Giacometti and Bacon

David Sylvester

  • Giacometti: A Biography by James Lord
    Faber, 592 pp, £25.00, June 1986, ISBN 0 571 13138 7

Giacometti’s widow, says the preface, has chosen ‘to prevent the appearance in her husband’s biography of any unpublished writings by him of whatever sort: letters, journals or random notations’. Another recent biography of a leading modern artist was composed under similar restrictions. Peter Ackroyd says he was ‘forbidden by the Eliot estate to quote from Eliot’s published work, except for purposes of fair comment in a critical context, or to quote from Eliot’s unpublished work or correspondence’. As it happens, the two subjects, while profoundly unalike inasmuch as Giacometti was an atheist, a leftist and a bohemian, had many things in common, besides good looks, charisma, chronic mental torment and the hesitant production of a relatively small corpus of work notable for its marvellous marriage of innovation and tradition. Both of them came from cultivated and comfortably-off families rooted for generations in a backwater and both went on to spend their adult lives in a metropolis in a foreign land; both were quick to win fame as artists and quickly became legends, yet almost into middle age could not earn a living from their art and had to work in other areas to survive; both of them married but had no children; both were dominated – people say – by a mother – and haunted – the work says – by the idea of doing a girl in.

Their biographies have less in common. Lord had two big advantages over Ackroyd: he spent a great deal of time in the company of his subject and a great deal of time in composing his book. ‘I have devoted fifteen years to it’ – a luxury impossible for a professional writer like Ackroyd. As to the outcome, Ackroyd produced a biography that has been highly praised both by people who did not personally know the subject and by people who did; Lord’s biography has been highly praised by a number of people who did not know the subject. But more than forty who knew Giacometti signed a letter of protest against the book, a letter that has been published in America, where the book was initially issued, and is now published here on another page. However, a biography which elicits that sort of response may always be doing so because it is particularly penetrating.

I find this biography difficult to assess fairly because of the irritation it provokes both through its crass handling of the English language and through its snide attitude towards the supporting cast. Those irritants are often especially potent when a new character is being introduced. Here Sartre has just been brought on and we are at the point of his meeting a certain fellow student at the Sorbonne.

Tall and pretty, she had such an industrious devotion to hard work that she already bore the nickname which would stick to her for life: the Beaver. From the first, there was no doubt on either side that Sartre and she were people who understood each other. Her name was Simone de Beauvoir. It was one of those rare meetings of minds which make the matings of the herd seem lamentably bestial. They saw eye to eye, it appeared, on everything, including marriage, which they spurned, repudiating en masse all bourgeois standards and conventions, confident of their ability to distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, and truth from falsehood. Despite their devotion to the sole dictates of reason, Sartre and the Beaver liked a good time.

And Lord is no snob: he can be just as odious when presenting non-celebrities.

A pretty young woman could make her living in Montparnasse without a specific occupation. She could encourage the clients in a bar to do a bit more drinking, or strike up acquaintance with potential admirers who might be glad to give a girl a helping hand without expecting much more than a handshake in return. An easygoing, senseless sort of life. One of the girls who lived that way in the mid-Thirties was called Nelly.

Nelly became the mistress of Diego Giacometti, the artist’s brother. As they lived together for twenty years and as Lord’s book is almost as much a biography of Diego as it is of Alberto, Nelly appears in several later scenes. But always as a cipher, an irrelevance. No one would guess that she was someone who said: Pourquoi on appelle les bêtes les bêtes? Elles sont beaucoup plus intelligentes que les êtres humains.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in