‘He and I, always by chance’ – Lara Marlowe on Samuel Beckett and Albert Giacometti

An Irishwoman’s Diary

A Paris boulevard. Two men. Tall, silent, slightly hunched. Late at night. Perhaps tramps from Waiting for Godot. Or statues of Walking Men.

The relationship between Samuel Beckett and Albert Giacometti "was a friendship very gradual in growth, for neither man was looking for solace or reassurance", says Giacometti's biography by James Lord. Yet their friendship, based mainly on nocturnal wanderings, lasted 30 years until Giacometti died of cancer in 1966.

Giacometti fulfilled Beckett's "need for company not continuous". Giacometti emphasised the fortuitous nature of their kinship, telling the Italian writer Giorgio Soavi, "he and I, always by chance".

Yet they met often, at the Dôme, Le Select or La Coupole. They sometimes went to the Sphinx, a brothel behind Montparnasse train station which Anthony Cronin, Beckett's biographer, described as "a well-decorated and rather jolly place where topless girls mingled with the clients in the downstairs bar".

Beckett and Giacometti first met in Surrealist circles in the 1930s. They did not so much influence each other as infuse one another with a shared outlook. The similarity in their respective oeuvres is amply demonstrated by the exhibition "Giacometti Beckett. Fail Again. Fail Better" at the Giacometti Institute in Paris from May 19th to June 8th. In a Beckettian twist of fate, the opening was several times postponed because of the pandemic.

"Beckett marked French literature indelibly, just as Giacometti left his mark on modern art," says Hugo Daniel, the organiser.

The Irish Embassy sponsored the exhibition. Ambassador Patricia O'Brien sees Beckett as "symbolic of the many Irish people who have made France their home, and who have integrated so perfectly into French society while still maintaining their Irish identity."

Giacometti's works are apt illustrations for Beckett's writings. Head on a Rod, a 1947 sculpture of a man's head thrown back, emitting a scream of despair, was chosen by the London publisher Calder and Boyars as the cover for Beckett's Imagination Dead Imagine in 1965.

By coincidence, both men adopted the tree as a metaphor for isolation in the same year, 1952. Beckett made a scraggly tree the only prop in Godot. Giacometti did a series of crayon drawings of a man standing beside a tree. Nine years later, Beckett asked Giacometti to sculpt a tree for the revival of Godot at the Odéon Theatre. They worked all night in Giacometti’s studio, but were never satisfied. Giacometti’s original tree was destroyed. Irish artist Gerard Byrne’s replica has pride of place in the exhibition.

The room titled Constrained Bodies shows how the theme of humans impeded, hindered or trapped permeates the oeuvre of Beckett and Giacometti. Both represented people in cages as early as the 1930s. The bust of Giacometti’s brother Diego emerges from a gluey, mud-like mass of painted plaster, like Winnie buried to her neck in the mound in Happy Days.

Giacometti’s Three Men Walking (1947) finds its equivalent in Beckett’s 1982 film Quad, in which four monk-like, robed figures criss-cross a square in agitated fashion. “When you walk around the sculpture, you notice the void that separates the characters,” says Hugo Daniel. “They don’t see each other. There is no contact. The meaning of this non-meeting eludes us. Quad dramatises the same phenomenon. The characters are building the void that separates them.”

What the French critic Gilles Deleuze called "organs without bodies," a vestige of their Surrealist days, is another similarity. Giacometti calls drawings of a single eye a portrait of his mother. In Beckett's play, Not I, a mouth becomes a disembodied organ, spotlighted against a black background and talking so rapidly that one catches only occasional words.

Both artists are tormented by the idea that human expression is at the same time essential and virtually impossible. “There are many ways in which the thing I am trying in vain to say may be tried in vain to be said,” Beckett wrote in 1965.

If every attempt is a failure, the only salvation is to keep trying. Giacometti draws the same head thousands of times and paraphrases Beckett’s famous fail again, fail better thus: “The idea of making a painting or a sculpture of the thing as I see it no longer comes to my mind. It is to understand why it fails that I want now.”

Both men were successful by the standards of society. Beckett won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969. Giacometti exhibited at the Venice Biennale and at MoMA. Yet each experienced his own almost metaphysical compulsion for self-expression as a “failure”.

They adopted the same solution, what Beckett called meremost minimum: to strip a work down to its most essential elements. Beckett eliminated punctuation and syntax. Giacometti’s Three Standing Figures are barely the size of toothpicks.

He sculpted just enough plaster onto tiny vertical rods to make them recognisable as naked, vulnerable denizens of 20th-century mankind.