Alberto Giacometti: Sculptor of existential angst
Given that Alberto Giacometti is widely regarded, if not without some dissent, as one of the major sculptural talents of the 20th century, and that his circle of immediate friends included Samuel Beckett, it is perhaps surprising that Giacometti: of life is the first exhibition of his work at the National Gallery of Ireland.
It was produced with the cooperation of the Fondation Giacometti, Paris, and incorporates a good representative selection of its production, encompassing sculpture, painting and drawings.
During his life, in all three areas of activity, his achievements are extraordinary. It also includes a selection of the countless photographs of the artist and those close to him, often taken by personalities (like Cartier-Bresson, Alexander Liberman, Sabine Weiss and Robert Doisneau) who were themselves or became stars.
Beckett knew Giacometti well. They often embarked on nocturnal walks together. When he directed a production of Waiting for Godot at the Odéon in 1961, he invited Giacometti to set the scene: a single minimal tree. By Giacometti’s account, it was a tricky problem, and he and Beckett spent an entire night in the studio trying in vain to refine the plaster sculpture: “It never looked good, and neither he nor I liked it.”
Still, Beckett used the tree and was happy enough with the production that he would have danced on the first night after the party.
Even Giacometti’s younger work, some of which appears in the exhibition, confirms a remarkable talent
Giacometti, a chain smoker with a big head, a mass of tousled hair and, relatively early on, a beaten dog with a deeply wrinkled face, was a photogenic subject. Although generally disheveled and coated in plaster dust, he always wore a tie. As an artist, he is most often associated with his fragile-looking stick sculptures, icons of existential angst, firmly rooted in the cultural milieu of 1950s Paris. adult years, he was deeply immersed in this environment.
Born in a Swiss Alpine village in 1901, one of three sons of a well-established painter, Giovanni, he was from an early age happiest in his father’s studio, drawing and looking at art books in the intoxicating smell of oil paint. In his early teens he was making busts of accomplished portraits. His drawing and painting abilities were equally impressive. His mother, Annetta (née Stampa), from a prominent family in the village, closely supported him throughout his life (she died just a year before him).
Giacometti studied in Geneva, Rome and finally Paris, where he and his brother Diego, only a year younger, and his indispensable lifelong companion, workshop manager, technical assistant and model, shared a studio from 1925 (Diego became a very famous designer; Bruno, the third brother, became an architect).
Two years later, they moved to another workshop, 46 rue Hippolyte-Maindron in Montparnasse. Part of a complex of workshops, this dusty little workshop, freezing in winter and shabby, unsanitary and spartan, became an emblematic site of 20th century art, like the Reece Mews mansion of Francis Bacon.
As with Bacon, Giacometti’s austere surroundings, in many ways the center of his world, were not indicative of a hermit lifestyle. He worked daily and obsessively, but he was by no means a holy ascetic.
The pattern of his days was that he would emerge late in the morning, around lunchtime, eat lunch locally with a newspaper, work all afternoon and late into the evening, after splashing water on face pumped in the courtyard and dusted off, he was off to the bars and, usually after midnight, his usual table at the Coupole, meeting friends along the way. He enjoyed conversation, and long nights often included a visit to a brothel.
It seems that Giacometti was distinctly uncomfortable with sex other than as a business transaction. His on-and-off relationship with Isabel Rawsthorne, arguably one of the most important in his life, foundered on this. In Geneva, during the years of the Second World War, he met Annette Arm, 22 years his junior who, it seems fair to say, even if it may seem harsh, became attached to him, as people tend to do it.
Diego never quite accepted her when she later moved into the studio in Paris (she and Giacometti were married in 1949, rather reluctantly on his part). She put up with fairly primitive living conditions, and his penchant for frequenting brothels, but when, in the last years of his life, he fell in love with a prostitute, Caroline, who drove a red sports car , mixed up with gangsters and modeled for him, apparently at excessive expense, Annette’s patience finally broke.
Sadly, over the past few years, as his health declined – stomach cancer in addition to other issues – his mother passed away, and those around him stewed and bickered, even as his artistic reputation soared. Soaring, his life seemed to have the tragicomic, buffoonish momentum of a particularly eventful Pedro Almodóvar film.
Even Giacometti’s younger work, some of which feature in the exhibition, confirms a remarkable talent. If he had continued in his initial vein of more or less classical representation, he would surely still be considered an important artist. As it happens, in Paris he explored first Cubism and then Surrealism (with the then widespread incorporation of archaic sculptural ideas), proving to be remarkably good at both, but remaining committed to neither. . In fact, the moment he parted ways with the Surrealists, he realized that they intended to excommunicate him for not actually being part of the sect.
He worked his way into the mode of expression we recognize as his – those slender figures – from the late 1930s to the 1940s, lastly through the war years in Geneva. There he worked in very limited circumstances, famous but not only for producing a collection of small, tiny and extremely light figurines. According to the myth, it is not implausible that he brought back to Paris the work he had produced during the war in six matchboxes in his pockets.
In late 1940s Paris figures grew taller, sometimes monumentally, but they were always elongated rods, gnarled, gnarled, hesitant presences standing erect or staggering in space, the epitome of isolation even when a composition included several characters. They are somehow poignant, ridiculous but heroic.
When Jean Genet sat for Giacometti for several years in the mid-1950s, he wrote a long essay, L’atelier d’Alberto Giacometti, which was particularly admired by Picasso and, in its informality and digressive scope, extremely influential as a means of writing about art.
Genet considers the works based on Annette as deities, while those of Diego are more “conventional”. He returns several times to the links he sees between sculptures and death, most obviously as funerary objects, memorials. Less directly, perhaps, like faint memories of individuals, echoes. The artist himself spoke of trying to capture in his sculptures the fleeting traces of his subjects
Like the painter Frank Auerbach, he worked obsessively day after day on a single piece in the presence of the sitter, but rather than being gradual – as with Lucian Freud, for example – the process was more cyclical, each effort being a whole. or bid nothing.
Giacometti maintains a close relationship with Sartre, but the dominant philosophical influence probably comes from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose La Phénoménologie de la perception, published in 1945, is a key text of French existentialism.
As the title suggests, Merleau-Ponty favors perception. Rather than appealing to abstract objectivity, one must deal with the “lived world”, that is, the world in terms of embodied experience. The fragmentary, limited and dynamic nature of this emergent image generated by self and the world was all we could hope for, but nonetheless real for it.
This fits well with Giacometti’s work, which always seems provisional and partial, out of inner necessity rather than arbitrariness. Witness his futile quest to complete a portrait of Isaku Yanaihara; a quest that still produced many great pieces along the way. However, the work in no way depends on, illustrates or derives from a theoretical foundation.
He doesn’t particularly benefit from it either. Simple considerations suffice. Like, for example, the feeling of being, what it is to be a sentient presence, how we see people, objects and spaces, or suppose we see them, always within the constraints of time which pass, erasure of memory and certainty of loss.
Giacometti: From Life, an exhibition of over 50 sculptures, paintings and drawings, co-organized by the National Gallery of Ireland and the Giacometti Foundation, Paris. National Gallery of Ireland, Merrion Sq West, Dublin. Until September 4 Tickets from €5. Book on nationalgallery.ie