Geoffrey Rush adds Alberto Giacometti to his roster of troubled artists

Australian actor plays one of 20th century’s greatest sculptors in British film made with close involvement of artist’s estate

Alberto Giacometti’s elongated figures are among the greatest masterpieces of 20th-century art; one of them sold for $141m. But, like so many sought-after artists, the Swiss master has been repeatedly copied by forgers. Hundreds of artworks created for a major British film about him had to be destroyed on the instructions of his estate because of concerns that they could surface on the open market and be mistaken for the real thing.

The film, Final Portrait, paints a portrait of a tortured genius, played by the Oscar-winning star Geoffrey Rush. Set in Paris in 1964, most of its drama takes place in the artist’s studio, a chaotic and claustrophobic slum cluttered with art, the tools of his trade and the detritus of his eccentric life, all splattered with paint and plaster.

The film-makers recreated it with astonishing precision, relying on photographs and archive footage. They were guided by the Giacometti Foundation in Paris, which insisted that, once the shoot was over, none of the artworks would survive.

Gail Egan, a producer of Final Portrait, told the Observer: “We had to destroy all the sculptures … You don’t want a lot of fake Giacomettis hanging around. [The foundation] has an artist to protect. We completely understood their nervousness.”

James Merifield, the film’s award-winning production designer, said: “We had to skip everything and break it because they were terrified it would go on the black market.”

Giacometti was a master who reduced the human body to its barest state. Tate Modern is currently staging a retrospective that reasserts his place as one of the great painter-sculptors of the last century. World auction records were broken when his Walking Man sold in London for £65m in 2010 and his Pointing Man changed hands in New York for $141.3m (£90m) in 2015.

His forgers include John Myatt and Robert Driessen, who have each admitted to a roaring trade in fake Giacomettis. The foundation loaned the film-makers three particularly convincing fakes that had been “recovered from some forger”, Merifield said.

Rush, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of another troubled genius – the pianist David Helfgott in Shine – told the Observer that the “perfect re-creation” of the studio was “very inspirational” – like a “gritty time-travel for me as an actor”.

He added: “I’d seen early 1960s film footage of Giacometti working feverishly and obsessively in the real place. It was messy, dirty, functional, full of works in progress. We were lucky to have the guidance of the eagle eyes of the Giacometti estate providing us with genuine reproductions. I even started to believe that I had actually created all that stuff.”

Merifield spoke of the foundation’s dilemma. It wanted to ensure that the art was completely accurate – but not so much so that it would be indistinguishable from the originals. His team of artists, working at Twickenham Studios in south-west London, recreated the studio just a little larger than the actual dimensions to allow cameras and crew to move around. In every other way it was authentic, Merifield said, noting that the foundation was “pedantic” about everything.

Antonia Atha, one of the model-makers, recreated Giacometti’s Walking Man with regular checks by the foundation: “They were very precise, [saying] ‘No, you’ll find the nose was one millimetre to the left.’ They had such high standards … It was quite painful, just the amount of photos that were sent over to Paris – and then, ‘No, no, the head was slightly tilted this way, it’s not quite right.’ I’d have to go back and do it again until they were happy.”

Olly Williams, another model-maker, observed that Giacometti dismissed everything as a failure or unfinished: “It was never perfect for him. That’s the point of the film. They’re very challenging pieces [to re-create] … He paints like a sculptor and sculpts like a draughtsman. He scratches and engraves into the busts and into the Walking Man … On the paintings, it’s the opposite – built up with so many layers and repetitions of the same strokes.”

The film, which is released on 18 August, is set against Giacometti’s troubled marriage: he encouraged his wife to have relationships with other men while he pursued a prostitute who became his muse and his obsession.

But its main focus is Giacometti’s eccentric friendship with one of his sitters, James Lord, a wealthy American writer and art lover, played by Armie Hammer. Giacometti promised that it would only take an afternoon to paint his portrait, but the sitting lasted for an intense 18 sessions, which ended only when an exasperated Lord convinced the obsessive artist to stop. That painting was sold in 1990 for more than $20m.

Adapted from Lord’s memoir, A Giacometti Portrait, the film was written and directed by Stanley Tucci who, with Merifield, was given special access to secret vaults storing Giacometti’s furniture and other possessions. “That was very humbling,” Merifield said. “It was mind-blowing. There was his stool. There was his chair where the sitters used to sit. That way, I was able to really get to the heart of the man.”

Egan, whose previous acclaimed films include Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake and Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener, said: “If you’re going to make a film about an artist and both the emotional and physical process of art … the environment in which he worked, the people that he surrounded himself with and the way that he worked were integral to what he actually produced.”


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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