If Samuel Beckett had been a sculptor instead of a playwright, he would have been Alberto Giacometti. The Swiss-born artist has sometimes been called the “visual Beckett”, and the comparison is not just some scholarly metaphor. The two men were, in fact, very good friends and kindred spirits in many respects. When Beckett asked Giacometti to create the set design for his landmark play Waiting for Godot, Giacometti obliged, and the result was a single, lone tree. Add French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to Giacometti’s circle of intimate friends, and you have quite the gang of intellectual thinkers, forever contemplating the human condition and man’s place in the universe. Ah, those crazy existentialists!!
Giacometti was, and still is, a significant figure in 20th century art. In my art model’s “eavesdropping” education (which is a great one, by the way), I hear him referenced quite often in studio lectures and discussions. After navigating his way through Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism, and all the other “isms” of the art lexicon, Giacometti eventually found his trademark style in the postwar years; that style being sculptures cast in bronze, depicting thin, elongated, attenuated human figures. Devoid of mass or volume. Isolated. Alone in their space.
Like all artists, Giacometti grappled with the concept of “reality”. Is it merely pereception? And if so, whose? The viewer’s or the artist’s? Or does it have nothing to do with perception at all, but rather, the thing itself? On this metaphysical subject Giacometti said, ” The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity”. Shit. Now I know why I got a C in philosophy. (No, it wasn’t me! It was that damn Kierkegaard! Hated that guy.)
But if you want the truth about “reality” and “intensity” with regard to Giacometti, his models would offer up their own no-nonsense definition, one that neither Beckett nor Sartre could ever elucidate. By all accounts, the great sculptor was a notorious taskmaster. The grueling posing sessions went on for hours and hours and hours, terminated only when Giacometti himself was ready to call it quits. The model is tired? Needs a stretch and a break? Not a chance. Get back on that stool, bitch! Ok, I made up the “bitch” part, but you get the idea.
Giacometti’s compulsive behavior extended beyond his treatment of models. His stubborn, obsessive nature dictated all aspects of his life, from his 80 cigarettes a day smoking habit, to his insistence on keeping his small, cramped, squalid studio even though his financial situation could have afforded him better, to his refusal to take a doctor’s advice when, in 1938, a car ran over his foot on the Place de Pyramides. The accident broke several bones, and his doctor urged Giacometti to stay off the foot so it would heal properly. He didn’t. The foot didn’t heal properly. And Giacometti walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
Giacometti’s first models were his mother Annetta and his sister Ottilia. When he moved to Paris with his brother Diego as his faithful apprentice, Giacometti continued to work from life. Flora Mayo, an American, became his model, muse, and lover. Isabel Nicholas also modeled for him, as did professional model Rita Gueyfier. But by far Giacometti’s most reliable model was his wife Annette, whom he married in 1950. She endured his arduous sculpture sessions with patience and forbearance, and it’s thus no surprise that Giacometti’s most productive artistic period took place during those years.
Later in Giacometti’s life, a new model entered the scene. She was a Parisian prostitute named Caroline, and Giacometti was clearly infatuated with her, much to Annette’s displeasure. Caroline didn’t take Giacometti’s shit, and even extinguished a cigarette right into the canvas of a painting he was working on. Although Giacometti and Annette are believed to have had an open marriage, Caroline’s presence placed an enormous strain on the relationship. In 1965, when Giacometti was on his deathbed, Annette was by his side in the hospital. When Caroline showed up unannounced, the wife and mistress had a heated confrontation, during which Annette allegedly slapped Caroline. Doubtful that Giacometti’s philosophical and intellectual explorations were of any use to him at that moment. You can’t think your way out of a predicament like that.