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Alberto Giacometti and the moment that transformed his art

Alberto Giacometti stands in the stairwell to his house, where the walls are decorated with his sculptures, 1958 - Credit: Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY profiles the sculptor and painter, starting on the evening that would change his outlook and output.

The epiphany came one cold night in a fleapit newsreel theatre. Alberto Giacometti spent the Second World War in Geneva and had just returned to Paris in the winter of 1945 when he ducked into a cinema on the Boulevard Montparnasse and took a seat in the dark. Urgent music rasped out of the speakers beneath a breathless voiceover accompanying images of a bombed-out Europe commencing a long process of rebuilding and rehabilitation.

The 44-year-old artist had no inkling he was about to experience a similar renewal. As the pictures flitted between ravaged cityscapes to smiling political leaders, Giacometti became aware of something changing deep within him.

“Suddenly I no longer knew just what it was I could see on the screen,” he said. “Instead of figures moving in a three-dimensional space I saw only black and white specks shifting on a flat surface. They had lost all meaning. I looked at the people around me and suddenly I saw them as I’d never seen them before.”

It was as if until that moment he’d watched everything like images on a screen but was now gripped by a new awareness, a different way of observing the world. Despite the tinny racket of the news broadcast Giacometti was consumed by a new silence he sensed around him, the silence of a void existing between everything, the people, the seats, even the curls of cigarette smoke moving gently through the projector beam.

When he emerged onto the street, where figures wrapped in coats and scarves hurried past cafés and bars lit softly through misted panes, it was as if he was seeing the previously familiar for the first time.

“The Boulevard had the beauty of the Arabian Nights,” he recalled. “Everything was different, space and objects and colours and the silence, because this sense of space generates silence and bathes objects in silence. That day completely revaluated reality for me. It became the unknown, a marvellous unknown.”

He made for the Brasserie Lipp, a regular haunt, where it seemed time kept freezing. When the waiter leaned in to hear his order his head became a sculptural presence, quite still, an object in a silent void, “his eyes fixed in an absolute immobility”.

The experience transformed Giacometti’s work as he strove to recreate this new awareness in plaster and paint. Having worked in cubism and surrealism during the 1930s he now developed his art in a way that was entirely his own, capturing this “absolute immobility” in elongated, thin figures of men and women, apparently roughly hewn but gracefully fragile, with long, elegant arms and legs.

It was almost an obsession, a seemingly endless production of figures walking or standing, gesturing or still, many on outsized plinths that only exacerbated their solitude. Some were large, others tiny; all of them different yet somehow the same, caught in that silent void he’d discerned that night at the cinema.

“He was not obsessed but possessed,” argued Samuel Beckett, a close friend. “I suggested it might be more fruitful to concentrate on the problem itself rather than struggle constantly to achieve a solution, but Giacometti was determined to continue his struggle, trying to progress even if it was only by so much as an inch, or a centimetre, or a millimetre.”

When he gave up on surrealism Giacometti said he feared he was making art in the same way a baker made pastries, turning out the same things over and over. This was different, each figure felt like a progression, another step towards something always out of reach.

“I know with absolute, unshakable certainty that I can never succeed,” he said, “even if I live to be a thousand years old.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, who had met Giacometti at the Café de Flore in 1939 and forged a long friendship, felt the figures were ultimately existential, “always mediating between nothing and being”, their emaciated forms emphasising the emptiness around them. For their creator they were part of a steady and productive progression towards an ultimate futility.

“Nothing I do will ever be finished,” said Giacometti. “Everything remains just another study.”

He was a popular figure among the Parisian cultural elite. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir both sat for Giacometti. He and Pablo Picasso would drop in on each other’s studios, developing a mutual admiration that didn’t necessarily stretch to their work but grew into another deep friendship.

It took a particular form of admiration and dedication to drop in on Giacometti’s studio at 46 Rue Hippolyte-Maindron in the 14th arrondissement, and certainly to do it on a regular basis. He’d taken the lease in 1926, four years after he’d arrived in the city to study under Antoine Bourdelle, a member of Rodin’s circle, and never left.

Most artists’ studios are all about space and light but Giacometti worked in a tiny room at the end of a dingy alleyway, a space barely 15 feet by 15 feet on the ground floor of an ancient building. Permanently damp, the studio had small windows and was lit by two bare lightbulbs beneath which a small stove provided only rudimentary heating. There was no running water. When leaves began emerging from a crack in the plaster Giacometti let them be and as the years passed a branch grew through the wall. The floor was deep in flakes of plaster – visitors could expect to leave coated in almost as much plaster and dust as the artist himself – and the walls were covered in scrawl and sketches. Squalid it may have been to the outsider (Jean Genet described it as “a milky swamp, a seething dump, an actual ditch”), but that studio was effectively a part of Giacometti himself. It breathed with him, its fabric was infused with his ideas, experiments, successes and failures. It was in these unlikely surroundings, unchanged through various creative phases, that he produced his best work as if the limitations allowed him to flourish.

“It’s funny, when I took on this studio, I thought it was tiny,” he said, “but the longer I stayed the bigger it became and I could fit into it anything I wanted.”

He would take long nocturnal walks with Beckett. They would meet at the Café de Flore, La Coupole or another of the cafés in which the Parisians and blow-ins who made the city the cultural hub of Europe would gather. When chairs were upturned onto tables and the mop and bucket clattered the pair would set off into the night, often in silence, sometimes talking about their work, sounding each other out for advice and opinion. With Beckett Giacometti could unload his anxieties into the most sympathetic ear he knew until dawn began to seep into the eastern sky. Those anxieties were often rooted in death, which he sensed stalking him in the silent void, especially since a traumatic experience in his late teens.

The son of a noted impressionist painter, Giacometti grew up in a tiny hamlet in an Alpine valley in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. A gifted artist from an early age, he made several trips to Italy with his father to study the country’s art. On a solo visit to Rome in 1921 he fell into conversation on a train with an elderly Dutch librarian named Pieter Van Meurs, who invited Giacometti to be his travelling companion on his next tour of the Alps. Four days into the trip Van Meurs fell ill in a Swiss hotel and died, with Giacometti at his bedside reading Maupassant’s introduction to Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet.

“Those people who are altogether happy, strong and healthy: are they adequately prepared to understand, to penetrate, and to express this life we live, so tormented, so short?” he read during Van Meurs’ final hours. “Are they made, the exuberant and outgoing, for the discovery of all those afflictions and all those sufferings which beset us, for the knowledge that death strikes without surcease, every day and everywhere, ferocious, blind, fatal?”

In a letter to his parents, he wrote, “I am still full of terror and astonishment. I feel lost. Fate can be so inexplicable and terrible. Less than three hours ago Mr Van Meurs died in the presence of me and a chambermaid. It’s appalling, it seems incomprehensible”.

This incomprehension stayed with him throughout his life, informing his art, guaranteeing that he would never achieve true artistic fulfilment, leaving him always falling short.

Two years before his death Giacometti recalled one of his first projects, a bust he’d made of his brother Diego when he was 14 years old.

“I have done nothing better,” he said. “Nothing better.”

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