Isaku Yanaihara (1918-1989) was a Japanese professor of philosophy and an expert on modern French thought; an admirer of existentialist writers, Yanaihara translated Camus's L'etranger into Japanese. In 1954 Yanaihara moved to Paris to study. He soon met Sartre who encouraged him to meet Giacometti; the rendez-vous took place on 8 November 1955 at Les Deux Maggots. The two men became friends instantly, and the Japanese philosopher frequently visited Giacometti at his studio. In 1956, the artist asked Yanaihara to pose for a portrait and the sittings began in September of that year. James Lord has written:
"It is not difficult to see why Giacometti had asked him to do so. 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 measutre of intimacy" (J. Lord, Giacometti, London, 1983, p. 371).
For both men, the sittings became an obsession. Yanaihara would pose both in the afternoons and in the evenings, day after day, week after week, throughout the fall. In making the portraits, Giacometti tried to work his way through a crisis of representation that plagued him. The situation was made all the more intimate and intense by the fact that in November Yanaihara and Annette began an affair, with Giacometti's blessing.
Writing about the portraits from 1956, Jean Genet has said:
"The Japanese professor, Yanaihara...had delayed his departure by two months because Giacometti has 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" (J. Genet, "L'atelier d'Alberto Giacometti," in Derrire le Mirroir, no. 98, June 1957, p. 17).
Other paintings from the 1956 sessions are in major museums, including the Muse National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Yanaihara returned from Japan to sit for Giacometti in the summers of 1957, 1959, 1960 and 1961.