Men at Work

Tom Lubbock

  • Looking at Giacometti by David Sylvester
    Chatto, 256 pp, £25.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 7011 6252 X

Personal witness has a peculiar status in the criticism of painting and sculpture, a status which it seems not to have in the criticism of other arts. There’s some feature of the visual arts that requires or favours the activity of the critic as witness. I’m not referring here to the supposed necessity for ‘expertise’ when it comes to the visual arts, or to the need evidently felt by its audience for authoritative/enthusiastic communicators (Kenneth Clark, Robert Hughes, Wendy Beckett) which no other artistic public feels – though these things are doubtless relevant. I mean the priority given to a mode of address: when the critic performs, not by talking to us about work to which we’re both assumed to have access, but rather by experiencing the work on our behalf, for our benefit.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann – father of both art history and art ‘appreciation’ – is probably the founding exemplar here. Face to face with the Apollo Belvedere, he was moved to a famous rapture (1764):

This body, marked by no vein, moved by no nerve, is animated by a celestial spirit which courses like a sweet vapour through every part ... In the presence of this miracle of art I forget the whole universe, and my soul acquires a loftiness appropriate to its dignity. From admiration I pass to ecstasy, I feel my breast dilate and rise as if I were filled with the spirit of prophecy.

However hard it is to share it now, this was an experience to be shared – though perhaps not shared entirely, not in all its intensity. We’re not to expect to feel quite as the critic says he does, and indeed that’s part of the transaction. While the critic’s response may not be fully our own, it is an ideal proxy, a model for what our response might be. Of course Winckelmann’s tone, his language of sensibility, is not what we ask from art critics now (though it is sometimes what we get). But that voice of witness still holds its place.

There are some good, quasi-practical reasons for this, in the nature of works of visual art. Paintings and sculptures are, in the main, unique objects: they’re met with at a particular time and place, and it’s proper to record this as an encounter, rather than as a general familiarity. Writing about the visual arts, one cannot quote; especially with sculpture, no reproduction is adequate; so readers may want a record of an experience which, reading, they don’t themselves have at first hand. One tends to view such works as an individual, not as part of an audience; that may need registering too. Lastly, and this seems the best of these reasons, some works of art address the spectator in a way that particularly demands a first-person response. Thus, John Berger in Success and Failure of Picasso evokes the experience of three pictures from the Thirties like this. (The sentences are interleaved with the relevant illustrations.) ‘The effect is magical; it is as though we, looking at these figures, possess their sensations. I am this woman as she sleeps ... I am this one as she cries ... I am that woman as she turns to see me.’ And whatever special delight Berger may take in saying ‘I am this woman,’ still, to impersonalise this account to read ‘we’ or ‘you’ or ‘one’ for ‘I’, wouldn’t make the needful point.

In Looking at Giacometti, David Sylvester records a similar – though far more articulated – face-off with one of Giacometti’s lean and vertical female figures. And the effect here is not simply one of identification:

I feel within my muscles the stance of the figure, feel I am adopting the same stance, feel this so strongly that sometimes I find myself doing so in reality – holding myself more taut and upright, squaring my shoulders, placing my hands straight down my sides. But however strongly I feel the figure’s action within myself, I never – as one normally does when one feels this – feel myself identified with the figure, never have the sense of losing myself in it, out there. I do not even feel a tingle in the muscles of my hands as if I were holding the figure ... Neither of touching it nor becoming it. Only, I feel I have its stance, here, where I am, not out there. And the more I feel with it, the more do I feel my apartness from it confirmed, the more do I recognise its otherness.

In the exactness of its attention, in its argument through sensation, it’s one of the finest passages in the book, though it teeters on the edge of comedy too, as writing in this vein must, especially if one stands back and tries to visualise the pas-de-deux between critic and statue from (as it were) the other side of the room. But any superficial similarities to Winckelmann’s rapturous bodily sensations before the Apollo are misleading, and not just because one can believe Sylvester’s witness in a way that one now can’t Winckelmann’s. The difference is that Winckelmann’s physical reactions are his response to the experience of the statue, Sylvester’s are the experience itself. Winckelmann’s first-person cannot therefore escape extraneous self-display. Sylvester’s is integral; and it need not be him, it’s any ‘I’.

Let that passage stand for many others, equally intensive. ‘Face to face with a Giacometti image, the spectator finds himself as if involved in a reciprocal relationship’; in so far as that is true, this voice of witness is fully justified. But it isn’t only a matter of such one-to-one encounters with the figures and busts. There is, throughout the book, another kind of witness, not necessarily connected though the two become confused: witness, in the sense of the view from within, the inside story of the art. Looking at Giacometti is neither a memoir nor a biographical study (though it has elements of both); but it is focused on and through Giacometti’s artistic life. It treats the works, not as public objects out in the world before us, but as the manifestations of this life. It sees them according to Giacometti’s artistic problems and obsessions, and through his words.

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