Dreams that mould minds

Alberto Giacometti - At Work in Paris
November 21, 2003

Henry Meyric Hughes enjoys two artists who were inspired by Paris

This biographical study of Alberto Giacometti is by a writer who is qualified as an art historian and as a psychoanalyst and art therapist.

The book benefits and, to an extent, suffers from the consequent duality of approach. Laurie Wilson is at her best in uncovering some of the deeper psychological motivations behind the sculptures and the relationship between the artist's life and the creative blockages that punctuated his artistic development.

The author devotes more space than is customary to Giacometti's early years and looks beneath the surface of his apparently carefree upbringing in the country, in Italian Switzerland. There emerges a picture of a young man riddled with doubts about his artistic abilities and uncertainties about his capacity to form a loving relationship with a member of the opposite sex; who developed, in turns, into an obsessive and a voyeur, whose deepest preoccupations were with impotence, sterility and death.

Giacometti attempted to assert his creative independence from his painter father when he went to study sculpture under Antoine Bourdelle, in Paris. His first sustained liaison with a woman - an American fellow student at La Grande Chaumi re - precipitated an outburst of creative activity that resulted in the first works of his maturity, inspired by Cubist and "primitive" sources.

Wilson's detective work and psychological speculation bring rewards in her analysis of the metaphorically rich and influential sculpture of the 1930s, when Giacometti came closest to Freudian notions of free association and dream analysis. (His later autobiographical dream narrative, The Dream, the Sphinx, and the Death of T ., is included here.) Wilson convincingly demonstrates that Giacometti's experiments with a form of crystalline abstraction were bound up with his long-standing interest in alchemy.

Although she does not say this, abstract masterpieces, such as No More Play (1932) and Cube (1934) made an immediate impact on Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and the open-cage construction of The Palace at 4am (1933, Museum of Modern Art, New York) influenced sculptors as diverse as Eduardo Paolozzi and David Smith.

Giacometti's formal relationship with Surrealism from 1929 to 1935 was brief but intense, and the break was sudden and brutal. Wilson does not cover this in detail, but Andre Breton's biographer, Mark Polizzotti, relates how, one evening in December 1935, Breton and some of his intimates rounded on Giacometti for his most recent attempt at a bust and censured him for the "artistically frivolous and historically redundant" direction that he was taking. This marked the beginning of a ten-year period of artistic uncertainty, during which he repeatedly destroyed the fruits of his labour.

Giacometti's rebirth after the second world war, as the "quintessential existentialist sculptor" had much to do with his relationship with, and marriage to, Annette Arm, who was 22 years younger than him, and who seems - initially, at least - to have given him the love, support and self-esteem that he so badly needed. In 1947, he produced a number of works, including The Hand and The Nose , which took their inspiration from ancient Egyptian culture - as so often - and from the atmosphere of fear and violence engendered, in the aftermath of war, by revelations about the Holocaust and the threat of nuclear annihilation. He also embarked on the long series of portraits of tall, emaciated figures - standing women and walking men - that characterised his output for the remaining 20 years of his life.

This is a useful study of the artist that makes up in detailed interpretation of individual works for what it lacks in broader contextualisation, though there are times at which one might wish for a lighter interpretive hand and more intuitive understanding of the creative process. The book is amply illustrated in black and white and includes some evocative photographs by Marc Vaux of plasters that have subsequently been destroyed. Disappointingly, however, illustrations of a number of key works discussed in the text - including some from public collections - were omitted, because of "copyright restrictions" and, one suspects, costs.

Raymond Mason is a rather different kind of artist, whose early career in Paris overlapped with the second, "existentialist" period in Giacometti's.

Mason was one of the young British artists who went there immediately after the war to establish contact with the artistic centre of the world (epitomised by the Cafe de Flore), and decided to stay on, eventually stepping into the shoes (or rather, the apartment) of his friend Paolozzi, who returned to London in 1949 when his money ran out. He has now written the classic artist's autobiography (Jacob Epstein springs to mind), in which the progress from birth to benediction is interspersed with anecdote, studio talk and gossip, combined with entertaining vignettes of celebrated figures of the period, from Alexander Calder, Moore and Constantin Brancusi to Picasso, Marcel Duchamp and Jean Dubuffet, Mason's dealers, Claude Bernard and Pierre Matisse, and even (in an amusing interlude), "the Rothschilds".

For Mason and others of his generation, including Francis Bacon, Giacometti represented the model artist and the model of artistic integrity, which contrasted favourably with the worldliness of Moore, and "that side of (him) that was always holding forth like the art-school teacher that he was at that time". Giacometti, Mason says, was always accessible to young artists, and "the dialectical power of his conversation was no less appealing than his art" - a fact that appealed to Sartre and other intellectuals of the day. Yet the diffident Mason was made of very different stuff and came from a working-class provincial background, described (in the painting of a friend from his youth) as "the dirty, dipping streets of lower Birmingham", with their "gleaming damp bricks, in damp reds with dark skies and the black accents of doors and windows".

In Paris, he set out making painted abstract sculptures, but reverted to a figurative style and to socially engaged themes that had more in common, perhaps, with the interwar Allied Artists International than the postwar, post-Surrealist language of his contemporaries. Life was tough, but his large bronze, The Crowd (1969), with nigh on 100 figures, brought him acclaim, as did his polychrome sculptures in resin, The Departure of Fruits and Vegetables from the Heart of Paris, 28 February 1969 (an echo of Renato Guttuso's celebrated paintings of market scenes?) and A Tragedy in the North: Winter, Rain, Tears , inspired by a mining disaster at Lievin, which attracted the attention of Francois Mitterrand.

Mason has remained true to his vocation as a figurative sculptor and to his commitment to large-scale social or political statements. It is a sad commentary on the narrow consensus that prevailed for so long in this country that he remained virtually unknown here until his 1982 exhibition at the Serpentine Art Gallery, and that his only important public commission Forward (1991), in Birmingham, was destroyed by arsonists.

In contrast, Mason has represented France at the Venice Biennale, and The Crowd , which was purchased by the French state in Andre Malraux's time, was installed in the garden of the Tuileries in 1986, where it remains. His book, for all its quirkiness, is a readable and amusing account by an outsider on the inside circuit of postwar Paris.

Henry Meyric Hughes is international president, the International Association of Art Critics.

Alberto Giacometti: Myth, Magic, and the Man

Author - Laurie Wilson
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 372
Price - £.50
ISBN - 0 300 09037 4

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