Alberto Giacometti and the Perception of Reality
(Hatje Cantz, 2019)
Swiss art historian Dr. Patrick de Vries, a specialist in art history and East Asian literature, focuses on the drawings of Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)—known primarily for his figurative sculptures—examining them against more than 100 letters between Giacometti and his parents, many previously unpublished. Using little direct quotations from the artist, the author explains, “in paraphrasing Alberto Giacometti’s letters, an attempt has been made to retain something of their original style, which includes his individualistic use of language.” Therefore, the reader relies heavily on de Vries’s interpretation of the material throughout. The author places these paraphrased letters within interesting and detailed biographical context, and includes a selection of drawings, lithographs, and some facsimile letters.
The book also highlights the close relationship between the artist and his parents. When speaking to de Vries, he told me what struck him most “was how often son and parents wrote to each other—throughout Alberto’s life, letters or postcards were written, at the very least, once a month, more often several times per month.” While Giacometti’s brother Diego’s role in assisting with his artworks is well documented, this publication shows the strong influence of his father Giovanni, also an artist, who, in these letters discusses his own artworks in terms of light, balance, and compositional structure. For de Vries these letters show that “careful attention to compositional detail and illumination was already ingrained in him by a young age.” The publication moves chronologically from Giacometti’s school days in Switzerland after leaving home in 1915, through his time spent in Italy and Paris where he formed his influential artistic friendships, up to his death in 1966. One of the final sections of the book highlights his lesser known interest in East Asian art. Although these drawings are undated, de Vries situates them in the context of Giacometti’s friendship with Japanese philosopher Isaku Yanaihara in the 1950s and 1960s. This, however, is only touched on briefly, before the publication ends with Giacometti’s drawings of his studio and family, made towards the end of his life.
In one of few direct quotations, de Vries quotes Giacometti’s writings from his 1963 exercise book, “my sculptures, paintings, drawings, [are] linked to the evolution of my vision, and to [the evolution of] my perception during my entire life.” From this the author begins his study into Giacometti’s “evolution in perception during his life, and how this is reflected in his drawing, which he saw as the most important genre from which all others emanated.” Although the artist is quoted stating that his “sculptures, paintings, drawings” were linked to the evolution of his artistic vision, de Vries makes the case that it is drawing which is of most importance. To provide evidence for this he paraphrases the artist from as early as a 1917 presentation to his classmates, which gave “his opinion that drawing was the basis for all other arts.” De Vries also cites Giacometti’s time learning the art of silverpoint drawing—a meticulously detailed and difficult medium to master—whilst staying with his godfather Cuno Amiet, also an artist. He analyzes the few known silverpoint drawings by Giacometti to display the artist’s high level of accuracy and skill in drawing at a young age. Giacometti’s portrait of Gret Flury Reclining (1920) made from silver point on chalk ground paper, focuses on the female head and neck, her eyes stare outwards yet appear blank, with the outlines of her hair faint yet displaying her presence and distinct features. For de Vries these works display Giacometti’s “tendency to succeed in imbuing the portraits of people close to him with an aura that goes beyond the visible.”
The following chapters prioritize Giacometti’s friendships with artists Francis Gruber, Balthus, and Pierre Tal-Coat. In the case of Gruber, de Vries makes comparisons between his and Giacometti’s drawings, in Gruber’s Study of Figures (1940) where the artist “overlaid several strokes to shape each figure, which resulted in a vibrating sense of energy that animates the space surrounding them.” He draws on parallels between this and Giacometti’s drawing Diego Reading (ca.1960) through its “dissolution of contours within strongly anchored overall compositions.” Whilst both works certainly share this dynamic quality of sketchy outlines, a comparison of the two as contemporaries in dialogue proves difficult, given that the works were made 20 years apart.
The final chapter details Giacometti’s fascination in East Asian art. As there were no direct quotations from the artist about his interests in this topic, except from a brief conversation with Yanaihara, I explored this further with the author, who told me Giacometti wrote about East Asian art, “when he noted that he’d enjoyed copying Japanese woodblock prints when he was only 13 years old.” The artist’s copy of Ox in Landscape, an original Chinese hanging scroll from the Yuan dynasty, is highlighted here. Giacometti situates his subject of the ox within a cage-like structure, divided into sections, reminiscent of his later sculptures and displaying his distinctive artistic style, perhaps also showing his admiration for the “exceptionally solid architecture” of Chinese painting, which de Vries points out the artist praised.
The book concludes with his drawings made after the death of his mother, Annetta, at the end of his life; delicately detailed works which are a real highlight. As the letters detail, following his grief after his mother’s death in 1964, one of his final etchings Studio with the Easel (1966), shows the bare interior of his studio, with empty chairs and what appears to be the beginnings of a female portrait resting by the side of the wall. With nobody present, simple objects are elevated in status, and the overall composition is calm which de Vries calls its “tranquil energy.”
This publication is a clear culmination of a thorough and thought-provoking research project exploring Giacometti’s personal letters and his drawings, undoubtedly an important part of his oeuvre. However, as it covers such a broad time scale detailing over four decades of the artist’s life, and aims to cover too many topics—such as East Asian art, drawings, letters, and lithographs—at times it is hard to retain focus on the letters themselves, which are the exciting archival discovery the book offers. A focused study of these would be beneficial, just as the author told me, “the entire treasure trove of information contained in these letters could certainly be interesting for the exploration of many more aspects, be they biographical, historical, or otherwise.”