“How can one paint a vacuum?” Jean-Paul Sartre inquired. “Before Giacometti it seems that no one made the attempt. For five hundred years painters had been filling their canvases to the bursting point, forcing into them the whole universe. Giacometti begins by expelling the world from his canvases. For example, he paints his brother Diego all alone, lost in a hangar, and that is sufficient.”
If the horror vacui, a notion attributed to Aristotle, extends to painters and physicists alike, Giacometti, on the other hand—as Sartre claimed—“wears his vacuum as a snail its shell, because he wants to explain all its facets and dimensions” (“The Paintings of Giacometti,” 1954, in Alberto Giacometti: The Origin of Space, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, 2010, pp. 239 and 240). Giacometti made the Void his element, however terrifying he sensed its power. Those immense alien spaces that surround and separate all things, all people, the immeasurable distances that we wander in our ineluctable, perpetual exile—a consequence of the individual solitude to which we have each been fated—obsessed Giacometti. It is from this well of emptiness that he perceives all around him, and no less strongly so deep within himself, that Giacometti summons forth the will and matière to model a figure or a head, to paint Diego dans l’atelier—to conjure an apparition of our reality from vast, fathomless space.
Giacometti’s floor space in his ramshackle studio building at 46, rue de Hippolyte Maindron, 14th arrondissement, was far from hangar-like, actually no more than about 20 square meters (less than 220 square feet). The staircase to the loft above, where Diego often stayed overnight, provides the diagonal in the background that disrupts the cubic geometry of the room, and serves as a fictive ladder of escape, if only an ascension to nowhere but another void. As if he were a stoic philosopher in antiquity, or Kierkegaard or Sartre, Diego relaxes and ponders his existentialist predicament; a session with Alberto at the easel gave him with plenty of time to think things through.
The first-born son of the renowned turn-of-the-20th century Swiss painter Giovanni Giacometti, Alberto painted during his youth, but only intermittently after he moved to Paris in 1922 to study sculpture, usually while visiting his family back at home in Stampa. Following his wartime exile in Geneva and return to Paris in the fall of 1945, Giacometti enlarged the tiny matchstick figures he had been modeling into the elongated, attenuated sculptures for which he became internationally famous. Constantly exploring form through drawing, Giacometti again took up painting as an alternate means of visualizing the figure in space—“to know what I was seeing, it became necessary for me to try to paint,” he explained to Andre Parinaud in 1962 (M. Leiris and J. Dupin, ed., Alberto Giacometti: Écrits, Paris, 1990, p. 277).
Unlike working in sculpture, in actual three-dimensional space, “Giacometti has to find in the two dimensions of his canvas other means of creating distance than those he uses in sculpture,” Jacques Dupin explained. “Hence he almost always surrounds his compositions with a false frame of neutral color or rough drawing. This tangible limit traced by hand attenuates first of all the geometric rigidity of the stretcher. Above all it allows us to see the subject through an indefinite and ambiguous opening which at once creates the illusion of remoteness” (Giacometti: Three Essays, New York, 2003, pp. 65 and 67).
Giacometti paintings are essentially drawings rendered with brushes and oil colors on canvas. A dense filigree of linear brushstrokes, the tracks of innumerable pentimenti intimate Diego’s presence within the cavernous corner of the studio. Nowhere to be seen is a contour that separates figure from space, the substance of being from nothingness. The welter of lines traces fluid surface tensions that bend, swerve, and twist, as if circulating about while drawn to an unseen but powerful inner magnetic core. The build-up of pigment on the surface of the canvas manifests Giacometti’s use of paint as matière, a substance possessing a physical presence in its own right, like the plaster or clay with which he modeled his sculptures. Yet it is impossible to know where Diego’s body ends and the void begins, or if he is coming into being or decomposing, appearing or disappearing. “With each of his paintings,” Sartre stated, “Giacometti takes us back to the moment of creation ex nihilo” (exh. cat., op. cit., 2010, p. 240)
Color is absent. Neutral grays are the hues of a luminous formlessness, and true to the actual appearance of Giacometti’s work environment. When Alexander Liberman, the New York artist and editor of Vogue, visited Giacometti’s Paris studio in 1955, it struck him that “the walls are gray, the sculptures gray and white, interspersed with the sepia accent of wood or the dull glint of bronze…In the darker corners of the room, his long, narrow life-size figures seem like apparitions from another planet—one is surrounded by beings never encountered before” (The Artist and His Studio, New York, 1988, p. 278).
“Giacometti goes from known to unknown by stripping down, by progressive asceticism,” Dupin observed. “He flays appearances and digs into reality until he renders visible the essence of their relationship, that is, the presence of something sacred…There is a sacredness only in the excess relationship between man and reality, in the impossible communication of the one with the whole, laceration of oneself and lacerating of the other, sole threshold and lightning flash, which the totalizing power of the creative act establishes” (op. cit., 2003, p. 74).