Alberto Giacometti was almost a living caricature of The Modern Artist. Such a judgment would strike his biographer as unfair, but it cannot be helped. The popular mind has formed some definite ideas about how an artist behaves: he is above all shabby—wearing clothes he might have slept in, spattered with paint (or caked with dust), badly in need of a haircut and a good night’s sleep; he drinks and smokes too much, and whores with reckless abandon; he lives in rat- or roach-infested quarters that should have been razed years ago; he is as lazy as he is untalented. Giacometti not only looked the part of the 20th-century artist, his spindly sculptures would strike most casual observers as something a talented kindergartener would make out of Play Dob.
I do not know whether we can dismiss this popular conception on the grounds that the hoi polloi do not understand great art; sometimes they understand it much better than art critics would like to admit. At the same time it would be a mistake to simply dismiss Giacometti as another example of modern art’s apotheosis of the worthless. For one thing, he was a man of considerable integrity. He broke away from the Surrealist movement at a time when he might have become one of its presiding figures, because he did not believe Surrealism served his vision of art any longer. It hardly mattered to him that he ran the risk of being excommunicated from the Parisian art community; he insisted upon pursuing his new purpose, to paint truthfully from nature (a goal abhorrent to the Surrealists).
This same unwillingness to compromise led him to end his agreement with the art dealers Aime’ and Guiguite Maeght at the height of their successful association, after they had humiliated Louis Clayeux, Giacometti’s friend and the prime mover of their operation. And though his adherence to a code of shabbiness often provokes laughter, his stance is preferable to the humbuggery of some of the other giants of 20th-century art and literature who cashed in on their fame while pretending to disdain bourgeois morality (one thinks of Picasso and Sartre). Giacometti lived in the same ill-heated and poorly plumbed studio at Montparnasse for 35 years, until his death in 1965.
Then there is his art. Despite his current high reputation, it will be the task of future generations to decide the value of his work. Whatever that decision may be, Giacometti pointed the way for other artists to concentrate their attention on the human figure. He was no preacher and never would have dreamed of founding a new school; but his example is there for those who will take it. All in all this was a healthy development.
For all that, one cannot shake the nagging sense that there is something wrong with Giacometti, something defective in his deepest motives. Lord makes the point over and over again that Giacometti’s post-Surrealist goal was “to look at nature as if art had not existed, to see reality with an eye innocent of preconception,” as it were, with the eyes of Adam. Lord admits that this is impossible and that Giacometti knew it, but he never appears to have the slightest notion that such an endeavor might be perverse. No man can see as Adam saw because no man, except Adam, can be first; each succeeding man sees, strictly speaking, not what Adam saw but through what Adam saw, through a lens of language, tradition, and human association. To want more is to aspire to be other than man. Existential, phenomenological—call it what you will—it means the loss of the human and the normal. There lies the heresy and perhaps the key to Giacometti’s peculiar integrity as well. In a sense, normality was alien to him.
James Lord has written an intriguing and highly sympathetic biography of an elusive man whose elusiveness is perhaps best seen in his art. But Lord does not seem to realize that art cannot survive on the terms Giacometti formulated and served so doggedly. The exigencies of art call for a different aesthetic and a different kind of artist, a man somehow content with what he fundamentally is, who retains, instead of discarding, his human traditions, and tries to give his vision form through them. One wonders what Giacometti’s sculptures and paintings would have looked like if he had tried to see with such vision. All we know is that he did not.
[Giacometti: A Biography, by James Lord (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) $30.00]