Alberto Giacometti, a biography

Alberto Giacometti, a biography


327 Pages


Alberto Giacometti is more than a major twentieth-century artist — he is also one of the century’s most intriguing characters. This biography, the result of new research, takes us into the private life of an artist haunted by his oeuvre, driven relentlessly by an uncompromising and demanding nature.
Following a childhood spent in his father’s studio in Switzerland, and then his student days in Paris studying under the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, the young artist split from his early mentors, looking instead to cubism, then surrealism. He earned near-immediate recognition for
his work and the admiring friendship of André Breton, yet Giacometti soon turned his back on the surrealist objects that had brought him fame, opting instead to break away on his own — a choice that led him to the margins of mainstream movements. A friend to leading artists and intellectuals, he made his own way in the solitude of his legendary studio in Montparnasse. Strongly attracted to human representation and influenced by archaic and non-Western art, he eschewed naturalist representation in favor of a synoptic and sometimes tortured vision of the figure — one filled with mysterious power.
Catherine Grenier recounts the exceptional story of Alberto Giacometti, his life, career, and work, in a biography that is every bit as thrilling as a novel.



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Published 10 October 2018
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Alberto Giacometti
English Edition Editorial Director: Kate Mascaro Editor: Helen Adedotun Translated from the French by David Radzinowicz and Kate Robinson Copyediting: Lindsay Porter Typesetting: Claude-Olivier Four Proofreading: Sarah Kane Printed in Canada by Marquis Originally published in French asAlberto Giacometti © Flammarion, S.A., Paris, 2017 English-language edition © Flammarion, S.A., Paris, 2018 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic, photocopy, information retrieval system, or otherwise, without written permission from Flammarion, S.A. 87, quai Panhard et Levassor 75647 Paris Cedex 13 18 19 20 3 2 1 ISBN: 978-2-08-14526-6 Legal Deposit: 06/2018
Catherine Grenier
Alberto Giacometti A Biography
I dedicate this book to the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, to its board and staff. My gratitude goes to all of those who work daily wi th me at the Fondation Giacometti. e present publication draws its material from a collective effort among the archives and in collections. I would like to thank all the institutions that are f ostering research on the artist by making their archives and documents available, in particular the Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung, Zurich, and the SIK-ISEA, Zurich, which house a part of the correspondence between Alberto Giacometti and his family, the Cuno Amiet archives, the Morgan Library & Museum (Pierre Matisse Gallery archives), the Beinecke Library ( James Lord Papers), the Yanaihara archives, and the Bibliothèque Jacques-Doucet (Breton archives). I would especially like to express my gratitude to Christian Klemm, incomparably erudite on the subject of Alberto Giacometti and who was kind enou gh to draw my attention to a number of salient pieces of information. e works of Casimiro di Crescenzo, together with his detailed knowledge, also proved invaluable. I would like to thank in particular S erena Bucalo-Mussely, Michèle Kieffer, Mathilde Lecuyer-Maillé, ierry Pau tot, all experts in the various disciplines practiced by the artist; Michael Brenson, whose stu dies on Giacometti’s surrealist period informed my own researches; as well as all the eyewitnesses I have been able to meet.
Introduction Chapter 1 Childhood Chapter 2 Becoming an Artist Chapter 3 Death Up Close Chapter 4 Settling Down in Paris Chapter 5 An Artist’s Life Chapter 6 Rue Hippolyte-Maindron Chapter 7 Between Cubism and Surrealism Chapter 8 Decisive Encounters Chapter 9 A New Phase Chapter 10 Joining Surrealism Chapter 11 Eroticism and Violence Chapter 12 Interior Decoration and Objects Chapter 13The Palace at 4 a.m. Chapter 14 The Death of the Father Chapter 15 The Break-Up with Surrealism Chapter 16 A Return to the Model Chapter 17 The Accident, then the War Chapter 18 Astonishing Dedication Chapter 19Walking Man Chapter 20 The Death of T. Chapter 21 A Time of Change Chapter 22Falling Man Chapter 23 Relentless Work Chapter 24 Doubt Returns Chapter 25 Success Arrives Chapter 26 Yanaihara Chapter 27 A Unique Friendship Chapter 28 Giacometti the Painter Chapter 29 Caroline Chapter 30 Chase Manhattan Plaza Chapter 31 The Venice Biennale Chapter 32 The Shadow of Death Chapter 33 Consecration Chapter 34 The Final Months Notes List of Works Cited Index of Proper Names
Born on October 10, 1901, in Borgonovo (Stampa), a mountain village in Italian Switzerland, Alberto Giacometti moved to Paris on January 1, 1922. Except for wartime and regular visits with his family, he was to live and work in the artistic district of Montparnasse all his life. He later explained why he chose the French capital: “ My father reckoned it would be a good idea for me to go and work in a free academy, as he himself had in hi s youth at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, to draw and to paint. At first I rejected the idea, in response to which he simply dropped 1 the subject—it was this that made me determined to go after all.” is testimony reveals two distinct characteristics of the artist’s personality. On the one hand, it reveals the importance of hi s artistic affiliation: his father, a painter famous in Switzerland, initiated him into art at a very earl y age, following his son’s career step by step and lavishing encouragement and support on him. On the other, the manner in which the artist recalls this memory is a sign both of his intransigence and his paradoxical nature. If Alberto Giacometti is one of the very greatest artists of the twentieth century, he is also one of its most outstanding and most original personalities. All those who spent any time with him, knowing him well or just in passing, atte st to his individuality and to his unyielding nature, characteristics that over the years gradually seem to have been carved into his facial features. “Giacometti, granitically subtle and full of astoun ding perceptions, at root very wise, wanting to convey what he sees, which is perhaps not as wise a s all that when you can see as he does,” wrote 2 Samuel Beckett. e title of his first work to attract attention,GazingHead, seems to sum up the man. Deep down, in the highly individual exercise of looking, man and artist converge. His gaze was described by friends, lovers, and models many times: at the same time seductive and penetrating, mocking and bewildering. No one could remain indiffe rent to his presence. Whether in his tiny studio or on the terrace of a Paris café, his unmistakable figure, like his insatiable curiosity and love of contradiction, made him the focus of attention. “ Unfeigned in his open-heartedness and an enthusiastic conversationalist who readily juggled paradoxes, Alberto Giacometti was fond of playing devil’s advocate, and generally took up a position contrary to what the other person said,” Michel Leiris recalled. is spirit of resistance was also a hallmark of his art and his trajectory through the art of the 3 avant-garde. “ Never let myself be influenced by anyt hing,” he wrote in one of his notebooks. Giacometti acknowledged that he had learned from his father, and then from Bourdelle, but that he outgrew them all, rejecting any sign of subordinati on. Later on, he freed himself from his early mentors, Zadkine, Lipchitz, and Brancusi, by turnin g to surrealism. In spite of the almost instant recognition of his work, and André Breton’s admirat ion and friendship, he soon abandoned constructing the surrealist objects that had made h im famous and returned to the model. is refusal to join any school or adopt any backward-looking ideology has tended to relegate him to the margins of art history. Yet Giacometti is a man rooted in his own time, a committed modern, even when swimming against the tide or finding himself ou t of step with current trends. e lesson he absorbed from modernity was one of freedom and a commitment to truth. And it is this which, as he edged away from modernism, led him back to the wellspring of art. Perfectly at home in prehistoric, ancient Egyptian, or Sumerian art, his work is a cr oss between the daily encounter with the live model and the timeless forms of archaic prototypes. “e entire art of the past, from all epochs, all civilizations, emerges before me; everything occurs simultaneously, as if space has taken the place of 4 time.” Space and time, proximity and distance: these are the coordinates that his entire oeuvre strives to juxtapose, to fuse, even. As Jean Genet observed: “eir beauty [of Giacometti’s sculptures] seems to me to stem from the incessant, uninterrupted to-and-fro movement from the most extreme distance to the closest familiarity: this to-and-fro doesn’t end, and that’s how you can tell they’re in 5 movement.” e rejection of stability, of authority, of monumen tality is the salient character of an oeuvre whose foundations the artist questioned daily. Straining towards an accomplishment that lay forever
in the future, Giacometti made the expression of artistic doubt the mainspring of his creativeness. Carving, sculpting, painting, drawing, writing were all facets of the same tireless quest that kept him on the alert, mobilizing all his many powers. His d eliberately frugal lifestyle, his relentless work-rate, his angst, and his constant dissatisfaction may hav e ruined his health, but they never sapped his optimism or his faith in art. His ultimate goal, at once elementary and paradoxical, was to represent what he saw. To do this, Giacometti did not limit himself to the customary tenets of realism nor to a face-to-face with the model that kept him cooped up in his studio day and night. Every moment confirmed the experience that truth is fleeting, as he had foretold in his youth: “e world really is a sphinx before which we are forever standing, a sphinx that stands forever before us and which we 6 question.” An artistic inquiry become matter and form—this cou ld be the definition of this singular oeuvre, the work of an artist who was always expanding the confines of fixed identity: “ I don’t know who I am, or who I was. I identify with myself, and I don ’t. Everything is completely contradictory, but 7 perhaps I have remained exactly as I was when a little boy of twelve.”
CHAPTER1 Childhood Alberto retained fond memories of his childhood all of his life. After him came Diego, a year younger (1902), Ottilia (1904), and Bruno (1907). In the ru stic living room of their house in the village, where they played their earliest games and first lea rned about the world, the siblings’ life revolved around their mother, Annetta. A protective and loving presence, this formidable woman kept the core of the family together for as long as she lived. e house was flanked by a barn that had been converted into a studio and stood opposite the Piz Duan inn, established by Alberto’s paternal grandfather and run by Uncle Otto. A network of cou sins spread throughout the valley. Both Annetta and husband Giovanni’s families had had roo ts in the Grisons region for generations. Stampa is located in Italian Switzerland, in the heart of the valley of Bregaglia, a few miles from th e Italian border. With a population of about a hundred, the village nestles between two very steep and narrow mountainsides, along the banks of a river. In daily life the family spoke a mix of Italian and bregagliotto, the local patois. e road to the mountain pastures for the sheep ran past the windows of the Giacomettis’ house. e villagers all took th eir water from a communal well, a meeting place where people would pass the time of day. At that ti me, the isolated village entered hibernation during the snowy months, when the cold is crisp and daylight scarce. In fine weather, however, visitors would flock to the chalet in Maloja, the up per village of the commune of Stampa, on the banks of Lake Sils, where in 1910 the family started to stay for the summer. ere, the Giacomettis would receive friends and also rub shoulders with t he international clientele at the Palace hotel, as famous for its setting as for the well-heeled crowd frequenting it. Guests describe the family 1 atmosphere as cheerful and welcoming. Italian or Swiss cousins would cross paths with friends and artists passing through. In adulthood, Alberto would return every year until his mother’s death, two years before his own. He would continue to work there in the large studio that remains intact today. Drawings by Giovanni and Alberto provide a glimpse into everyday life at Stampa. e family 2 would gather in the main room, lit by a large gas-l amp giving out a greenish glow. (e Giacomettis were the first in the village to be supplied with the new fuel, evidence of their relative financial ease.) e low ceilings and walls are all paneled in wood. Giovanni’s pictures—landscapes and portraits of his children, mainly—line the room . A very large oriental rug of a dull red covers the floor in the living room. e furniture is rustic, ex cept for the exotic touch introduced by the two Bugatti armchairs in the studio. e Alpine décor, like being inside a marquetry box, is the epitome of provincial tranquility. Mother sews at the corner of the table, leaning towards any source of light . Life is ordered by the tick-tock of the “sun and mo on” clock that hangs by the door. e children gather round a boardgame, the counters spread over the table, while Bruno practices his violin. Everyone poses for Father while he draws. e house is surrounded by snow, immersed in whiteness. e mountain landscape is steep and wild. e signific ant days in the year are religious festivals, birthdays, and anniversaries, as well as their father’s exhibitions. e forest nearby is a place of adventure as well as a playground. Alberto would talk about his experiences and familiar landmarks, in scenery that could be in turn protective and threatening. e most important element was the snow, which he waited for impatiently and which was occasionally so deep that he dreamed of building an underground nest. “ I would have liked to have spent all 3 winter there, all alone, all shut away.” Enormous boulders, one of which he would use as a hiding-place, stood on the edge of the forest undergrowth, sometimes friendly, sometimes disturbing. “ I remember that for two summers at least, the only th ing I could see in my surroundings was a large stone about eight hundred meters [875 yards] from t he village.” Eroded by water, the block had a hole hidden at its base where the children would slide. “ I was overjoyed, crouching in the little cave in the bottom. I could hardly fit; I couldn’t ask fo r anything more.” Another block, on the other hand, reminded him of “a narrow and pointed pyramid ,” and was seen as an opaque and frightening
mass. “e stone immediately looked to me like a liv ing creature, hostile, menacing. It threatened everything: ourselves, our games, our cave. Its very existence was unbearable to me and I immediately felt—since I was unable to make it disappear—that i t was better I ignore it, forget it, and speak about it to nobody.” Like many children in the countryside, Alberto’s relationship with nature verged on the animistic. is feeling of a rapport between natural objects an d the human body lasted well into adulthood and is reflected in the works of his maturity. He used images such as “a woman like a tree, a head like a rock” in describing certain sculptures, establishing a system of equivalence between humankind and nature. During vacations, Alberto would visit his r elatives with his brothers and sister. “ No road leads through the village. ere, in a house with a white rosebush growing up the wall, lived an elderly member of the family. I can see her now, sitting close by the window with a large illustrated Bible on her knees. A crowd of happy children would gather around her and listen to the beautiful stories from that magnificent book. We all loved lit tle David and all pitied poor Absalom. Many hours would pass but our sweet old lady never got t ired. When the children left her, she once again 4 became absorbed in reading that huge book to herself.” Between Stampa, with its hundred inhabitants, and B regaglia, a village standing at an altitude of eighteen hundred meters (5,900 ft.) near the pass a t Maloja, the children lived the lives of remote mountain dwellers, centered on domestic activities and connected to the outside world by letters and the radio. e family lived in the shadow of Giovanni, whose artistic career developed smoothly. Increasingly successful, he was soon garnering national honors. Although he lived way out in the country, he maintained regular contact with many artists, such as Giovanni S egantini, who lived in Maloja, Cuno Amiet, who was Alberto’s godfather, and Ferdinand Hodler, who was Bruno’s. Hodler, whose impact on Giovanni’s early work is palpable, was on the way to becoming a Swiss national treasure. Giovanni also greatly admired the already famous S e gantini, adopting his divisionist style and Alpine themes. Amiet was a friend from way back and had been a fellow student in Munich and Paris. In the living room hung a picture from Amiet ’s Pont-Aven period, given to Giacometti as a 5 wedding present. Traveling regularly, Giovanni also remained in con tact with various outposts of modernity. In 1907, he visited Paris, where he saw the Cézanne retrospective and the Fauves’ room, the two salient events at the Salon d’Automne. e following year he met up with the expressionists of Die Brücke, which Amiet had joined. In 1911, tog ether with Fauve artists, he took part in the annual exhibition of the Berliner S ecession, with w orks in a Fauvist style. Giovanni’s appearance of self-confidence, his russet-red, neatly trimmed goat ee and piercing blue eyes concealed an extremely gentle individual, one who was utterly devoted to h is children and to their education. Both studio and house were filled with books. Giovanni’s cultural legacy, a blend of the three languages of Italian, German, and French, which all spoke fluently, lay at the intersection of these three zones of influence on both sides of the Alps. Years later, Alberto was to find that he shared this particular culture with Balthus. It was a culture in which Rom anticism and symbolism continued to play a role, even in avant-garde art movements. Philosophy and literature were also hugely important, as was tradition, which was fundamental to education. is culture left a lasting mark on Alberto, and lay behind many of the choices that foreshadowed his artistic career. During the aesthetic polemic, which, within the modern movement in Switzerland, set followers of 6 Hodler against Cézanne, Giovanni remained faithful to his onetime master and friend, even though his painting seemed more in tune with that of Cézan ne. He never tired of depicting the Piz Duan inn—his own personal Montagne Sainte-Victoire—while his groups of peasants are redolent of Cézanne’s famousGame of Cards. After passing through an expressive phase of intense colorism with similarities to the Fauves, Giovanni’s work settled down to a relatively classic synthesis between neo-impressionism and Cézannism that he was never to abandon. is position reflects his character, at once inquisitive about advanced artistic thought an d anchored to a traditional conception of art.