On the edge of madness: the terrors and genius of Alberto Giacometti

He drank with Sartre, mocked Picasso and took silent walks with Beckett – but his work was going nowhere until a vision on Boulevard Montparnasse left him trembling. Ahead of a major Tate show, we explore the obsessions of Giacometti

In 1957, the writer Jean Genet described the studio of his friend Alberto Giacometti. It was “a milky swamp, a seething dump, a genuine ditch”. There was plaster all over the floor and all over the face, hair and clothes of the sculptor; there were scraps of paper and lumps of paint on every available surface. And yet, “lo and behold the prodigious, magical powers of fermentation” – as if by magic, art grew from the rubbish; the plaster on the floor leapt up and took on permanence as a standing figure.

Of all the artists working in Paris in the 20th century, Giacometti was the great enthusiast of plaster. He worked away at it with his knife, often subjecting it to so much pressure that it finally crumbled away, forming the rubbish observed by Genet. When he was happy with it, he painted it. The original Women of Venice exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1956 were plaster figures with black and brown lines etched on to their faces and bodies, making them resemble the women in his paintings.

Now the Giacometti Foundation in Paris has found new methods of restoring his plaster sculptures, many of which were damaged by being broken apart and covered in orange shellac to be cast in bronze. The Women of Venice, whose painted surfaces have been revealed, can once again be exhibited as they were at the Biennale, rather than as bronzes. And they will make their first appearance at a major retrospective opening at Tate Modern in London next month. This will be Giacometti’s first Tate show since a retrospective in 1965, when the sculptor worked away in a basement, perfecting the works that he was never quite prepared to declare finished. It will be his first major exhibition in London for a decade.

Giacometti in the studio in 1951.
Years of fatigue … Giacometti in the studio in 1951. Photograph: Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

Giacometti was born in a remote Swiss valley in 1901, the son of a successful, conventionally realist Swiss painter. He made his first sculpture of his brother Diego at the age of 13, and swiftly dedicated himself to art. In 1922 he moved to Paris, where he discovered surrealism, becoming a friend of André Breton. He stopped modelling from life and devoted himself to dreamlike visions, claiming in 1933 that for some years he had “only realised sculptures which have presented themselves to my mind in a finished state”.

The themes of this decade are sex and death. Woman With Her Throat Cut (1932), with its violently intersecting blades, is an image of rape and murder. But he was also concerned with more everyday sensations. Perhaps his most powerful work is known by two contradictory titles, Hands Holding the Void and Imaginary Object (1934-5). This is still one of the most brilliant evocations of the relationship between looking and touching. With those fingers, closed around the imaginary object, he evokes the sensation of touching and being touched.

Hands holding the Void, AKA Invisible Object (1934-5)
Everyday sensations … Hands Holding the Void, AKA Invisible Object (1934-5). Photograph: Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

This was a turning point for Giacometti: although he was pleased with the hands and head, he was dissatisfied with the legs, torso and breasts. He disappointed Breton by deciding that he needed to work from nature. A model was hired and he embarked on a week-long stint of working from life that extended to 20 years. “Nothing was like what I imagined it to be,” he found. “A head … became an object completely unknown and without dimensions.” The attempt to render the unknowable head became a lifelong mission.

During the second world war, Giacometti returned to Switzerland. There he met Annette Arm, the ingenuous and adoring girl who seems to have decided almost immediately that she would share his life, and waited patiently for him to agree. Living in a hotel with her in Geneva, he sculpted smaller and smaller figures, claiming that they shrank against his will. Many were only the size of a finger.

After he returned to Paris in 1945, he had a vision that enabled him to break away from the miniature. Coming out of a cinema on to the Boulevard Montparnasse one day, he experienced a “complete transformation of reality” and understood that, until that moment, his vision of the world had been photographic, though in fact “reality was poles apart from the supposed objectivity of a film”. Feeling as though he was entering the world for the first time, he trembled in terror as he surveyed the heads around him, which appeared isolated from space. When he entered a familiar cafe, the Brasserie Lipp, he found that time froze and he experienced the head of a waiter as a sculptural presence as he leaned towards him, “his eyes fixed in an absolute immobility”.

Now he was able to enlarge his figures, but he found that as they became taller they lost heft, becoming inevitably more slender. It was thanks to these elongated, pointy figures with heavy feet that he swiftly rose to fame. He had some money now, though he insisted on living in his studio, refusing to indulge Annette in her desire for an ordinary home. He became acquainted with many of Paris’s most exciting writers and artists. He drank in cafes with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, went for late night, largely silent walks with Samuel Beckett, and became a regular – though often rather critical – visitor at Picasso’s studio. Many of these friends wrote about him. Sartre described his figures as “always mediating between nothingness and being”. And they sat for him as well, though his most frequent models were the long-suffering Diego and Annette, along with the other women who came and went as muses and lovers.

There is a notable difference between the men and women of his sculptures. The most famous man from this period is 1947’s Man Pointing; when not pointing, his men walk. The women stand naked on wedge-shaped bases or, in the extraordinary 1950 figure of The Chariot, preside, arms regally outstretched, over vast wheels.

Asked by Genet why he treated male and female figures differently, Giacometti admitted that women seemed naturally more distant to him. As an adolescent, he’d been rendered infertile following an attack of mumps. Later, he blamed this for his problems with impotence, which were most easily cured by having sex with prostitutes, whom he could not disappoint. His depictions of female models tend to divide along classic goddess/whore lines. There is the goddess Isabel, the whore Rita, the virgin Flora.

Standing Woman I (1960) by Alberto Giacometti
Women seemed more distant to him … Standing Woman I (1960). Photograph: Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

With Annette, he managed to move beyond that dichotomy. In their early years together, he didn’t use her as a model at all. Once they were living together in Paris, he asked Annette to pose, and as the years went by, she became almost as frequent a model as Diego. Giacometti made great demands on his sitters, requiring long periods of stillness but insisting that they offered him a presence as attentive as his own. “If I can hold the look in the eyes, everything else follows,” he stated. The eyes of his faces are not unseeing. And the gaze is crucial even in the smaller faces of the thin figures, which were often made from memory.

These are sculptures that change as we look at them, because of their curious proportions and the intensity of their expressions. According to David Sylvester, Giacometti’s most engaged and passionate critic, “as I stand looking at one of the Standing Women, she will be as distant as a person on the other side of the street, then suddenly appear to be looming up over me”. The perspectives changed for Giacometti as well, which was why he endlessly reworked and repeated the same figures, wanting better to understand his vision. It was the nature of plaster that a sculpture was never finished. There’s a sense with many of Giacometti’s pieces that, with just a bit more cutting away, they might disintegrate into nothing, sinking like those expansive feet into the ground. Often he returned to them 20 or 30 years later. And when he wasn’t reworking them, he was making new versions of the same sculptures.

What is most moving in these endlessly repeated figures is the humility implicit in the striving. Even at his most successful, this was not so much an artistic career as it was an endless, inevitably failed attempt to capture life that hovered on the verge of obsessive madness. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” wrote Beckett, perhaps the friend whose vision of the world most closely resembled his own. “I do not work to create beautiful paintings or sculpture,” Giacometti explained. “Art is only a means of seeing. No matter what I look at, it all surprises and eludes me, and I am not too sure of what I see.” Though he was friends with Picasso, the two were never really comfortable with each other’s work. Picasso criticised Giacometti for his lack of range, mocking his endless repetition, while Giacometti dismissed Picasso for creating mere decoration, unconvinced of the necessity of the underlying quest.

The attempt to reflect the reality of vision did not only result in the elongated figures for which he is most famous, and the Tate exhibition will demonstrate his versatility and range. There are more than 2,000 drawings and prints in the archive, and a handful of these will be on show, including some of the images he half-doodled into books with the Biro that became his favourite drawing implement in the postwar years. There will be lamps and vases, there will be paintings, and there will be the full range of sculptural forms – not all of which were thin.

In his final years, he concentrated on painting, producing a series of insistent, rather frenzied portraits of his final muse, a youthful luminary of the demi-monde who called herself Caroline, and on sculpting reasonably accurately proportioned busts. There are about 10 busts of Annette from the mid-1960s, and one haunting one of Caroline from 1965. In these sculptures, Caroline and Annette look curiously alike. In both, the shoulders and bodies are carelessly modelled, so that the focus is all on the face, and the energy is in the holes in which we can just discern their sunken eyes. The two women look as if they could be the same age, though they were 20 years apart; Caroline’s brow is more furrowed than it was in life. Both appear exhausted, because of that hollow-eyed quality, perhaps reflecting too the exhaustion of the painter himself. He worked on Annette all day; he worked on Caroline all night. In January 1966, he died from illnesses that his physicians saw as partly caused by years of fatigue.

Caroline (1965) by Alberto Giacometti
Demi-monde muse … Caroline (1965) by Alberto Giacometti Photograph: Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

But exhaustion is not the only mood. The intensity of Caroline’s gaze, in the sculptures, and particularly in the paintings, creates the effect of a moment that is also timeless. This was something Giacometti had sought to capture since that vision outside the cinema after the war. And in the final busts of Annette, there is a resilience that the sculptor appears to forge with gratitude. “I have destroyed her,” he had announced a few years earlier, with a mixture of anger and guilt. Now he seems to have acknowledged the costs of the marriage for his wife, while also acknowledging the strength of a bond that had kept them together, despite their differences in outlook, and his devotion to his work and to a succession of lovers.

In the ninth bust, made in 1964, Annette’s eyes for once rise to the surface of the sculpture and confront the onlooker with a gaze that is simultaneously accusatory and vulnerable. Here Giacometti seems to take responsibility for both her love and her pain, and at the same time grants her a dignity that has nothing to do with him. He said that in these sculptures of Annette he was trying “to succeed, just for once, in making a head like the head I see”. He failed, of course, but these are failures that stand as cautions to those who seek to do more than strive. “Fail again. Fail better.”

Giacometti is at Tate Modern, London SE1, from 10 May until 10 September. Lara Feigel is the author of The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich (Bloomsbury).


Lara Feigel

The GuardianTramp

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