One afternoon in September 1958, a beautiful, distinguished and mysterious woman arrived at the door of number 46 rue Hippolyte Maindron. This was the Paris studio where Alberto Giacometti had been working since 1926, having arrived in the city four years earlier. Entering the studio, which was covered in plaster, she introduced herself as “Paola Thorel, a friend of Roberto Matta”. She had come to commission a bust of herself, at the request of her husband. Giacometti turned down the commission “for the time being”. Nevertheless they met for a second and third time, until a chance event changed everything. His regular model, his wife Annette—née Arm—had flu. Paola offered to be his model. The artist agreed: three hours, three times a week, on condition that she remained completely still.
So began an artist-model relationship which, one year later, resulted in Bust of Paola, 1959, one of Giacometti’s most fascinating works. Little by little, their friendship grew. For seven years, she saw Alberto and Annette Giacometti on a regular basis and, after Alberto died, her relationship with his widow continued for the next 20 years. “It was a very liberating world. Unique, with nothing false about it. With Alberto and Annette you always said what you thought,” she recalls at her home in Paris (she also has a residence in Naples).
As well as being Alberto Giacometti’s only surviving model, Paola Carola (she reverted to her maiden name after divorce) is vice-president of the Paris-based Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti. “My role is simply to bear witness to the many things I experienced with them and to attend the openings of exhibitions of his work.” She remembers many of these, but two stand out: “The Women of Giacometti” in 2005 at the former PaceWildenstein in New York, where her bust was first exhibited (the show was partly revived to mark The Pace Gallery’s 50th anniversary last year); and the recent retrospective, “Alberto Giacometti: the Origin of Space” at Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany, which ended last month.
In 2008 the French publisher Editions Leo Scheer issued her book, Monsieur Giacometti, je voudrais vous commander mon buste (Mr Giacometti, I would like to order my bust). “I wanted to show that Alberto’s work was very closely bound up with his wife,” she says, “not only because she was his model for 20 years, from 1946 to 1966, but also because of the strong, complex love that united them [that] was made stronger still by Annette’s love for her husband’s art.
“Annette was a passionate person, funny and surprising,” says Carola. “But above all she was in love with Alberto and his work. She looked after his sculptures with a love that flooded the studio. At the same time she made others look at them in a different way.”
“Their relationship was very, very profound,” Carola recalls. “It was nothing like a conventional marriage. They had a highly poetic outlook on life. I can’t explain it, it was something that broke all the conventional rules.” She adds: “Sculpture was a mediator between husband and wife, it both united them and highlighted their differences.”
Annette was undoubtedly the greatest influence on his work. “Alberto would not have been able to sculpt all those female figures, those radical, elongated figures—always with Annette’s body—that so inspire us,” says Carola. “They would not have been possible if they had not embodied the woman he carried in his soul. There were many other women, but Annette was his great inspiration (below, bust of Annette, 1960).
“While the majestic and exquisitely fragile works [he] created with Annette as his model can be called masterpieces, those for which he used other models…include some of the most beautiful sculptures, like the ones of [his lover] Carolina. [As] are those of Isaku Yanaihara, the philosophy professor from the University of Osaka who in 1959 became Alberto’s model and, with his consent, Annette’s lover.”
Carola was 25 years old when she began posing for Giacometti. Despite her beauty she insists that her physical appearance was unimportant. “It’s true that Giacometti was dazzled when beauty ‘appeared unexpectedly’. But he never chose a model because she was beautiful. He didn’t care. He wanted someone who would pose for him and it didn’t really matter who it was. To him I could have been anyone. The main thing was to discover the relationship between human dimensions and space.” Nevertheless, she stresses: “Although he repeatedly claimed that he made no distinction between one model and another, he had a very great effect on me as a person. He enabled me to know myself better, to gain access to my memories and feelings. He gave me back to myself. I was a young woman whom men admired for her looks [but] with no interest in her spiritual or intellectual [life]. He made me look at myself and feel that I was more than able to reflect and think.
“While he was working he always talked out loud about his work, whether he was pleased with it or in despair,” says Carola. “He talked about any old thing and sometimes even shouted. I think it was his way of getting to the heart of things. Then suddenly…he would address me directly: ‘Paola, are you sad? Has something happened? Are you unhappy?’ I think his gaze travelled elsewhere, beyond the person in front of him. So much so that when he was working on my bust, I had the impression that while moulding the clay, his hands were in fact searching for my skeleton.”
Giacometti was close friends with Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir, who also modelled for him. De Beauvoir wrote that: “He took the existing modes of representation and turned them inside out like a glove, with an impressive radical determination.”
Women played a crucial, complex and tumultuous role in Giacometti’s life. Peter Boris, executive vice-president of Pace Gallery and a curator of “The Women of Giacometti”, says: “Women were a constant source of interest, mystery and inspiration for Giacometti. I think he was totally seduced by the physical and psychic ‘feminine’. He kept a small plaster reproduction of a Neolithic fertility goddess next to his bed, perhaps a discreet reminder of the primordial forces he sought to infuse in his work.”
Carola concurs: “He thought of women as goddesses. There’s no doubt that he was in awe of women, which is why he always placed them on a pedestal.” He enjoyed telling people that his feminine sculptures, such as
Four Women on a Pedestal, 1950, were based on several nude women he had seen at the Sphinx, a brothel which he had frequented since it opened in 1935 and which he described as “the most wonderful place of all”.
Giacometti believed that the supreme objective of art was to reach the sacred through the profane. In the final eight years of his life, he was deeply in love with Carolina, a prostitute 40 years his junior, whom he met by chance. Carolina had an indomitable personality that defied public morality—just what Giacometti was looking for. She posed for him until his death in 1966. He called her “my golden sphere” and his time with her was one of intense creativity.
“She would arrive late at the studio when Annette left,” says Carola. “It is odd because when he sculpted my portrait I could only recognise my body. Now when I look at it I can see the whole bone structure of my face. It is as though Alberto had a premonition about what was going to happen. I think this forward vision is something that great artists have.”
However she adds: “The better I got to know him, the more I realised that his work was becoming increasingly like him. So much so that I believe he could have been one of his own sculptures. In the same way, his works create a surrounding space, as a means of separating them from, and setting them in opposition to, everything else. This came from the intense way he looked at other people and the world in general. He had a mysterious inner energy. He was so witty and clever, with a unique sense of humour. He was fun to be with. He would have outbursts of infectious joie de vivre. He was a man of passion and endless curiosity. He radiated contented, cheerful serenity, which made me feel incredibly alive.”
Nevertheless Giacometti was frequently dissatisfied by his work, often citing “my inability to make a head”. He would often scrap everything and start again the following day. “With time I understood that this was no more than a technique of his, a practical excuse. This method of constantly doing something, then undoing it and starting all over again enabled him to delve much more deeply to find the answer to the key question, which was ‘What did Giacometti see?’.”
For many, what Giacometti saw, as embodied in his work, was the loneliness of man. Carola, who was a patient and student of the psychoanalyst and cultural theorist Jacques Lacan—also a friend of the sculptor’s—demurs: “Lacan teaches us not to interpret things. You cannot interpret Giacometti’s work from a psychological or philosophical point of view without trivialising it. All these interpretations of his work as symbolising human loneliness or alienation are too simplistic, taking no account of their truly unique nature.
“If Alberto’s extraordinary and indescribably complex works carry a message,” she adds, “it is about respecting the existence of things outside ourselves, a joyous message of affection and friendship. This is why his sculpture speaks to everyone.”
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '"Giacometti enabled me to know myself better"'