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Giacometti’s widow, says the preface, has chosen ‘to prevent the appearance in her husband’s biography of any unpublished writings by him of whatever sort: letters, journals or random notations’.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quote from Eliot’s published work, except for purposes of fair comment in a critical context, or to quote from Eliot’s unpublished work or correspondence’.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.

Speaking of Diego brings me to what I think is the book’s most valuable achievement – its celebration of the love between those two brothers (to whose joint memory, in fact, Lord dedicates it). It is impossible to understand how Alberto functioned as a man or as an artist without understanding his relationship to Diego, yet Lord is – with the exception of Robert Wernick – the first writer on him to do justice to that subject. He delineates subtly and accurately the relationship they seemed to have when one knew them, in middle age and onwards. And he unearths events and habits in their childhood and youth which throw a remarkable amount of light on the formation of their relationship. And not only on that, but on Alberto in himself, as a man and as an artist. Thus he tells us that Alberto was left sterile by an attack of mumps. And he tells us that Alberto never learnt to dance but would go to dances and would get his two brothers to dance again and again with girls he fancied while he looked on: I had always wrongly supposed that when he behaved like that in middle age it was as a result of the accident in his mid-thirties which had left him lame. Above all, Lord tells the story behind the story Giacometti told in print of how, after going through his teens wonderfully confident of his mastery of drawing and modelling from life, he suddenly found himself working on a bust which left him totally at sea and that he destroyed it; from then on his work from life was always done – and his work from memory usually done – with an obsessive sense of failure (a feeling, of course, that many great artists have had when working from life). Lord reveals that the model for that bust was a young cousin with whom Giacometti had fallen in love and who loved him not and who destroyed the bust. ‘He always stated that it was he who had destroyed his work because he was dissatisfied with it. He never said that the bust had been a portrait of a girl with whom he was in love or that it was she who had destroyed it. The difficulty he encountered had destroyed something, and he had to assume responsibility for it.’

But Lord has a problem in dealing with Giacometti’s work – a shallow knowledge of modern art in general that is embarassingly evident in, say, the simplistic survey he provides of the state of art in Paris at the time Giacometti arrived there. An ill-informed view of complex situations makes it difficult for Lord to place Giacometti’s art in its time. For instance, when he is dealing with the artist’s gradual alienation from the Surrealists in the mid-Thirties through becoming involved in trapping appearance, he sees the two versions of a headless Walking Woman as steps in that direction, which they were, but also as ‘openly alien to the spirit and purposes of Surrealism’, when they are actually classic examples of the Surrealist iconography of the moving statue. Again, when talking about the artist’s visit to New York in 1965 at the time of his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, he writes: ‘A reception was given at the museum in his honour, the invited guests being principally eminent American artists – Rothko, de Kooning, Motherwell, and Rauschenberg were among those present – and all of them approached Giacometti with the same sort of awe, none appearing to sense that what he represented was the last vestige of a tradition that they had thought to repudiate and that his presence in a museum dedicated to their achievements represented ipso facto a repudiation of the ground upon which they presumed to stand’. It is true that Giacometti did not reciprocate the great admiration those artists felt for him. Nevertheless, when I once asked him – I think it was in the mid-Fifties – to tell me, in so far as he could feel any affinity with any contemporary school, which was the one he felt closest to, he replied: Les tachistes, quand même.

My problem with this book is that it seems highly informative when it is dealing with matters of which I have no knowledge but is constantly inaccurate when dealing with matters I do know about. During Giacometti’s visits to London in 1955, 1964 and 1965 I saw him practically every day, whereas Lord, who saw him much more regularly in Paris than I did, was not around much, if at all. So the treatment of those London visits provides a clue to the quality of Lord’s research. I go into the detail that follows with some reluctance: the refutation of inaccuracies tends to make heavy reading and to encourage excessive intrusion on the part of the eye-witness. But somebody has to go round the dog track with a dustpan and brush.

Concerning the visits connected with the retrospective at the Tate in the summer of 1965, Lord writes: ‘Alberto went to London well before the inaugural date in order to supervise, with Diego’s help, the installation. He improvised in the basement of the museum a makeshift studio where he could touch up plasters or paint bronzes at the last minute’. In fact, Alberto intervened very little in the installation and Diego not at all. Alberto’s contribution had been made the previous autumn, when, invited to choose the galleries for his show, he had insisted that they include the towering hall down the middle of the Tate, an absolute graveyard for sculpture. As to the purpose of the improvised studio, it was much more specific than Lord realises. It was needed for the making of new versions in plaster of the figurines in Four figurines on a tall stand of 1950, as Giacometti had never been satisfied with the original ones. Above all, it was needed for the making of a plaster standing female figure about ten inches high which was to go on a pedestal in a corner of that vast hall which was to contain among other things four bronze standing female figures nine feet high. According to Giacometti, the validity of the whole exhibition would depend on the quality of that new figurine.

Something else which says a lot about Giacometti happened at that exhibition. The Tate told him that they had set aside twenty thousand pounds to purchase works of his and wondered whether he would generously let them have a few at a special price. A list was presented to him of desiderata from which he was to choose what items he was willing to let go for that sum; the sculptures and paintings on the list must then have been worth well over a hundred thousand pounds. Giacometti examined the list, pondered, and said the Tate could have everything on it, not for twenty thousand but for ten.

These stories don’t get into Lord’s account of the artist in London, which is entirely concerned with social life, mostly social life with Francis Bacon. It seems designed to suggest that Giacometti was fascinated by Bacon’s homosexuality in a significant way. But first comes a pen portrait of Bacon:

Good-looking and clever, with a malicious tongue, he was determined to get along, though he had no idea in what direction. Driven by homosexual desires, a love for drink, and a passion for gambling, young Francis drifted through the low life, if not the underworld, of Paris and Berlin at a time when in both cities it was easily to be brilliant and depraved. Artistic innovation was everywhere, but Francis was not especially interested. His talents were directed to interior decoration and the design of furniture. It was not until the war years, when he was found unfit for service because he suffered from asthma, that he began to paint in earnest. He proved his aptitude with appalling authority. By the late Forties, he had made himself one of the masters of his generation and a figure of controversy. His style, his subject-matter, his adroit manipulation of his career roused the fervour of some, the contempt of others ... Attacked in the era of abstractionism for being figurative, he was also denounced for being morbid, macabre and self-indulgent. He responded with wit, made a mockery of criticism, and kept on painting, drinking, gambling, and making love to working-class boys. His favourite images were of men screaming, naked male bodies interlocked in throes that looked more like agony than bliss ...

From the way that begins, nobody would suppose that by the time he was 24 Bacon had shown pictures at the leading avant-garde gallery in London, the Mayor, and had had a work reproduced in Herbert Read’s Art Now; as to designing furniture, well, Giacometti did that too. On the subject of career-manipulation, Bacon in reality was and has remained a rather maladroit manipulator, too obsessed with painting and pleasure to be bothered. Thus in 1953, say, he completed 23 paintings, all of them large, which he sold for £150 at most and usually less, meaning that he could have hardly covered his painting expenses. That was the year when he painted the first of those pictures which Lord alludes to with that strange remark about ‘throes that looked more like agony than bliss’ – the sort of remark that might have been made by someone who had enjoyed bliss, if at all, only in solitude and without even the company of a mirror. What is sure is that the writer is given to imposing stereotypes on others’ sexual behaviour. ‘Making love to working-class boys’? I knew the three people who were Bacon’s friends from before his thirtieth till after his sixtieth year: two of them were anything but working-class, and none of them was a boy. But perhaps through naivety I do Lord an injustice? Perhaps Bacon has had an intense unofficial love-life that Lord knows all about.

As to what happened when Bacon and Giacometti actually met, Lord has only two anecdotes to relate. The first is that Bacon once asked Giacometti whether he thought it was possible for a homosexual to be a great artist. Lord introduces this question as an expression of some sort of doubt on Bacon’s part. Now, I have never heard Bacon express such doubts, and have a suspicion that he may have been testing Giacometti in the light of several mentions I had made to him over the years of a bizarre interchange I had with Giacometti in 1951 (sitting on the terrace of the Dôme) at the time of the Caravaggio exhibition in Milan. I had spoken of my enthusiasm for that master; Giacometti had been sceptical and had gone so far as to ask whether I thought it was possible for a homosexual to be a really great artist. After getting my breath back, I had mumbled the name of Michelangelo. Giacometti, taking up that shyster lawyer’s role so familiar to those who debated with him, had riposted by asking whether I was sure that Michelangelo was homosexual. So I wonder, presumptuously, whether Bacon was not teasingly recalling that interchange when he gave Giacometti back his question.

The other story is about a dinner arranged by Isabel Rawsthorne at a London restaurant in 1962 (the biographer should have remembered, though it’s not important, that Giacometti was never here that year). It claims that Bacon arrived drunk and concluded a friendly argument by raising the edge of the table ‘higher and higher until all the plates, glasses and silverware crashed to the floor’. Bacon tells me this never happened; he may be wrong. Having seen Bacon drunk hundreds of times, I cannot believe that he could have behaved like that; I may be wrong. It hardly matters. What does matter is the paragraph that follows.

  Personal compatibility was one thing, professional concord quite another. Concerning aesthetic objectives, the two artists did not see eye to eye. In private, Alberto expressed dislike of the chance effects and crafty sleights of technique so beloved by Francis, while the latter, who is known never to have made a single drawing, allowed that as a draftsman Giacometti was without peer, leaving, of course, treacherously vague the mastery of other terrain. But nothing marred the friendship. After the older man’s death the younger said, ‘He was for me the most marvellous of human beings.’

But there was no ‘friendship’ to mar. If there was a friendship that Giacometti formed in London at that time, it was with Robin Campbell of the Arts Council, a new acquaintance to whom he was manifestly drawn in a very personal way. He and Bacon liked each other well enough, but they only met a few times and only once alone. One factor in bringing them together was Isabel Rawsthorne, who had been a great love of Giacometti’s and was a close friend of Bacon’s. But the main factor was precisely that they much admired each other as artists. Of course they were highly critical of each other’s work: one of the things they had in common was that they were scathingly critical about everyone’s work, especially their own. But each had a respect for the other such as he probably had for no other artist born in this century. As for Bacon’s being ‘treacherously vague’, he never made any secret of the fact that he liked Giacometti’s paintings of the Forties but not those that came after, and that he found the sculpture intolerably arty; perhaps Lord thinks he should have said so in print when he wrote in the catalogue of an exhibition of drawings that for him Giacometti was not only the greatest draughtsman of our time but one of the greatest ever. And Giacometti for his part perceived Bacon as his one rival. Thus, one night, when I was dropping him off at his hotel after we’d dined with Bacon, he asked me laughingly, putting us both to the test, which was the more ambitious artist, Bacon or himself. I said I thought that, while he was the greater artist, Bacon was probably the more ambitious; he said, as I knew he would, that I was wrong. Now, my answer had been mindful of a published statement of his that his great admiration for the Le Nain brothers was due to their having been able to inject human content into their art whereas he himself was taken up with merely capturing appearance; I felt that Bacon was the more ambitious in that his overtly tragic art essayed a bigger emotional scale. Giacometti’s belief in the loftiness of his own ambition clearly related to a feeling he had expressed after spending three days sitting in a room drawing a tablecloth on a round table, trying to render it as he saw it. Drawing a tablecloth, he said, might appear to be a rather modest enterprise: but since it’s virtually impossible to do, you couldn’t really tell whether doing it was a matter of modesty or one of arrogance.