His trench coat is thrown on a rudimentary bed surrounded by small shelves filled with plaster figurines; an unfinished bust seats in the central pedestal, looking in the distance. He could be back any moment. “He” is Alberto Giacometti, and the space I am taking you to is his atelier in Paris.
It might get crowded when he comes back: the space is tiny (only 23m² / less than 250 square feet) but this was where Giacometti felt comfortable. He never moved to a larger space when success came.
In a sense, this is no surprise as you look at his stretched thin sculptures.
For maybe, from the small confine of his atelier, he stood a chance to recreate the essence of a person using his sculpture, but also countless drawings of the same repeated motifs, as well as paintings of incredible complexity of line.
Searching for truth, Giacometti tirelessly fashioned the heads and bodies of his sculptures, constantly reworking, repeating, reusing the same models who sometimes posed on a kitchen chair (see below) for more than 100 hours in the case of Isaku Yanaihara.
His permanent fear of failure made him remove – each time more and more of the superfluous – instead of simply modelling the essential matter. Giacometti was never quite finished, never quite satisfied, “facing the impossible task of copying reality”.
In the end, his sculptures look stylized and emaciated, reduced to an infinitely small amount of matter: funny how looking for the truth and essence of a person, very little is left as the process reaches its ultimate stage. Giacometti giving us food for thought…This is what Jean Genet declared “the solitude of man discovering he is exactly equivalent to all others around him”. Perhaps that’s exactly what inspired Ugo Rondinone, another Swiss artist, when his Vocabulary of Solitude became a installation of clowns.
Giacometti’s studio is packed with well-loved brushes and works in progress. All with stories left to tell, they still hover between life and death, much like Giacometti led his conscious life.
Some sculptures are most recognizable – his Walking Man – revealing the secret of their armature on which Giacometti applied fresh plaster he would work directly with his fingers and hands.
One bust has never been shown before: Eli Lotar, raw in its unfinished state, exactly as Giacometti left it in 1966 when he went to the realm of the dead, this place he had spent a lifetime anticipating and apprehending through his art.
When his wife Annette was declared sole executor of the Giacometti legacy, she packed all contents of the atelier, adamant it should be reconstructed as part of the Foundation work she aimed to create. She would never see this done while alive but we now can all do so at 5 rue Victor-Schoelcher.
Minutely reconstructed, the Institute includes all original works, as well as tools and furniture on which Giacometti used to draw sketches on.
Drawing on any surface or materials was a way of life for Giacometti: the walls were not off-limit, simply another medium of expression, easy to reach due the small size of the studio. Large wall fragments were preserved from the original atelier and make for spectacular frescoes.
As accounts abound of the “primitive” in Giacometti, imagine him soaked in ash, dust permeating his skin, clothes and nails, drawing his very own Lascaux frescoes in his atelier turned original man cave.
The choice of location for the newly reconstructed Giacometti atelier is not innocent. The original atelier was on Rue Hippolyte Maindron in the Montparnasse neighborhood. The Institute had to remain in Montparnasse due how significant the neighborhood used to be for the art scene of the time. Names who now belong to our cultural vocabulary mingled and cooperated. Jean-Paul Sartre introduced writer Jean Genet to Giacometti. When times were hard as an artist, Giacometti worked with interior decorator Jean-Michel Franck in the 1930s. He even made jewellery and fashion accessories like these buttons for a Schiaparelli jacket owned by Marlene Dietrich.
Choosing Paul Follot’s 1912-14 house as display case of Giacometti’s legacy was consequently both an intimate and historically inspired choice.
Style-wise the house is on the cusp between Art Nouveau just passed and nascent Art Deco. Bathed in natural light emanating from a skylight towering over the blue and gold tiled staircase, its stenciled cornices and colored stained-glass windows have all the Viennese Secessionist style aesthetics.
Five plaster versions of Femmes de Venise take center stage in the library space. Despite the fragile appearance of the plaster they are made of, are they marching with determination or menace?
There is always some ambiguity with Giacometti and this is made clear repeatedly throughout the Institute.
Women are often seen from a distance which appears physical, although actually due to Giacometti working from memory.
Women may also appear as groups of small figurines set on oversizes pedestal, reaching the ultimate point before total disappearance with Toute Petite Figurine (1937-39).
In contrast, looking at Giacometti’s tall figures and their dripping appearance, it is basically the other side of the same coin: where Giacometti keeps his distance when sculpting small, his larger sculptures deify the essence of life which must be revered yet also feared in equal measure.
A Giacometti sculpture shows how simple it can all be at the exact moment one understands the full ephemeral nature of life: hence bodies appearing partially disintegrated, about to fall, always standing between “apparition and disappearance”, between life and death.
Our human condition in a nutshell, right there, signed by Giacometti.
“A master of vulnerability, Giacometti offers solace in an age of doubt”.
The Economist (June 16th, 2018).
You can visit the Giacometti Institute in Paris. Bookings are required online here.
Talking of apparition, curator extraordinaire Megan Fontanella from the Guggenheim New York joined in during my visit of the Institute.
She orchestrated the current Giacometti retrospective at the Guggenheim New York so I hope this will make you want to check it out too. On until September 12, 2018.
© 2018 Ingrid Westlake
All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.
Hors-serie, Connaissance des Arts #823: Institut Giacometti.