PRINT September 1974

On Giacometti

Giacometti’s importance has been obscured and distorted by the myth that surrounds him, a myth which has been to some extent nourished by the ambiguous nature of his own writings. This article, occasioned by the recent retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, is a tentative attempt to look at both work and myth at a tangent from each other. Such an enterprise may not appear topical to readers of Artforum; however the conviction here is that it is an urgent necessity. Giacometti is an artist of the first rank.

“HERE IS THE LIST OF sculptures that I promised you, but I could not make it without including, though very briefly, a certain chain of events, without which it would make no sense.” In all Giacometti’s statements about his work there is a note of skepticism, a dry acknowledgment of its absurdity, a defensiveness almost, in which he seems to be anticipating attacks, not from outside himself but from within. Later on in the famous 1947 letter to Pierre Matisse quoted above he acknowledges the consistency of his ambition to work from the model, but in his student days “there had been a disagreeable contrast between life and work. . . . The fact of wanting to copy a body at set hours and a body to which otherwise I was indifferent, seemed to me an activity that was basically false, stupid and which made me waste many hours of my life.” Much later, after many years of labor in front of the model, he told a friend, “It’s not an activity one would call exactly normal, do you think? One has to belong to a certain social environment for it to be even tolerated. . . . It’s a purely individual satisfaction, extremely egotistical and basically annoying, even to the persons themselves.”

It is not unusual for artists to denigrate their own activity (particularly in the presence of admirers). Gilot’s account of Picasso’s nauseating early-morning bedside audiences is the classic example: “I am worthless, the least talented artist who ever lived!” “No, today you will do something extraordinary. . . .” And, of course, there is an element of superstitious incantation in Giacometti’s self-denigration. But there is much more besides.

In many of the texts, the atmosphere, the feel of what he is describing is that of a dream—even though what he is describing is utterly real, concrete, and everyday. His account of how appearances present themselves to his eyes is given in terms which suggest hallucination. “The form dissolved,” he writes of one of his early experiences in front of the model, “It was little more than granules moving over a deep black void, the distance between one wing of the nose and the other is like the Sahara, without end, nothing to fix one’s gaze upon, everything escapes.” Again, much later, toward the end of his life, he will tell David Sylvester that the person he sees across the street is not the same person as the one who, a minute later, will be sitting at the same table with him. What he appears to be describing is a condition of sight in which the phenomenon of constancy is, mysteriously and absurdly, canceled.

Giacometti’s youthful drawing and painting, made before he had fully committed himself to the life of an artist, reflects a sense of omnipotent skill. Stylistically it is founded on the example of his father’s robust and provincial Post-Impressionism. In the self-portrait of 1921, for example, a language is being spoken with eager confidence; the limbs fill out the canvas, the head stares back jauntily, the mosaic of color out of which the picture is built is glowing and unworried. Doubt hasn’t shown itself yet. But already in Rome, in the same year, the head of the model “Becomes like a cloud, vague and undefined” and “everything escaped me.” Again in Paris the following year “everything escapes.” The experimental sculpture which is to occupy him for the next decade and in which he rehearses the lessons of Cubism, of Brancusi and Laurens, finally joining wholeheartedly with Surrealism, restores “some part of my vision of reality,” but, he adds, “I still lacked a sense of the whole, a structure, also a sharpness that I saw. . . .”

It is in 1935 (significantly, the year of his father’s death) that the affair with the model is taken up again. It is never dropped, although there will be periods when he will work from memory and imagination as well as from observation. As soon as he is back with the figure, he is back into his earlier problems, but now with a far greater understanding of what is implied by representation and a Surrealist acceptance of le merveilleux, he is able to accept, albeit doubtfully, some of the bizarre solutions that present themselves: the matchbox figures of Geneva (“their dimensions revolted me”), and then the exceedingly long and thin figures which followed in the late forties (“To my surprise, they achieved likeness only when tall and slender”).

It is a mysterious story. For one thing, in spite of the scrupulousness of the language (certainly neither bombast nor mystification) it is far from clear what is being described. Was vision for him really as disjointed and as lacking in constancy as he would appear to suggest? Is it possible that an eye so attuned to real appearances was also going in and out of hallucination? Or was the vertigo, the shiftingness, the lack of purchase, an inescapable condition of the attempt to capture appearances?

The drawing techniques (and here I include his painting) which he develops in the late thirties are the key to the new sculpture. These are based on a special development of the kind of scribbling that most draftsmen naturally fall into when they are trying to draw something the appearance of which is open to doubt. It is a way of drawing in which the line only occasionally functions as representing an edge or an arris, but serves instead to set up a hypothetical mass into which the edge can play back and correct. In the two great paintings of 1937, for example, La Pomme and Portrait de la mère de l’artiste, the structuring agent is the lining brush, marking in black or whitish gray paint. The brush moves in sawing, scanning motions, back and forth, back and forth, netting the semblance of the perceived object in an open web of marks. This activity combines a kind of reaching out to the object via energetic motor activity with a continuous flow of approximation and correction. Trials and errors abound, setting up a trembling immanence out of which the stable image gradually emerges. The lines drawn scan the entire picture space. There are vertical strokes in the mother painting which rake from wall to head to torso, establishing the nearest form as a protrusion drawn out and twisted away from the background form of the wall. The same journey is made laterally, over and over again, raking the head, the thickness of the torso, the bulk of the hips.

This mode of drawing—which is close to the procedures of his youth but totally different conceptually—imparts tremendous solidity to the canvas, giving it a tabletlike thickness, but at the same time, a glassy transparency to the image. The mother’s presence is felt as both massive and weightless and the source of this paradox is in the open way in which the markings relate equally to her appearance and to the questioning, scanning, and in a sense, mimicking presence of the artist. Her weight is passed over to us in our reading of his response to it, not in a fixed representation of it.

His response is developed in time. There is an essential connection between this and the limited color: grays and earth reds and yellows, the colors of analytic Cubism. Color is used primarily as the means of bodying out or canceling the work of line, as over-painting or as a way of carving or cleaning up an edge so that the ground for the line is open and clear. The limitation of color is a logical consequence of this function. It is a range which does not discolor with continual mixing on the canvas; it is flexible and fast; above all, it is attuned to modeling and responds instantly to the intention to push forward or back, to turn or flatten a surface. With this color the continuity of Giacometti’s experience between painting and sculpture is at its maximum.

The transparency of the image coupled with the density of the picture surface suggests further comparisons with Cubism. Not a Cubism of multiple viewpoint, however, but one built out of an intense and concentrated attention to the conditions of a single viewpoint. It is as though Cubist space had become transposed with time and a sense of the duration of the sitting. The generalized spatial aspects of Cubism—as expressed in the breaking up of forms and the several simultaneous levels of description or symbolization—give way to something which is spatially precise but open, mysterious, and effortful because of its extension in time.

What is immanent is a recognition of the oneness of perception. “Everything I see,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty remarks in a famous passage from Eye and Mind which reminds one continually of Giacometti’s enterprise, “is in principle within my reach, at least within reach of my sight, and is marked upon the map of the ‘I can.’ ” Giacometti’s drawing, with its continual scanning, its network of lines responding to the passage of his attention across and through the forms in front of him, across and through the spaces they occupy, as well as literally across and through the page on the canvas on which he is drawing, symbolizes both the object seen and his own “map of the ‘I can’.”

But this sense of potency and possibility has to be brought alongside the problematic quality of Giacometti’s vision, his near-hallucinated doubt and despair in appearances, his sense of impossibility. It seems to me that this doubt can be seen as pointing in two directions: appearances “escape me” and the rendering of appearances “escapes me.” Once the act of perception is isolated so that the “out there” of the world is seen as unique to and continuous with the “here” of the particular observing eye, doubt and shiftingness at either pole renders the other pole doubtful and shifting. Put like this, Giacometti’s account of his bewilderment at the appearance of the model can be interpreted equally as vertigo and doubt in himself. It is as if I were drawing the ocean from the rail of a boat; I would never know how much of the movement belongs to the waves and how much to my viewpoint. It doesn’t matter whether I expressed that general shiftingness in terms of “I don’t know how to draw” or “I don’t know where I am.” The net effect of either conclusion is that the waves appear to me as undrawable and escape me. A fixed, stable viewpoint, in terms of representational art, would imply a grounding in a self-consistent, stable style, and this would itself imply a stable world view.

The first intimation of the impossibility of the model’s appearance comes when Giacometti has left home to study in Rome, and we can imagine that then all questions of identity, both in “life” and in “art,” came home to roost on his mother’s features. But this could never have happened, the projection could never have been so complete, had he not already understood and committed himself to the tradition of Cézanne, a tradition which was devoted not only to the appearance of the model but to that appearance as an interior and total relationship which included her particular distance, from the observer, and her envelopment in a particular space along with everything else that surrounded her. Finally, it was a tradition that insisted upon the problematic nature of representation and the recognition that simply to attempt to draw appearances from a fixed point of view was to question both appearances and drawing itself.

The most obvious feature of his sculpture from the matchbox figures onward is its unprecedented relationship to painting. Much of its content is illusionistic, though not in the waxwork sense, obviously. He implants appearance into sculpture. Just as the whole Cézanne enterprise drives toward complete consciousness of the inner character of perception, so Giacometti’s enterprise consists of an attempt—a supremely successful one—to include viewpoint and all the subjective conditions of seeing from a single viewpoint into an external, free-standing object. His sculptures, from the sticklike standing figures of the late forties to the last portrait busts, carry with them a sense of appearance-at-a-distance, almost irrespective of the actual distance from which they are viewed. This feature—a miracle of invention or an antisculptural coup de théatre according to whether one is for or against him—is one that all writers on Giacometti have remarked upon. Less attention has been given to what seems to me the most mysterious feature, namely the transition itself between painting and sculpture, and the paths of thought and feeling that link the two. It is clear, for example, that at least one value of the insistent frontality of his sculptures has to do with pictorial frontality. To speak, as Giacometti did, of trying to make a nose stand out in a portrait bust, can only make sense in the context of a frontal plane, and one, furthermore, which is conceived within pictorial limits. Perversely, he would model his sitter from a fixed viewpoint. The head as a whole had to take its chances, growing from the fact, not vice versa. Appearance was apprehended face to face—frontally. Frontality in sculpture has a wide range of symbolic and psycho-physical meanings. Painting takes over or shares many of these; but frontality has a further special application in painting which, until Giacometti, could have been thought to be peculiar to the flat surface: namely, that the picture plane is held to intersect the visual cone at right angles—the exceptions being mere tricks—and thus depiction itself is frontal.

Once the introspective nature of observation is given a framework, it becomes clear that what is specific in each view that I have of the world includes not only what is seen of it but also what is not seen of it. Appearance advances toward me and recedes from me too. Every form which faces me shields that which is unseen and yet completes it. The unseen ingredient belongs as specifically to the particular observer as the seen. It is his, yet always open to doubt. This doubt admitted, that which is seen also becomes problematic. These considerations are implicit in a whole sequence of Surrealist painting. They are suggested poetically in the perspectives of de Chirico, ironically isolated and commented upon in painting after painting of Magritte, and presented as a literal condition in Duchamp’s last work. In Giacometti they are bodied out at a far more serious level, since his handling of them reflects back directly onto common visual experience rather than onto fantasy or ironies of language and convention.

In painting, the unseen can only be implied. This is one feature which places painting forever apart from free-standing objects which are, at least in principle, accessible to viewings from different angles. But in common experience the sense of this possibility diminishes with distance. I can pick up and turn the cigarette packet in front of me; not so the moon. These are the extremes. The further away the object of my attention, the less information I can get about it by moving my head back and forth. I see the thinness of Giacometti’s figures of the late forties—a thinness such that no amount of moving around adds as much as one would expect to one’s knowledge of them—as an equivalent in sculpture to the one-sidedness of a painting or of a figure seen at a distance. The podia on which so many of these figures are placed function not only through their proportions to distance the figure (they do this pictorially, like a projected foreground) but also because they are clear-cut three-dimensional forms which one can learn more about as solids when one moves than one can about the attenuated or miniature figures on top. The way you see them or learn about them joins up with the way you can see ordinary objects near too. The way you can see or learn about the figure on top joins up only with the way you can see figures at a distance.

The emphasis is always on looking; on looking extended in time; on looking as consciousness, not only of what is out there but also of the self as immediate experience and as memory. This emphasis suffuses his evaluation of art older than his own. In the album of copies prepared by Luigi Carluccio, a drawing from a New Kingdom sculpture is juxtaposed with one from a Polyclitus marble. The Greek figure, with its balanced contraposto and gesture, seems to be entirely self-contained. It is drawn as if from the outside looking in. It is untouched. The Egyptian priest, on the other hand, implies address in every part of his structure. He gazes outward from his center and the invitation is to center oneself on him and to return his gaze. In spite of his formality, symmetry, and the total absence of gesture, the feeling is of a close presence. I don’t think it is far-fetched to invoke a further point from Merleau-Ponty here. In his 1960 essay called the “Child’s Relation to Others” he makes the point that in meeting the regard of another there is always an increased awareness of the self. In the process of a child’s maturation, “The other’s look becomes an annoyance . . . and everything happens as though, when he is looked at, his attention is displaced from the task he is carrying out to a representation of himself in the process of carrying it out” (my italics). In Giacometti the frontal, symmetrical regard has to be met. Looking begets looking, and in turn begets consciousness of looking. The symmetrical format and frontality of his figures is the enduring armature around which he can wind the skeins of observation in time; but it also mirrors the presence of the observer. It sets a psychological framework or limit as well as a formal one within which the flux of perception can be contained. It is the equivalent of the concept of painting as mirror—a concept which he heightens in his painting not only with deep glassy thrusts into space but with the framing strokes that trail across the apparently transparent surface and more often than not separate the image from the edge of the canvas as a mirror is separated from the wall on which it hangs.

Because Giacometti’s work deals with the representation of the human figure, it inevitably calls up questions of attitude, of a world view. And because it deals specifically with illusion, it calls up questions of reading. The two features come together in his concept of likeness (resemblance) which he dwelt upon in conversation during the last years of his life. The work is bound to evoke in the onlooker responses as if in answer to such questions as “What kind of man is this? What has happened to him?” And because what we are looking at are not effigies of a traditional monumental kind, but on the contrary seem to carry over into sculpture the qualities of representation normally associated with painting, other questions are added to these, such as “What can I discern or make out in this work? Am I at the right distance to understand fully its effect?” The heads and figures demand to be read; but the reading of them is a complex matter which involves both grasp of a certain humanistic attitude and of a perceptual illusion. Both aspects direct one’s attention away from the finite object in front of us—at least, away from its literal features as bronze or plaster, its dimensions, etc.—and encourage one to clothe it, as it were, in various ways, drawing now upon previous discernments of art, now upon memories of real people seen near or far, now reflecting upon the form of life that seems to be contained in representation itself, or upon the symbols and condensations which Giacometti’s forms evoke. Readings are volatile and present a tremendous range of possibilities: this seems to be the common experience.

Small wonder that Giacometti criticism has tended to be poetic. The early texts stress human content and its place in the context of the Existentialist self-image of postwar Paris: solitude, anxiety and privation, nostalgias of time and place were after all explicit themes in the work of minor artists like Gruber and even Buffet with whom Giacometti was superficially lumped at that time. Later texts tended to concentrate on the perceptual content of his work and on the mysteries of his concept of likeness: Invariably there is a powerful emphasis on the man himself and on the conditions of his life, his studio, and his working habits.

His postwar reputation was formed at a time when France was busy reconstructing her cultural reputation. Even before American painting had made its inroads into Europe, it was obvious that momentum was low, in the visual arts anyway. In this atmosphere the cult of artistic personality thrived, with the Picasso industry leading the way. Against the somewhat flashy example of the Sun King, with his chateaux, his dogs and doves and his hedonistic entourage, Giacometti, flitting across a Paris street to his tiny studio and his unremitting labor, looked like a gray saint of artistic probity. Everything that was known about him underlined his utter seriousness and single-mindedness, his indifference to success, his total concentration on a self-appointed and terrible task. Just as in his work he seemed to have taken over the responsibility for a whole realm of material from the nineteenth century left neglected by its immediate heirs, so in himself and his personal style he seemed to have taken over more than a little of the mantle of Cézanne. As far as his own view of himself went, there was more than an echo of Cézanne’s despairing addiction: what he had set himself to do was impossible, yet there was no choice but to go on and on, in the face of absurdity, in the face of inevitable failure. He was infatuated and obsessed with what he had set himself to do, and, since that included the certainty of failure, he was infatuated and obsessed with failure. “I am only happy when I am trying to do the impossible and when it is going very badly. . . . As soon as it starts to go easily and well it doesn’t interest me any more at all.”

It hardly needs to be stressed how this image corresponds with a particular heroic type of the time: the man who endures, who sustains a kind of hope in circumstances of unspeakable failure. “Alors, continuons!” says Sartre’s Garcia in the very moment that he at last realizes the unsleeping hellishness of hell. And one thinks also of Camus’ Dr. Rieux, and of the heroes in Malraux and Roger Martin du Gard; and even of Genet’s insistence on the mutual dependence of victim and torturer, for Giacometti’s rack was constructed out of argument with himself which, even though it could never be resolved, was certainly not without its rewards and satisfactions. Giacometti’s texts are never free of this tone (although he would have been as horrified to hear it said that he saw himself heroically as he would have been to have seen his self-irony taken au pied de la lettre). In a note written not long before his death, filled as ever with despair, self-mockery, and courage, he wrote: “I don’t know, I may be a comedian, a rascal, an idiot, or a very scrupulous fellow. I know I have to try copying a nose from nature.”

It is certain that this heroic and exemplary aspect of Giacometti will show itself for as long as his sculpture and his text survive. It is not a matter of contingency. There will always be some context in which his asceticism and his self-defeating dialectic will be looked at with longing, for in the typology of artists, there are always those who stand as guarantees against the superficial, the fashionable and the fat. By the same token, there will always be those who will reject him: “Now I know why I don’t like Giacometti,” an extremely well-known and serious American artist once said after reading a manuscript by an extremely well-known and serious writer, “All that trying. . . .”

If the Giacometti myth is subject to vulgarization, that is the price he has to pay in posterity for his indulgent self-mockery. I profoundly distrust the myth, with its built-in pessimism and its permission for self-congratulatory and onanistic failure. At the same time I consider the work to be of supreme importance. What is needed, I think, is a much clearer understanding of the relationship between the work and the texts. The Surrealist element in both has to be seen more clearly, as the lubricant, so to speak, which renders the real preoccupations mobile. The texts, with their dreamlike and hallucinatory encounters are all, finally, about problems of description and the relationship between these problems and experience. His drawing techniques, carried over into painting and in turn transformed and carried over into sculpture, are heuristic. The questions, What do I see? and How do I draw? become interchangeable. The harder they are pressed, the more unstable their polarity. A mirrorlike symmetry between them is the result, a solipsistic trap in which effort begets deeper uncertainty and uncertainty begets deeper effort. The works are the medium of his endless alternations of doubt and certainty. But—it cannot be stressed enough—they are positive statements. Underneath the round of making and breaking there is a powerful and confident form-maker, just as underneath the self-denigration and despair there is a highly integrated and confident ego: nothing less could have supported such contradictions for half a day, let alone a lifetime. In a sense, he learns his lessons in the work, and the learning process is incorporated into their forms. Questions are carried over into material and are lodged there as answers. This seems a possible way of describing what for me is the key experience of looking at his work: the sense of being shown something about the nature of consciousness. And as with all lessons that bite deep, the experience includes a sense of recognition.

––Andrew Forge

Accompanying the exhibition was the catalogue Alberto Giacometti: A Retrospective with an introduction by Reinhold Hohl, a selected bibliography, exhibition list, chronology, 12 color plates, and 206 black-and-white illustrations.