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Michael Peppiatt: Giacometti in Paris review - approaching the impossible | reviews, news & interviews

Michael Peppiatt: Giacometti in Paris review - approaching the impossible

Michael Peppiatt: Giacometti in Paris review - approaching the impossible

The artist’s life winds along the streets of Paris in a sprawling study of influence and resistance

Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

We begin with a dead-end. In 1966, Michael Peppiatt – at the time “an obscure young man” – travelled to Paris to meet the crumbling but venerable form of Alberto Giacometti, a letter of introduction written by Francis Bacon tucked into his pocket.

He arrived at the unassuming studio: a hermit’s-squat-cum-Aladdin’s-cave of near-equal fame to the artist, housing within crowds of definitively unfinished sculptures, scrawled-upon walls, skeletal armatures, abandoned sketches, an air choked with plaster, and, most oddly, a thin-limbed tree piercing its way up through a floor composed of compacted earth. The young art-critic hovered at the door... and bottled it. Overcome by Giacometti’s glitteringly dark renown, he retreated, only finding out later that, even if he’d summoned the requisite courage, the door would never have been answered – the artist had died several days before.

Failure is a good start for getting to know Giacometti. Negation was his forte, self-denial his mode of making, and Peppiatt’s own letdown is a narrative felicity too good to miss. So the art-critic turns the locked door into a key, the undelivered letter into an introduction, and the marked absence into the first lines of a portrait of the artist who – in his persisting public image, at least – made a career of frustrated ambitions. Giacometti in Paris is an attempted redemption of this near-miss. It is a project that may well have always been doomed to failure, but, as we learn from Pepiatt, it is the attempt that matters most.

Giacometti in ParisBy now Giacometti’s work is quickly recognisable: his implacably brittle sculptures – often tall and infinitely thin, walking on and on to nowhere, or else standing braced for the onslaught of an unknown force – are part of our collective visual consciousness. He is known too for his unholy persistence in the task at hand, for reducing his material and subject to implausible dimensions – for, as Sartre put it, “cutting the fat off space” – and for starting again, repeatedly. Now, with Peppiatt’s help, he might also be known as a fiercely loyal friend, an inveterate self-destroyer, and a lover of Hegel. It is perhaps the philosopher who – albeit inadvertently – describes Alberto best: “the life of the Spirit is not that which is frightened of death, and spares itself destruction, but that life which assumes death and lives with it.”

How, then, to live with Giacometti? This is Peppiatt’s problem: how to get close to an artist who routinely evaded too much public attention, who made a game of holding contrary opinions, whose non-affiliative streak makes him hard to pin down, and about whom a great many books have already been published. On this last point Peppiatt has good credentials, having previously penned the highly successful biography of Francis Bacon, Anatomy of an Enigma. However, our author readily admits that the comprehensive biography of Giacometti has already been written by someone else. He therefore needs a USP: Paris. That is, Peppiatt’s offering confines itself – ostensibly – to the artist’s time in La Ville-Lumière, though we might note a touch of contextual sleight-of-hand given the twin facts that Giacometti spent almost all of his life in Paris (and didn’t love to leave), and that the biography will allude with great depth, where necessary, to goings-on beyond the bounds of the city’s spiralling arrondissements.

This is not to say that the study isn’t informative, affective, and vibrant (or as vibrant as the greyscale Giacometti permits). It tells of Giacometti’s family relationships with a thorough sensitivity: with his father, who was an artist and died relatively young; his mother, a lodestar that inevitably influenced Giacometti’s idiosyncratic attitudes towards women; his brother Diego, who lived with and supported his brother with taciturn fraternal commitment; and Annette, Giacometti’s wife who sat for countless portraits and kept her husband (just about) alive.  Elsewhere, there are arresting scenes from pre-, inter-, and post-war Paris: tableaux vivant featuring a dizzying milieu of names from art- and literary history, including Kiki de Montparnasse, Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, Man Ray, Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, etc. etc. – all steeped in the blushed smoke of Lucky Strikes and fuelled by the gallons of grappa downed in shade-strewn brothels.

Like his artworks, Giacometti was decidedly indeterminate, and otherwise resistant to categorisation. It is therefore fascinating to read how he responded to and resisted the various -isms (and attendant manifestoes) that sprung up around him over the course of two world wars. He split, for instance, from Surrealism’s dogmatic quests in dreaming after Breton held an ad hoc kangaroo court in which he bullied his disciples into expelling Giacometti. Not that this was particularly unwelcome: Giacometti courted the movement just long enough to learn how to escape it, and his masterwork from this period, The Palace at 4 a.m., gives us an ultra-thinned arachnid caginess, as much a monument to a sense of clinging control as the unfettered illogic that Breton’s Surrealism purported to encourage. Its surreal qualities are very much Giacometti’s, and the whole thing resists the capital S with elegant defiance. Indeed, he shied away from manifestos because he was not interested in manifesting an ideology, but in revealing what he believed was already there.

Peppiatt approaches the resultant artworks with the right amount of tentative authority: he is intimate with the distances they insist upon, light-handed towards their frailties, and eloquent about their reticence. And, beyond this, he excels in his descriptions of Giacometti’s brutal working routine. “Alberto worked in an unending flux”, he writes, “making and unmaking at lightning speed, so that he might make dozens of major variations within a single day.” These single days would often become years, with Giacometti working exhaustively towards a goal that seemed obscure even to him, removing and reducing his sculptures with such insistence that there was a whole period in which his figures routinely turned to dust in his hands.  But, as Peppiatt makes clear, the art lies in the process itself: all of Giacometti’s finished works are, in some sense, offcuts, negations made to stand and walk about. He always treated the shade as the most solid thing in the world.

Then there are those poor souls who sat for these portraits, the “fraught séances” that lasted forever and very often came to nothing. (Giacometti estimated Diego sat for more than 10,000 of these gruelling portraits.) The commitment from brother and wife is nothing short of miraculous. Indeed, regardless of spousal relations and a generally high level of discomfit, Annette would sit for hours on end almost every day, bearing with unusual fortitude her husband’s Medusa-stare, dark mutterings, and rages at his own perceived ineptitude.  Noting the sheer exactingness of Giacometti’s craft is not in itself groundbreaking – indeed the re-descriptions can feel a little aimless – but in the figures of Diego, Annette and Annetta (the artist’s mother) Pepiatt – and we – find the true heart of the book.

Giacometti’s body of work is the weird consequence of an impossible vision, as was his ultimate bodily deterioration: “Looking at himself in the mirror, Alberto saw one of his busts staring back at him. Its head was as lifeless as the clay he kneaded, its eyes bruised with the strain of trying to understand what they saw.” Giacometti in Paris is, then, a book as much about the triumphs and the dangers of obsession as anything else, a Pygmalion narrative relit by the violent flashes of war and a man’s disturbed recalcitrance. But in the midst of this is an important counter-spirit to Giacometti’s Hegelian life: the family and friends that surrounded him, even on his deathbed – a crowd of figures so unlike those he felt he could never succeed in making real.

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