UNDERSTANDING GIACOMETTI: C. Giménez
Carmen Giménez Martín (Casablanca, 1943) is a 20th-century art conservator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and one of the world's foremost authorities on the figure and work of Picasso. An honorary Academic of the Royal San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts, she is considered one of the most important experts in modernist sculpture. She is part of the Board of the National Prado Museum and the Pilar and Joan Miró Foundation.
She has curated this exhibition and understands the exhibition as a posthumous visitation, where the sculptures of the artist pass through the galleries of a museum that, paradoxically, was never to be visited by the Swiss artist.
I feel strong emotions facing Giacometti's work, something deep that you only feel in the face the true art, that thing capable of resisting immutable the passage of time.
Within the framework of the Museo del Prado’s bicentennial celebrations, in collaboration with the Community of Madrid and the Fondation Beyeler and with the support of the Embassy of Switzerland and the Mirabaud Group, the gallery has recently closed the Giacometti exhibition, a careful selection of twenty works of one of the 20th century’s most disturbing, enigmatic and influential artists, who conceived art as a meeting point for the past and the present, and understood the timeless representation of the human figure, its loneliness and isolation.
BRIEF OVERVIEW OF GIACOMETTI
The son of a Swiss post-impressionist, Alberto Giacometti (Borgonovo, 1901 - Chur, 1966) showed an interest in drawing from a very young age, and was a vocation that accompanied him throughout his life. After passing through the School of Arts and Crafts in Geneva, at the age of 18 he moved to Paris, where he resided practically until his death. There the artist began to work on two of his greatest concerns: symbolism, and simplification in representing the human figure until it almost disappeared. It is then, in the mid-1940s, when the Swissman outlined his iconic style and started a characteristic figurative period, with extremely stylised small human figures - rugged to touch and languid in aspect - influenced by the experiences of the Second World War. And it was precisely when the conflict ended in 1945 until his death, that his entire production was obsessively centered around his unique perception of the figure and the human face, of his presence and his essence. ‘The perfect existentialist artist, (...) halfway between being and nothing’, as defined by Jean Paul Sartre. And for the artist it is that, it is the same material that shapes the sculpture that is responsible for its fragility and misfortune. The everlasting grey, a metaphor of life itself, according to his own words, could have accompanied his vision on so many walks through an evening Paris, dotted with figures that were more mental than physical.
An intriguing and different artist, the ‘perfect existentialist’ in Sartre's eyes. Contemplating his work, one can not help but imagine a restless, even tormented man...
The dedication to art, and I mean the true dedication to art, the one where ‘the painter brings his body’, as Valéry would define the role of the artist in relation to his work, is undoubtedly one of the most complex devotions possible, and it demands a high degree of resistance in the face of adversity. Giacometti is an extraordinary example of an artist who gives his body to art and so much so that it is often impossible to separate his body, his presence and ultimately his being, from his work. Surely, the case of Giacometti is one of the most extraordinary examples in the history of art of this symbiosis between artist and work. He was an extremely austere being, attached to his work and his daily habits. Let's not forget that he lives, for a good part of his life, in his own studio on rue Hippolite-Maindron in Paris, twenty-three square metres, where he also does a good part of his work. That is why, returning to your question that surely he was an ‘ill-at-ease’ being —undoubtedly. Tormented? That too, but could you not be when your dedication to art is unconditional?
Giacometti imposed the titanic challenge of representing ‘as we see’ or, rather, of giving an account of his particular look at reality. He had a way of working in which every day he restarted the work done the previous day. He tried to capture the essence of the other through his appearance. In 1957 Giacometti writes: 'Je ne sais pas si je travaille pour faire quelque chose ou pour savoir pourquoi je ne peux pas faire ce que je voudrais'1. That is to say, he can not do what he wants because he can't manage to depict what he sees. He wants to depict what he sees in order to see the real. According to the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, Giacometti's sculpture was ‘always halfway between nothingness and being’. They were great friends, although their relationship was not always easy. In his book Les Mots, Sartre personally reconstructed the car accident that Giacometti had in 1938. Giacometti was angry with Sartre for having described him in the Place de l'Italie and not in the Place des Pyramides, which is where it really happened, in addition to other inaccuracies. Something apparently insignificant, but the importance thereof for Giacometti was paramount.
His relationship with existentialism does not seem so obvious to me, despite his well-known failed friendship with Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. It is true that he can easily be qualified as an existentialist sculptor, since there are many elements that point in this direction. I think that his work, in some way, transcends this temporal and determined philosophical ascription as existentialism, and that is why his work resists the passage of time unaffected. I sincerely believe that the exhibition that we’re present at the Prado is another example of the transcendence of a work that can withstand the evolution of time, as well as potential temporary philosophical ascriptions.
One of the things that most impressed me when we were putting the exhibition together was undoubtedly the feeling that the mineral and elongated, almost archaeological, presence of Giacometti's works gave the impression that they had always been there wherever we placed them in the different rooms of the Prado. Faced with works of ‘classical’ painters such as Velázquez, El Greco, Tintoretto or Zurbarán, Giacometti's works resist confrontation with the past, and that’s why they transcend any concrete philosophical qualification and offer us a constantly timeless rereading.
Giacometti represents the image of the artist eternally dissatisfied to a great extent. Do you think that he ever came to feel pleased or appeased at some point in his life?
No, and I think that dissatisfaction was in some way the engine for his work.
A body of work that will soon be 80 years old, but of an overwhelming relevance today... was Giacometti a visionary?
The timelessness that I mentioned in Giacometti's work is a quality of art that stands the test of time despite the distance there might be between the artist and us. There is something ‘immutable’, as Baudelaire would say, in Giacometti's work which stands the test of time. In 1935, Giacometti broke with the Surrealists (the movement he had joined in 1931) due to the need to use a model, to return to the figure, to the human head. This effort to reflect the real that I mentioned earlier isolated him in a certain way from the art world of his time, a time when abstract expressionism was in full swing, and it inextricably linked him to the art of the past and, in a way, to the art yet to come. He was able to anticipate some of the trends that later focused on the human figure as their primary reference. Seen from a contemporary perspective, the Giacometti's art is undoubtedly current because of that ability to treat the subject in his work beyond the guidelines of his time.
They say he was a very intense and introspective man, an artist. What was his greatest obsession? Where do you think he longed to get to?
I do not know exactly if it was ‘intense’, I didn't have the pleasure of knowing him personally, surely it was. Introspective maybe. Every artist is to some extent, aren't they...? It should be remembered that he dedicated himself to portraiture during different stages throughout his life, and this dedication implies establishing a constant relationship with the outside world, with his models which —as we know— were often his own friends and family, but also dealers, critics or writers. It is also known that Giacometti sought constant contact with people inside and outside the space of his study. He was a regular at cafés, as well as well-known brothels such as Sphenix, where he found Caroline, one of his most beloved models.
I would have loved to ask him about his greatest obsession, however, if we let ourselves be guided by his writings and, to a certain extent, his work, we might think about his search to represent reality (a fruitless task given reality itself), questioning the classical Western cannon, opening himself up to sources such as Cycladic, Egyptian, African or Byzantine art. He worked uninterruptedly in the search for an ideal. His way of working, his perseverance, his effort, was a project destined to failure.
Does Giacometti represent a turning point in the art history? How would you sum up his great contribution, his legacy?
Frankly, I would not say that Giacometti or his work is ‘a turning point’, on the contrary, I see it more as an axis of continuity. Giacometti's is a form of connection or bridge between different eras of art (and therefore its magnificent framing at the Prado has been made possible). Never an inflection or a break. I understand that his legacy could be precisely this: the realisation that art does not advance or recede, has the same problems as three centuries ago, which are not so different from those of today.
It's the first time that the Prado has exhibited Giacometti's work and the exhibition includes pieces from the last twenty years. Does it represent a particular extract of his work, his particular vision, or is any particular piece missing?
I thought of this as Giacometti’s posthumous walk through the Prado. His figures walk and stop, move between animation and stillness through the halls of the Museum. The walk begins in the emblematic XII room, popularly known as the Hall of Las Meninas, sancta sanctorum of the Prado, as my great friend Francisco Calvo Serraller liked to call it. Just outside room XII, entering the Prado's great gallery, we find the famous Chariot by Giacometti, sharing space with Titian’s Carlos V at the Battle of Muhlberg. On both sides, the busts of Lothar, which in addition to crossing this space, contrast with the Roman busts and also create encounters with El Greco, Tintoretto, Zurbarán, etc.
In an exhibition as special as this, always there are always works missing, but this is part of the process of any project, and especially one with the scale involved in relating a modern artist whose painting we might say is 'classic' to such an imposing setting as the Prado and its very special ambience, which houses the best collection of paintings in the world.
The artist confessed that his endless search was none other than the feeling he experienced during work, and that this was the reason why he always came out winning. What do you feel when you contemplate his work?
I think it's quite the opposite. Giacometti always expressed his resounding failure and especially so in the face of achieving his goals. His work process reminds us in some way to the myth of Sisyphus in his constant search for a goal ever unattainable. There is a phrase of someone who was his friend, the Irish writer Samuel Beckett - who I think perfectly defines Giacometti's work process, and says thus: 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'