The stuff of Giacometti’s genius
The complete reconstruction of Alberto Giacometti’s studio and all that it contained, housed in a new Paris institute, is just one of three ongoing major celebrations of the artist’s work this summer. By Claire Wrathall
Alberto Giacometti was in his mid-fifties before the first solo museum presentations of his work were mounted. An exhibition of about 35 works was held in New York in 1955, a larger retrospective at London’s Arts Council Gallery later the same year. In France, where he made his home, institutional recognition came rather later. ‘It’s incredible,’ says Catherine Grenier, director of the Alberto and Annette Giacometti Foundation. ‘To have a big exhibition here, he had to wait until he was dead!’
That neglect is a thing of the past. When the 1947 work L’homme au doigt realised $141 million at Christie’s in 2015, it became the most valuable sculpture ever sold; commercially, Giacometti’s place in the pantheon is assured. The opening of a permanent exhibition space for his work in Paris, with Grenier at the helm, will protect his artistic legacy. The launch of the institute is one event in what looks like a memorable summer for Giacometti. There are two major shows: a retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York (bound for Bilbao in the autumn), featuring 175 sculptures, paintings and drawings; and a joint exhibition with Francis Bacon at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel. Both are co-curated by Grenier, and the Giacometti Foundation has lent about 80 per cent of the works that will feature in the New York survey.
The institute opened on 21 June with an exhibition on the artist’s friendship with the writer Jean Genet, who sat for two portraits. That experience inspired his 1957 book The Studio of Alberto Giacometti, which Grenier calls ‘one of the most beautiful texts on modern art’. Not that Giacometti was unaccustomed to the company of eminent writers. In 1948, when he showed at New York’s Pierre Matisse Gallery, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the catalogue essay. And in 1961, Samuel Beckett, another friend, persuaded him to design a tree for the set of Waiting for Godot.
The institute’s home is a handsome Art Nouveau mansion, once the studio of the furniture designer Paul Follot. It stands on Rue Victor Schoelcher in Montparnasse, a short stroll from the building at 46 Rue Hippolyte-Maindron (now demolished) into which Giacometti moved in 1926, ferrying his possessions in a wheelbarrow. He worked there until his death almost 40 years later. ‘We were not looking for a very big space,’ Grenier explains of the choice of location. ‘I wanted it to be an actual artist’s studio, and I wanted it to be in Montparnasse, where Giacometti had chosen to live. And I didn’t want it to be a white cube or Haussmannian, which was not at all Giacometti’s style.’
On entering the institute, the first thing you see is Giacometti’s place of work — a permanent reconstruction of his cramped studio, cluttered with attenuated bronzes, spindly plaster maquettes and unfinished canvases.
Genet described the original space, less than five metres square, as a ‘milky swamp’ — meaning that the floor was awash and encrusted with plaster of Paris. He also called this atelier ‘a seething dump, a genuine ditch’, yet possessed of ‘prodigious, magical powers of fermentation’. Michael Peppiatt, author of In Giacometti’s Studio and co-curator of the Beyeler Foundation exhibition, termed it a ‘repository of repeated failure’. Giacometti himself is said to have damned it as a ‘hole’. But anyone who saw it in 2007, when it was first reconstructed for a temporary exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, will recall its extraordinary atmosphere of creativity, as though even the humblest tools within it were suffused with the spirit of genius.
Perhaps this was what motivated Giacometti’s widow Annette — sometime muse and model — to salvage and store its entire contents: the furniture, stove, brushes and tools, as well as more than 70 bronze, plaster and clay sculptures. ‘Even the walls are the actual walls,’ says Grenier, explaining that Giacometti used to draw on them in pencil and oils. He would paint on the cupboard, too. Unable to buy the building, Annette, who set up the foundation, had sections of wall removed and mounted on canvas or honeycomb panel, a technique drawn from the conservation of classical mosaics and frescoes. Fortunately, numerous photographs of the studio survive — by Brassaï, Robert Doisneau, Gordon Parks, Ernst Scheidegger and Sabine Weiss — as evidence on which to base a convincing reconstruction.
In many ways, it recalls the Francis Bacon studio that was painstakingly recreated at the Hugh Lane gallery in Dublin. But then, there are many parallels between Giacometti and Bacon, who were friends and rivals. Both artists, says Grenier, ‘resisted the mainstream, which was abstract art’ and continued to paint fguratively. David Hockney has said that Bacon recalled Giacometti disparaging abstraction as ‘l’art du mouchoir’ (the art of the handkerchief ), all stains and dribbles. Bacon and Giacometti alike, says Grenier, had an almost exclusive interest in the human body, especially the head. Grenier says they shared a model in Isabel Rawsthorne, and that they were both engaged in ‘painting a frame inside the frame’, which she suspects resonates with the fact that they were ‘incredibly concentrated on working in very small studios, which were like shelters for them’. She also sees a common ‘violence’ in their work, not to mention what Peppiatt has called their ‘extreme individualism and shared rejection of middle-class values’.
‘We wanted a space that would give the visitor the opportunity to have a more intimate relationship with the works on display’ — Catherine Grenier of the Alberto and Annette Giacometti Foundation
The Beyeler Foundation exhibition, like the others taking place this summer, is substantially made up of loans from the Giacometti Foundation, which opened in 2003 and now owns about 350 sculptures, 90 paintings and more than 2,000 drawings. The foundation also has Giacometti’s library, which contained a surprising number of thrillers and detective novels. He liked to draw in them, annotating and illustrating them with sketches in the margins and on any available white space.
Given the extent of its holdings, why create an institute rather than a museum? ‘We are not a very rich foundation, so could not afford to have a big museum,’ says Grenier. ‘And anyway, there are so many museums in Paris — I thought it was more interesting to propose to the public other contexts within which to see the work. We wanted a space that would be completely different to a museum, that would have a different feeling. A space that would give the visitor the opportunity to have a more intimate relationship with the works on display. That's also why we reduced the number of visitors possible at one time.’
Since its opening, the institute has received 'fantastic feedback, especially from the public,’ says Grenier. ‘I really think this model corresponds to what people are interested in now.'
Upcoming shows will focus on the French artist Annette Messager and Giacometti’s influence on her practice, and the fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh’s arrestingly composed shots of Giacometti’s sculpture.
The chief objective of the institute, however, will be to champion Giacometti’s work and reputation internationally, by cooperating with established institutions, especially in places where his name is not yet well known. Grenier reels off a catalogue of recent collaborations: with the Pera Museum in Istanbul, the Yuz in Shanghai, Rabat’s Musée Mohammed VI and the Fire Station in Doha. Earlier this year, there was a show at the Seoul Arts Center, and venues for future exhibitions in China are currently under consideration.
As interest in the artist grows, so does demand, raising the risk of fakes coming on to the market — hence the need to widen access to the expertise necessary to authenticate works. To this end, the institute is establishing a scholarship and research programme, findings from which will be published annually; a library of books both on and owned by the artist; a Graphic Art Cabinet containing more than 5,000 items, from sketches to notebooks; and a new online database. A catalogue raisonné is under way, although given how prolific an artist Giacometti was and how many of his works were editioned, this is a huge undertaking that could take a very long time to complete. As the artist himself said, ‘The more one works, the more impossible it becomes to finish.’
◆ Bacon-Giacometti is at the Beyeler Foundation until 2 September. Giacometti is at the Guggenheim, New York, until 12 September. The Studio of Alberto Giacometti by Jean Genet is at the Giacometti Institute in Paris. fondation-giacometti.fr