'Giacometti was never satisfied with his painting which he began afresh each day...This smooth but grave and gentle face must have tempted genius. The paintings that he did are admirably intense...You could not put more into it, not one more drop of life. They are at that final point where life resembles inanimate matter. Breathing faces" (Jean Genet writing about Giacometti's portraits of Isaku Yanaihara in 'L'atelier d'Alberto Giacometti', Derrière le Mirroir, no. 98, June 1957, p. 17).
Painted circa 1958, Alberto Giacometti's Yanaihara belongs to an important series of paintings from one of the most famous and scrutinised periods of the artist's career. These works are widely regarded to me amongst Giacometti's finest works, with portraits from the series held in the collections of the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, The Art Institute of Chicago, Kunsthaus Zurich, Fondation Beyeler Basel, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran and The Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti. The product of an intense phase of creative activity and great personal effort, this portrait stems the heart of a period in which Giacometti was gaining increasing international renown, yet was burdened by a major crisis, in which he was tortured by anxieties about his inability to accomplish fully what he set out to do. This nagging sense of self-doubt began in 1956, when Isaku Yanaihara began sitting for the artist for the first time.
As a professor of philosophy who had been responsible for the first translation of Albert Camus' L'Étranger into Japanese, Yanaihara travelled to France from his native Japan in 1954, with the intention of getting to know first-hand the major exponents of French Existentialism. Yanaihara quickly sought out Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris, but it was not until November 1955 that the French philosopher introduced him to his close friend, Giacometti at the Café des Deux Magots. As Giacometti himself was deeply interested in philosophy, he quickly befriended the visiting professor, inviting him to his atelier on the rue Hippolyte-Maindron in order to complete an interview for a Japanese journal and to study him for a portrait. 'It is not difficult to see why Giacometti had asked him to do so', Giacometti's biographer James Lord has written, 'With a large head, a strong jaw, broad, high forehead, and small but piercing eyes in well-defined sockets, he was not handsome but imposing. As a model he came close to being ideal, because in addition to the striking singularity of his features and the lively concentration of his gaze, he was capable of remaining for long periods absolutely motionless. The essential aspect of his suitability was friendship, as Giacometti needed the emotional participation of his model in an act which called for extraordinary unselfishness but offered a rare measure of intimacy' (J. Lord, Giacometti, London, 1983, p. 371).
Yanaihara began sitting for Giacometti in September of 1956, posing in the same position in the afternoons and evenings, day after day, week after week, throughout the autumn. For both men, these gruelling sessions soon became an obsession, accompanied by a stream of philosophical conversations that Yanaihara recorded in his diary, and on which he based the Giacometti monograph he would later publish in Japan. Indeed, Giacometti found Yanaihara so compelling a subject that he not only delayed his departure back to Japan, but also paid for him to return to Paris for the next five years, making him the painter's most important and recurrent model outside of his own family. Between 1956 and 1961, Giacometti completed at least twelve paintings and one sculpted bust of Yanaihara, but the present portrait is the only painting attributed to 1958, the year Yanaihara remained in Japan for the release of his monograph. It is speculated that this work may have been painted in 1959 and dated erroneously by the artist, or that he began it during Yanaihara's visit in 1957 and completed it from memory a few months later. Indeed, Yanaihara's diary indicates this possibility, noting that on at least one occasion, Giacometti spoke of having reworked his portrait alone during the night.
Giacometti's portraits of Yanaihara signify a period of crisis for the artist, a situation that was made all the more intimate and intense by the fact that, with the artist's blessin,g Yanaihara had begun an affair with Giacometti's wife, Annette. Despite their closeness, and Yanaihara's dedication as a model, Giacometti found the likeness he sought constantly escaping him, causing him terrible anguish. 'I thought I had made some progress, a little progress,' he wrote, 'until I began working with Yanaihara. And since then things have gone from bad to worse' (Y. Bonnefoy, Giacometti, Paris, 1991, p. 448). Where other model's patience would wear thin, requiring Giacometti to stop painting, Yanaihara's unparalleled endurance pushed the artist to intensify his efforts and to continue working, layering images one over the other as though caught in obsessive, monomaniacal ritual, almost unable to stop his revising. Through sheer dogged determination, Giacometti fought his way through these dark, dense layers of cumulative perception to develop ever-stronger and more defined images that dug deeper to the truth of his vision.
Giacometti's goal was not to create exact physical likenesses, but to grasp as nearly as possible the essential presence of the model, conveying the experience of encountering this life in pictorial form. In this portrait of Yanaihara, Giacometti does not capture a fleeting impression or momentary glance, but reveals a probing exploration of the structural complexity of the human form. There is a notable return of more incisive lines and stronger forms in this work after the clogged images from the height of his crisis. Nevertheless, Giacometti has deliberately laid bare his struggle between being and nothingness in the maze of linear marks and muted washes of paint. Through his association with Yanaihara, he has here begun to place greater focus on the isolation of the figure, leaving the perspectival indicators of the studio environment indistinct and the model small against a great void of space. As a consequence, the central focus of the composition rests on Yanaihara's elongated head, where Giacometti found the very source of life. Conscious of his ultimate failure but fully aware that that only failure itself would lead to the truth, Giacometti's aesthetic fully embodied the existentialist philosophy that acts of personal will are the only way to rise above humanity's absurd condition. In the light of this, Giacometti never stopped striving for that which he felt sure he would never fully attain, creating Yanaihara as a poignant testament to the courage and triumph of human endeavour.