Alberto Giacometti: Sculptor of existential angst

A new exhibition of the artist’s works is set to open at the National Gallery of Ireland

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: From Life is the National Gallery of Ireland's first exhibition of his work.

It has been put together with the co-operation of the Fondation Giacometti, Paris, and incorporates a good representative selection of his output, encompassing sculpture, painting and drawings.

Over his lifetime, across all three fields of endeavor, his achievements are extraordinary. It also includes a selection of the innumerable photographs of the artist and those closely associated with him, often taken by people (like Cartier-Bresson, Alexander Liberman, Sabine Weiss and Robert Doisneau) who were themselves or became star names.

Beckett knew Giacometti well. They often embarked on nocturnal strolls together. When he directed a production of Waiting for Godot at the Odéon in 1961, he invited Giacometti to do the set: a single, minimal tree. By Giacometti’s account, it was a tricky problem, and he and Beckett spent a whole night in the studio vainly trying to refine the plaster sculpture: “It never looked any good, and neither he nor I liked it.”

Still, Beckett used the tree, and was pleased enough with the production that he reportedly danced at the first night after-party.

Even Giacometti's more youthful work, some of which is included in the exhibition, confirms a remarkable talent

Giacometti, a chain smoker with a large head, a mass of tousled hair and, from relatively early on, a hangdog, deeply lined face, was a photogenic subject. Though usually disheveled and coated with plaster dust, he always wore a tie. As an artist he is most commonly associated with his fragile-looking stick-figure sculptures, icons of existential angst, firmly anchored to the cultural milieu of Paris in the 1950s. For most of his adult years he was deeply immersed in that milieu.

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 heady scent of oil paint. By his early teens, he was making accomplished portrait busts. His drawing and painting abilities were equally impressive. His Mother, Annetta (nee Stampa), of a family prominent in the village, was closely supportive of him throughout his life (she died just a year before he did).

Giacometti studied in Geneva, Rome and finally Paris, where he and his brother Diego, younger by just one year, and his lifelong indispensible companion, studio manager, technical assistant and model, shared a studio from 1925 (Diego went on to become a highly regarded designer; Bruno, the third brother, became an architect).

Two years later they moved to another studio, 46 rue Hippolyte-Maindron in Montparnasse. Part of a studio complex, this small, dusty, studio, freezing during the winter and shabby, insalubrious and Spartan as it was, became an iconic site of 20th century art, along the lines of Francis Bacon’s Reece Mews abode.

As with Bacon, Giacometti’s austere surroundings, in many respects the centre of his world, were not indicative of an hermitic lifestyle. He worked daily and obsessively, but he was by no means a saintly ascetic.

The pattern of his days was that he would emerge late in the morning, around lunchtime, breakfast locally with a newspaper, work through the afternoon and well into the evening before, having splashed water on his face at the pump in the yard and dusted himself off, he’d set out for the bars and, usually past midnight, his regular table at the Coupole, encountering friends along the way. He enjoyed conversation, and the long nights often included a visit to a brothel.

It seems that Giacometti was distinctly uneasy about sex other then as a commercial transaction. His on-off relationship with Isabel Rawsthorne, undoubtedly one of the most important in his life, foundered over this. In Geneva during the second World War years, he met Annette Arm, 22 years his junior who, it seems fair to say, though it might sound harsh, attached herself to him, as people tended to do.

Diego never quite accepted her when she later moved into the studio in Paris (she and Giacometti married in 1949, rather grudgingly on his part). She put up with the fairly primitive living conditions, and with his penchant for visiting brothels though when, in the final years of his life, he became besotted with a prostitute, Caroline, who drove a red sports car, mixed with gangsters and modeled for him, apparently at inordinate expense, Annette’s patience finally snapped.

Sadly, during these last few years, as his health failed – stomach cancer on top of other problems – his mother died, and those around him simmered and squabbled, even as his artistic reputation soared, his life seemed to have the tragicomic, farcical momentum of a particularly hectic Pedro Almodóvar film.

Even Giacometti’s more youthful work, some of which is included 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 rate as a significant artist. In the event, in Paris he explored first Cubism and then surrealism (with the then prevalent incorporation of archaic sculptural ideas), proving impressively adept at both, but remaining committed to neither. In fact by the time he parted from the surrealists he realized they intended to excommunicate him for not being genuinely part of the cult.

He felt his way towards the mode of expression that we recognize as being distinctively his own – those spindly figures – from the late 1930s and into the 1940s, latterly through the war years in Geneva. There he worked in very limited circumstances, famously though not only producing a collection of tiny, vanishingly slight little figurines. As the myth has it, not implausibly, he carried the work he produced during the war back to Paris in six matchboxes in his pockets.

In the latter 1940s, in Paris, the figures became taller, sometimes monumentally so, but they were still elongated stalks, knobby, gnarled, tentative presences standing straight or lurching through space, the epitome of isolation even when a composition included multiple figures. They are somehow poignant, ridiculous yet heroic.

When Jean Genet sat for Giacometti over a period of several years in the mid-1950s, he wrote a long essay, The Studio of Alberto Giacometti, that was particularly admired by Picasso and, in its informality and digressive reach, enormously influential as a way of writing about art.

Genet sees the works based on Annette as divinities, whereas those of Diego are more “conventional.” He returns repeatedly to the links he sees between the sculptures and death, most obviously as funerary objects, memorials. Less directly, perhaps, as faint recollections of individuals, echoes. The artist himself talked of trying to grasp in his sculptures fugitive traces of his subjects

Like the painter Frank Auerbach, he would work obsessively day after day on a single piece in the presence of the sitter, but rather than being incremental – as with Lucian Freud, for example – the process was more cyclical, each effort being an everything or nothing bid.

Giacometti was on close terms with Sartre, but the dominant philosophical influence probably came from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose The Phenomenology of Perception, published in 1945, was a key text of French existentialism.

As the title indicates, Merleau-Ponty prioritised perception. Rather than appealing to an abstract objectivity, we must deal with the “lived world”, that is, the world in terms of embodied experience. The fragmentary, limited, dynamic nature of this emergent picture generated by self and world was the most we can hope for, but nonetheless real for that.

That accords well with Giacometti’s work, which always seems provisional and partial, out of an inner necessity rather than arbitrarily. Witness his vain quest to complete a portrait of Isaku Yanaihara; a quest that still produced many great pieces along the way. Yet the work by no means depends on, illustrates or derives from a theoretical foundation.

Nor does it particularly benefit from one. Simple considerations are enough. Such as, for example, the feeling of being, what it is like to be a sentient presence, how we see people, objects and spaces, or assume we see them, always within the constraints of time passing, memory fading and the sureness of loss.

Giacometti: From Life, an exhibition of over 50 sculptures, paintings and drawings, co-organised by the National Gallery of Ireland and the Fondation Giacometti, Paris. National Gallery of Ireland, Merrion Sq West, Dublin. Until September 4th Tickets from €5. Book at nationalgallery.ie