed that representing what we see in other ways – through drawing, painting and sculpture – was so hard as to verge on the impossible.

Giacometti, like Picasso, was born into art. His father, Giovanni (1868-1933) was an accomplished though not very adventurous post-Impressionist painter. The young Alberto was a little virtuoso. But early on, he was troubled by discrepancies between his vision and the way objects were usually presented in pictures.

A celebrated moment of insight occurred shortly after the war in a cinema on Boulevard du Montparnasse. Before this, he had accepted, as almost all of us do, the photographic image as 'reality'. However, that day on the screen, instead of a person, he just saw a "vague blob". Giacometti stepped out onto the Boulevard, and found everything – depth, objects, colors, the silence – different and completely new. Reality had become "a marvelous unknown".

He had had another instant of revelation one midnight in 1937 on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. In the far distance, Giacometti spotted a young Englishwoman, Isabel Nicholas (better known by her later married name, Rawsthorne), with whom he was in love. This was the basis of the numerous Standing Woman sculptures he made during the war and afterwards. Giacometti wrote to her, "the figure is you, when I caught a momentary glimpse of you".

Famously, Giacometti returned to Paris after spending the war years working in a hotel room in Geneva with his total sculptural output stored in a few matchboxes. He wrote to his dealer of his "terror" at the way his figures always shrank. That, however, was the result of his desire to capture the experience of Isabel standing with "an immense amount of darkness above her". He was trying, in other words, to sculpt an experience of remoteness.

Of course, this was impossible, but Giacometti found that every attempt to depict his experience of the world was impossible. However, he was driven to try. In the late 1920s and early '30s, he had worked in a Surrealist idiom and never made any piece that he had not imagined – complete – in advance. This left him dissatisfied, so in the mid 1930s, to the horror of the Surrealists, he returned to working from life. For the rest of his career, Giacometti continued to paint, sculpt and draw either from models or from memories of actual experiences, such as the sight of Isabel on Boulevard Saint-Michel that night.

Giacometti's sense of human fragility and the vastness of the space surrounding them might have come in part from his early years. He was brought up in deep, narrow valley in the Alps, a place where the sun was not seen for three months of the year; naturally people seemed minute creatures engulfed in vastness there. His sense of reality may also have been related to his psychosexual problems (he was impotent except with prostitutes, according to Lucian Freud). But, whatever its origins, this was what made him a unique artist.

A work such as Femme debout au chignon (1953-1954) – to be offered by Bonhams at the Impressionist & Modern Art sale in New York – is a frozen moment from a process that might in principle have continued indefinitely.

There were variations in the ways Giacometti worked, but not in his tendency to protract the process almost endlessly. In the case of works done before a model, the critic David Sylvester noted, the changes Giacometti made were gradual and continuous, "he obliterated a part, rebuilt it, sharpened it, softened it". Those done from memory – a category to which most of his female nudes belong – "oscillated violently", being repeatedly stripped down to the armature and then rapidly rebuilt. In either case, this activity was repeated for weeks or months.

Asked if he thought a sculpture was likely to be better after the 50th remaking than after the first, Giacometti replied, "Absolutely not". Since the goal was unattainable, it was the journey that interested him. In a poem he wrote, "I run and run and stay in the same place without stopping", and another concluded with the words: "Trying is everything, how marvellous!"

Martin Gayford is an art critic for The Spectator and co-author of A History of Pictures: from Cave to Computer Screen, with David Hockney.

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