In honour of the Royal Academy hosting the Giacometti retrospective, Giorgio Soavi remembers his close friendship with the sculptor

A profile of a figure at once diffident, self-critical and restless, beholden to few vanities


I have been fortunate to know some extraordinary people. The most recent, chronologically [1962], is Alberto Giacometti. The disproportion between his life and other peoples’ lives causes me no fear. I have learned recently to distinguish between men of quality, talented men, and people who are engrossed in what they are doing or are simply very busy. The difference lies in the way they interpret their gifts.

He is fragile in various ways. When he is asked whether he is ready to do something or go somewhere he is seized at once by anxiety. The anxiety, although a minor matter, is by no means short-lived. When the time comes to reply he will explain that he is hesitating. The verb “to hesitate” suits him and he uses it often. He would and would not like to. He’ll go but he would also like to stay. And getting up? Yes, of course, but... This matter of not getting up, or getting up later, may also cause unexpected delays, in town sometimes, or with people. He is not lazy. He can be decisive, but when he is absorbed in his work the hesitation returns and overwhelms him, like a bank of cloud or an encircling stockade.

“So, it’s no good, eh?”. These words are important features of his discourse: they have a musical ring, they question, they converse, they demand a reaction. His style of hesitation is contagious.

“I think you should pose for me, if you don’t mind”. This gave me the opportunity to be near him and I came to understand him better. It gave me tremendous pleasure to stand quite still in front of him. I could watch him as he watched me. There he was, in his father’s [the painter Giovanni Giacometti, 1868-1933] studio with oil stoves and electric stoves and odd little draughts coming through the cracks in the old walls. He continued to paint and kept on repeating the same few words: “Wait a minute, it’s not good, it’s no good, it’s horrible. It’s really no good at all, eh? Just wait a minute”.

I stood still, wondering what was happening on the canvas. When he stopped, I moved over for a moment and saw a huge number of grey commas, a kind of network around the eyes; as I looked longer I saw the structure of my being—bones, but very small bones like twigs or sticks, and I was tongue tied.

I took a couple of photographs of the portrait, then we went on. He mixed a little pink in with the white, and I thought, “There we go. I shall not be totally grey”. These three colours, the dirty pink, the grey and the white, were worked over for what seemed like an age. I was immobile. Alberto was playing out the last bouts of the match between me, himself and the canvas, tirelessly and very fast.

After about an hour: “It’s horrible. This picture is so bright. Let’s do another one. You must pose for another one.”

While he was choosing a small white canvas I managed to go over and take the first portrait and hang it on the wall. Then I went back to may place. Alberto started with the greys again. His grey. I looked past him at the painting on the wall which was of someone with a head like mine, tired-looking, with rather awkward shoulder, a Giacometti that gave me pleasure to examine and whose history I knew. Alberto, meanwhile, impassively painting away at the second portrait, convinced that things were going badly, convinced he would have to jettison it again, yet continuing to add to it because it wasn’t quite right.

When he plunges his hand into his pocket and a cigarette emerges, the action immediately suggests that it must be his last. What has he got in his pockets? Apart from the cigarette, a pencil and a ballpoint pen, a notebook, spectacles. A police search would not reveal much more than I have listed. His lair reveals little luxury, not even the consumer goods that are within everybody’s reach today, like a radio. But I have never seen so many different colours, canvasses, nor so many white sheets of paper. I have never seen so much of nothing. Things are certainly there. But (leaving aside the sculpture) the bundles of newspapers are what first strike one.

There is a big difference between the studio in Paris and the studio in Stampa [Giacometti’s childhood village in northern Italy]. The Paris studio, like all real lairs, is a dump. Tools, dust, chalk, newspapers, drawings, sculpture, paintings, plus drawings and scribbles on the walls. In one corner, next to four tiny figurines of women, there was even a houseplant. There is much less at Stampa and I had had a proper look at it, I could almost claim to have lived there...

The studio in Stampa for a few hours... Three small sculptures, portrait heads, whose flesh was being picked off. Annette. The girl in the bar. Two still-lifes barely sketched in on a white background. On a table there were at least ten heads of Alberto made by a sculptor friend and all identical, like so many little models of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. There were drawings, but not very many. And the bundle of newspapers. It was clear that Stampa was a temporary lair because there were so few newspapers.

When I think of Giacometti, I think of him sitting on a stool somewhere with his legs crossed, his glasses on his nose, absorbed in the daily papers. Reading the newspaper concentrates his mind and gives him the opportunity to finish what he has started. Reading a book does not do that. We talked to each other about our reading. Like me he has not finished or has not read some important books. The parts he likes he has read over and over again: these are the parts that make him love and appreciate an artist. He fumbles mechanically in his pocket. He lights a cigarette.

I once said to him, ”I do not like your sculpture very much. I prefer your paintings and drawings”. He replied: “I don’t like it much either. I don’t know if my sculpture works”.

In his note book he wrote: “The more I looked at the model the more the veil between myself and reality thickened. You start by seeing the person posing, but little by little all the other possible sculptures intervene between you and the other person. The more the vision of reality disappeared, the more unfamiliar the head became.You cannot be sure of its true appearance any more, nor of its dimensions. You cannot be sure of anything! The heads became smaller and smaller and threatened to disappear altogether. All I could make out were the innumerable surface details. In order to see the whole thing I had to place the model as far away as possible. As it went farther away the head became small and this terrified me. The fear of things disappearing.”

He described to me the kind of woman he admired. Which women? The unique ones, the ones who are independent. With one foot on this side and one on that. What does that mean? That anything may happen from one moment to another. Go to bed with a man, go to the cinema, weep in private, pose for thirty consecutive nights, take a car and go sightseeing in an unknown city. Rootless: freedom to love, to stop loving, to keep silent, to turf a man out, to go out with strangers, to end up behind bars because of being out and about, because of being there, of being observant and intelligent. This ideal woman would love and would react to punches and blows, tenderly but firmly.

“Yes, it’s quite true to say that I have done my best to be as bad as possible. At the moment I have got terrible bronchitis, but I’m not giving in, and you know, I have to smoke. I have to. There’s no point in discussing it. For many years I have lived in the worst possible manner. I never wanted to go to bed. I’d only go if someone summoned me. Otherwise it was late nights, staying awake, drinking, talking, smoking, hearing from men or women friends how things were, what they had been up to, what the news was. Oh là là! Women! Respectable women don’t interest me. Sometimes I feel like touching them up a bit, but they may take offence—touch them properly, feel them, with my hands”.

“I have so often walked ceaselessly until morning, smoking dozens of cigarettes, on and on, looking endlessly for a woman in the street. I’d realise that I’d made a mistake and that the first, or perhaps the second, was the best I’d seen that evening. But it was already very late. The women had gone, at any rate the woman I wanted after so many second thoughts. I’d find one just to keep me company over coffee and a hard-boiled egg at the Coupole. Then I’d go back to the studio and start work. It happened so often. I’ve nearly always had my own sexual satisfaction with a woman. It’s strange, but until I was about thirty or thirty-five it never occurred to me to worry about the woman’s pleasure. Even when, occasionally, it did dawn on me that it might happen, I felt almost revolted by the thought. Stable relationships don’t suit me. The idea that a woman, the usual woman, might be waiting for me makes me nervous. We could be good friends. I could help her. I always have done. The idea of spending a whole night with a woman depresses me. So does finding her there the next morning. All that’s very tiring.

When he is working he keeps his knees together. He had a good jacket and it bothered him to paint with it on. “The first thing I do in the morning is to put on my shirt and tie. Ugly, worn-out, dirty. It doesn’t matter. I always put a tie on. More important than washing. I can’t work without a tie. You wash every day, I bet you do!” He uses his fingernails like a pen-knife to model the plasticine...The nose is still big, but the ears, eyes, cheeks, forehead change continually, to the accompaniment of his agonised grumbling. I’m finished. It’s no good. No good. He repeats this constantly while he is working. Someone stopped him in time, otherwise he would have destroyed nearly everything. He chain smokes. He coughs in long bouts, it’s a kind of signal. I telephone him from Milan. He starts coughing as soon as he has picked up the receiver. The operator asks me if I want the call prolonged and I assent without thinking about it. But I can’t hear a thing. Now that I know him better I know what he is doing. He is bent double, covering his mouth with the back of his hand. He remains bent until the coughing fit stops; it sounds as if someone is murdering him. I wait for so long that I get distracted. The first time it happened I was worried. Later I grew accustomed to it and continued with what I was doing—taking notes, nibbling a bit of bread, flipping through the newspaper.

This is how he has always spent his life. Occasional short visits to Stampa. His day never varies. He goes into the studio and goes straight to his work table. Sculpture in the afternoon, painting in the evening. Sculpture tires him more than anything. He grumbles so much that when he is silent it is very noticeable. He is like someone in a submarine in an emergency. At last he starts saying “It’s no good” again. When he has no model he works from memory. Cigarettes, coughing, a few words of discouragement. As few as possible. I have never seen nor heard a man give himself so many orders, always the same ones, nor apply himself so intensively until he is exhausted. Anyone coming to spend a few hours with him experiences the same kind of paralysis. There’s nothing to distract you. This guy does not sing or whistle or play records or the radio; he does not take drugs, or drink, or get excited; he does not wriggle on his chair and he doesn’t ever fling himself in a rage at his work to destroy it. He re-works. He carries on. He proceeds. Like a marathon runner with cramp who does not give in. He proceeds under his own steam. His only material aides are the model, the canvas, the colours, or the pencil.

One day Jean Genet was sitting quite still in front of him, posing. With an enraptured look, Giacometti exclaimed, “You’re so handsome”. He worked away at the portrait, then murmured, “You’re so handsome”.

Finally, a few moments later, sighing in an even more intense state of rapture, he murmured, “You’re just like all the others. No better, no worse”.

Jean Leymarie tells the story of how Cartier Bresson said to him: “I’m pleased because Giacometti and I agree on the three most important painters”.

“Which ones?”

“Paolo Uccello, Van Eyck, Cézanne”.

When related to Giacometti, he countered, “Crazy. I never said such a thing. And anyway, why Cézanne? Lautrec’s a thousand times better, if I had to choose. It’s crazy to say I said any such thing.”

“I’ve had the drawing of the man looking at the tree framed, do you remember it? It’s come out really well. Do you want to see it?”

“What?“ he answered as if through a mouthful of sand. “Of course I remember it perfectly. I have my little vanities too. I’ll do you a new tree. Coloured, like that one, but more beautiful. How strange that we two should be together. When I was thinking of doing drawings in colour, I wanted to find colours that were ‘soavi’, gentle, like your name. I said it so often. That’s exactly the kind of colour I was aiming at.”

There was the Chagall opening on 11 June 1964. “Right then”, said Alberto, going up the stairs before taking his leave of me, “if you see me staying too long with anyone give me a nod. I want to be as quick as possible, we must get back to the studio to work.’

He walked into the seething room and looked round at everyone. There was a lull for a second. I understand why. The shabbiest person anyone had ever seen had just come in; but, having spent the whole afternoon with him, I can assure you that Giacometti had combed his hair, straightened his collar and tie, tightened his belt and, finally, when the taxi was already at the door, had fumbled under a small chest of drawers for the shoe polish and a brush. He still was not quite ready because then he took a large bit of rag, wetted it and wrapped it round the sculpture, adding a little more water for good measure. Like someone very tenderly putting a soaking sheet over a friend’s shoulders.

Now there are four or five young people standing by him, asking for his autograph. “Whatever for?” he asks, blushing.

“To please us”, they reply. The young people are puzzled.

“It’s not that straightforward, and it’s not right to ask for my autograph.”

They look thoughtful. None of them moves.

He goes on: “It’s no good. I don’t think it’s appropriate. And anyway, what does a signature mean? I sign when I have to sign. But there’s no point this time, is there? That’s right. A signature means nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

He suddenly makes his decision and gives the pen and paper back to the young people. Then he stands with his arms folded, looking at them attentively, smiling.

“There’s no point and I’m not signing”, he says in conclusion.

With some embarrassment they begin to circulate around the room again, each trying to escape, each walking towards a wall that none of the others is aiming at.

He was impressed by the photographs I had taken of his sculpture because he saw a lot of pieces that were missing. At least thirty or forty. If he lived alone on an island he would only have one painting and one piece of sculpture. A painted head and a carved head. The rest he would have scrubbed out and re-done, using the same two models. If his sculpture was not taken away and cast (by his brother Diego) he would start again from scratch, without even checking whether the work done the night before was any good.

“The only contemporary sculpture that has any life is the sculpture made for advertising. I’ve said it so often before—the horse for the White Horse whisky. And that sort of sentinel for the Beefeater Gin is a masterpiece. The gin man, the statuette at Zermatt station bar. There was this kind of chamberlain on the bar dressed in red with yellow and black accessories; black hat with a great band of yellow red and blue flowers, grey beard, bunch of silver keys and buckskin gloves. A good looking man with the figure of a Beefeater, guardian of the Tower of London, which is what he is. The crown of England and a big flower embroidered on his tunic. Big belt and clasp. The same crown and flower on his back. And the monogram E.R. Shakespearian ruff. As I was paying the bill at Zermatt station I asked the patronne to give it to me and she did. I left the bar with the chamberlain under my arm. I’m glad you like it. “It’s really an excellent piece of sculpture. And it’s alive”.

At a given moment he seemed to have departed, mentally. Physically he was with me, talking, reading, eating and drinking quite normally. But he seemed shut up in a small boat with a single object: a ball of string or wool. He was alone, far from cold or heat, contemplating this ball. When we began chatting again I had the impression of a long time having passed but nothing having been settled. I remembered the emperor’s new clothes. Everything was present, his work, my story about him: it was all true. Yes, everything was there. Including him. Then I remembered that he had said: “Excuse me. In your opinion, do I have any little vanities? You said that everyone has them except for me? Why?” It seemed perfectly natural to me. We started again, I a little, he a little, destroying, clearing away, re-making. Then things got back to the way they were, free and easy, unconstrained, as if, as if this was the way things should be done.

The exhibition “Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966” is at the Royal Academy in London until 1 January 1997. It was first seen at the Kunsthalle, Vienna, in February 1996, then at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, in the summer.

“If the truth were known, I’m a failure as a sculptor”

A Swiss television reporter telephoned Giacometti in Stampa, where he would sometimes retreat under the illusion that he would be able to work peacefully in the family house. The reporter arrived with a cameraman while Giacometti was working on a head. It was the afternoon. He always worked at his sculpture in the afternoon; in the evening, after seven and until about two in the morning, he painted. When I first heard this very straightforward conversation I found it almost banal. They asked the usual questions and Giacometti did what he often did, deprecating himself and his work. it is a perfect portrait of him.

Tell me, Giacometti, what are you making?

A head. In fact, the only thing I want to make is a head.

That’s it. That’s it, it’s difficult and I am not succeeding. So...

What do you mean, not succeeding?

I’m not succeeding. At all. I’m not succeeding.

A particular head? Or any head?

Any head. I can’t do it.

And these very elongated bodies. Were they inspired by your own body?

No, no. It’s unintentional, I don’t wish to make them elongated. They get elongated in spite of me; but they used not to be elongated. I’d like to make them, you know,less long, but I can’t do it. So far, from 1935 to this day, I have never once managed, for a single day, to make anything the way I wanted it. Everything always comes out different from the way I want it. Always. I want to make normal heads and normal bodies. But I can’t.

What is your general opinion of your work?

Bad. All very poor.

Surely that’s the strength of the artist? To be always experimenting.

No, no. I haven’t succeeded. My experiments fail. I just do

failed experiments, that’s it.

And yet...


Yet you seem to believe in the principle, you continue to make experiments in a consistent direction.

No, no. Because I’ve always failed it’s important to go on trying, to strive, isn’t it? One day I’d like to make a head the way it really looks. Because I’ve never yet succeeded I carry on. Of course it takes a massive dose of craziness to carry on. Really, considering that I can’t do anything, I ought to stop. If I were a bit more intelligent I would, but as I prefer this work to any other, well then...

Aren’t you sometimes tempted to... how shall I put it...return to your earlier style?

No, no, no, not at all. No, I’m not interested in abstract sculpture. I’ve understood now what it’s about and I’m no longer interested. I would only be able to make copies of what I had made before; there’s nothing in it, no excitement. If I think about it an object is a thing I used to know; I used to know what I wanted to do before I started and I could see it clearly in my mind’s eye, finished, in the material I’d chosen. If I were just simply to make copies it would be just an execution, wouldn’t it? Same problem; it’s something that I imagine, and I don’t copy what I imagine, therefore I have to remake it. For example, if I wanted to do your head, I’d only see it while I was trying to make it; the more I see it the more difficult it becomes to produce it, and then, since I have never yet succeeded to this day, I’d be very interested to see what turned out if I made this head rather than all the other possible pieces of sculpture. Even the “man walking “ has ceased to interest me because it’s really to do with proportion and motion, isn’t it? These things are relatively simple.”

You have ceased to be interested because you thought you had been successful that time.

Successful? Yes, but it does not interest me much because it is not really sculpture. The thing I would really like to be able to do is the head, a figure, a straightforward figure, so...

But, in your own words, your work reflects what your imagination, or your artist’s eye, sees.

Not so far, no. I don’t see things like that, I absolutely don’t see things like that. I try and make it broader, I want to make a normal head, but as I try and make it how I want it to be it turns into that; I’m always trying to add volume and I simply cannot. If the truth were known, I’m a failure as a sculptor.

Alberto Giacometti says of himself that he is a failure as a sculptor?

Yes, certainly.

And what do you think of the critics?

The critics? What? In what sense?

“You have had the most flattering reviews an artist could wish for and yet you don’t seem to share their opinion. What is your impression of the critics?

Well, so much the better if they find something good in my


They certainly do. They find a lot of good in it.

But this does not really affect me. Not in general; they do

not convince me that I have done anything worthwhile.

So you don’t think that you have found the perfection you seek?

Perfection? I haven’t even started. Not really.

Your artistic expression...?

Nowhere near. If I could manage to make a single head, who knows, I might stop. The most ridiculous thing is that if I did manage to make the head as I want it it probably wouldn’t interest anyone, would it? If an ordinary little head emerged? Any old head? I’d say: great, this is what I’ve been wanting to make. Oh, well done! No? Basically, since 1935, this is what I have been wanting to do... but I’ve always done it wrong.

Perhaps it is because you allowed yourself to be influenced by certain trends.

No, no.

Or schools?

No, no. Nowadays it is almost impossible, for me and for everybody else, to make a realistic head. A few people go on trying; almost all artists today, or people who pass for artists, are abstract or tachiste or whatever, there are very few trying to make realistic heads; and a lot of them don’t make the head as they see it, they make it as it has been made before, in a purely conventional way.’

So therefore it is not a deeply felt work of art?

“It doesn’t matter. It is important to try and make a head as you see it. Only a few people try and, what’s more, it seems to be more difficult than ever, I don’t know why, I have not understood why. Because it seems to be almost impossible. And in fact it is almost impossible. In painting as well, today, to paint a portrait that gives any satisfaction is extremely difficult.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'My friend Giacometti'