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  • Writer's pictureSimon Rivett


Alberto Giacometti is a unique figure in the world of art. Born in Stampa, Switzerland in 1901, the eldest son of a painter Giovanni Giacometti, he became a sculptor and painter. He was to set an example of the artist as an individual in a determined pursuit of an idea, working in the studio in an individual quest unaffected by the demands of others.   The process of making and  destroying, only to re-build, to scrape back only to begin again with fresh layers of paint, revising and assessing those revisions, before beginning again, is the cycle of the most self-determined of artists. This process is the pursuit of definitive statements about the reality of what it really is for a human to look and record. He was a truly unique artist ,  his sculpture and paintings are his, entirely his; they have the authority that the  traditional skills of great craftsmen and draughtsmen have,  whilst being extraordinary in their modernism.

 David Sylvester in his authoritative book Looking at Giacometti, compares the lifelong struggles of Cezanne to become a great artist with the ease that making art could have been to Giacometti.  He writes,' Giacometti seemed to be struggling for most of his life to deny the adroitness he began with. Cezanne couldn't help finding art difficult, Giacometti could have found it easy had he not seen how difficult it could be made to be'. His studio in Paris, which he occupied from 1927 became the centre for his lifetime struggles with depicting reality, from observation and from memory. It was not until 1945 that his etiolated figures became known to the British art world when they were the subject of a photographic article in a French art magazine.

He was an artist who was photographed and filmed and interviewed; there are many sources that can be accessed, and this has undoubtedly established his pivotal position in how artists began to see their role in the 20th Century, a shift from a role of documentation to one of self-expression. In Giacometti's case, his enclosed world, his daily routines and habits, his use of a small number of models, of making and re-making, his intellectual rigour and analysis made him a hero and set a new benchmark for integrity and single minded determination in the pursuit of art of lasting worth. The studio images show sculptures, works in progress, canvases set casually to one side and turned to face the wall. The monochrome records imbue the whole studio with the colour of clay; even the distinguished, lined features of the artist seem to have been modelled out of clay.

The heroic status of Giacometti and his one man show at the ICA in 1955 had a great influence on a new generation of British artists. In James Hyman's book The Battle for Realism, he makes the point that Giacometti's example was moral, not just formal, a shift from the artist as inventor to the artist as struggler. Picasso and Giacometti were colleagues, but at different ends of the spectrum in their approach to the efforts of making art.  Picasso’s art was born of freedom, endless invention and seemingly never a moment of self-doubt.  For Giacometti the inspiration is the notion that the struggle is what matters, an appreciative audience was not the aim.  James Hyman also writes about David Sylvester's championing of Modernist Realism, and his keenness to promote Giacometti as a major figure of the Modern Realist movement.

Sylvester was keen to wrestle Modernism away from the abstract painting that was largely to the fore in the 1950s. He also enlisted existentialism in his arguments, even if he disagreed with Sartre’s description of Giacometti as 'in search of the Absolute'. Sylvester felt, instead, that the artist was 'perpetuating the transient'. Sartre relates what Giacometti said to him about sculptures he had just destroyed. "I was satisfied with them but they were made to last only a few hours". Sylvester saw the ephemeral nature of this working method, losing and finding, as reflecting human vulnerability.  In order for Giacometti to achieve such work, he had to place the emphasis on personal struggle and individual vision. This also opened the door to the fundamental question of why do we paint or sculpt at all?

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