David Sylvester's matter-of-fact sagacity in new biography "Looking at Giacometti"

To his credit, Sylvester avoids dwelling on the artist's private life and bears down on the art


David Sylvester first got to know Giacometti and to gain access to his studio in the late 1940s. Since the mid-fifties he has been writing texts on the artist’s work, often in connection with exhibitions he himself curated. The present book is a long-considered re-working and extension of those texts. Indeed it has the sense of having been realised through a process not dissimilar to that by which Giacometti created his paintings and sculptures—by continual revision, erasure and restatement. The resulting repetitions in the book, both of facts and ideas, thus have the effect of cumulative approfondissement rather than redundancy.

Although (or perhaps because) he is intimately familiar with details of Giacometti’s biography and of his artistic milieu, Sylvester has not felt compelled to dwell upon them. From the outset his focus is on the art itself. He seeks in particular to give careful account of the viewer’s experience in looking at the works, demonstrating that one of the major concerns in Giacometti’s most characteristic elongated figures and busts is indeed the making conscious of the process of perception. Sylvester points out how the distortions of the sculptures give them a kind of internal perspective similar to the accentuated perspectives at work in the paintings and drawings. He discusses how their heavy textures open up as the viewer approaches, making them elusive to the desire to touch. He pinpoints the way Giacometti seems to override the normal mind/eye mechanism which “corrects” the impression that distant figures are beings of miniscule proportions. The work’s underlying tension is shown to lie in the apprehension of this painful, inevitable apartness from the observer of what is observed—especially of another observed person, reciprocating the gaze.

David Sylvester’s prose is always pleasingly pithy and engagingly metaphoric. (Recently he characterised the difference between a de Kooning and a Pollock as the same as that between pizza and pasta). The book admirably avoids the rhetoric of mythologisation which Giacometti has often attracted. While there is no doubt of his stature in Sylvester’s eyes, this is conveyed simply through unpretentious and concrete observations, interpretations and contentions about the work. Numerous comments make one see works in new ways. For example Giacometti’s frontal rows of female figures are referred to as prostitutes awaiting custom at a brothel; and if they do not become exactly that for viewers in whose experience this is not a familiar image, nevertheless one does see afresh their identity-parade or Judgment of Paris overtones.

Sylvester is no less concerned with Giacometti’s earlier, more overtly symbolising Surrealist constructions of the early Thirties. In these mixed-materials assemblages, pseudo-mechanical, sometimes moving parts combine with doll-like figures, biomorphic forms, cages, and board-game or toy-like elements and structures. Their effect, Sylvester observes, is frequently to unnerve, to frustrate, to tease, to play with feelings of anxiety, threat, compulsion. In other words they engage issues which are present more implicitly in the later explorations of the thwarted desire to connect with and comprehend the subject.

Giacometti’s critics at this point can tend to indulge in speculation about his (very real) private neuroses surrounding sex, death, drama, dreams, childhood memories, parental relationships and so forth. Sylvester alludes to them only in so far as the work embodies them, and clearly he does not make the mistake of supposing it to be somehow “explicable” by a psychoanalysis of its creator.

After other, massively compendious recent publications on the artist, what is impressive about this book is that it is so honed down. Using as illustrations only austere black-and-white photographs by Patricia Matisse, Sylvester discusses just the key works. Most importantly he makes critical value judgments about which those works are. Some sculptures he feels do not work well when cast into bronze from their original, ephemerally white, plaster. One major work is not totally satisfactory because the artist combines figures whose emotional register is incompatible. More generally it is suggested that the work declines in the last ten years up to Giacometti’s death in 1966. Sylvester contends that in his increasing preoccupation with the simple capturing of appearances, he came to neglect the demands of formal coherence in his works (Earlier in the text Giacometti’s conviction that the best “likeness” will always in the end make for the best art work, and thus his sweeping aside of modernism’s abstracting, formalising tendencies, has been reported with some admiration; but this is an example of the way the book’s standpoint develops as one reads).

Only once does Sylvester significantly widen his terms of reference beyond those of visual art. He likens Giacometti to Wittgenstein in his ever renewed attention to very specific problems, his inability to conclude investigations, his reluctance to present his researches publicly, above all in the highly self-conscious, self-reflexive nature of his activities. The analogy rings true, but could be qualified. Sylvester emphasises Giacometti’s empathy with Cézanne’s endless struggles to locate the contours of observed objects, and he quotes Giacometti’s tacit acknowledgement that such a struggle involves an excess of humility which perhaps becomes pride. It entertains, that is, the possibility of a definitive depiction of reality, however difficult to achieve, and this is arguably closer to the absolutist ambitions of traditional philosophy than to the localised “language games” which Wittgenstein put in its stead. Giacometti’s search for the Absolute is contrasted by Sylvester with the apparently less self-doubting styles of other figurative contemporaries such as Balthus. And perhaps it is they, in their conscious readoption of traditional illusionistic conventions, who in Wittgenstinian spirit recognise the impossibility of doing anything more than that.

There is little doubt, though, that in some works—not necessarily the least profound—Giacometti’s nervous textures amount to a similar adoption of rhetoric, symbolising, rather than literally delivering, a hard-won perspicacity. (The artist is himself reported to not know, in the end, whether he is “a very scrupulous chap” or “an actor, a phoney”.) Here the important influence, balancing that of Cézanne, is the other great mentor of Giacometti (and Balthus), André Derain, who criticised Cézanne for the failure to recognise that art is “only a game. There is no possible initiation”. It was Derain whose neo-traditionalism implied a post-modern philosophy which “leaves everything as it is”, the same but different.

Giacometti certainly emerges, from what is probably the best book on him, as deeply preoccupied with artistic forebears both near and distant, and as preoccupied with conventions of representation often as much as with the elusive appearances of the world.

David Sylvester Looking at Giacometti (Chatto & Windus, London, 1994), 256pp. 64 b/w ills. £25, $25

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A hard won perspicacity'