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Alberto Giacometti

New book by Michael Peppiatt interprets Giacometti through the multi-functional nature of his workplace

The studio as stage, incubator and archive

Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) is one of the great figures of 20th-century art, a sculptor (also a painter and draughtsman) of such compelling vision as to be a figure that cannot be ignored in any artistic assessment of the period. As Michael Peppiatt writes in this engaging new study, there are very few artists “whose achievement and character—and myth—are as intensely appealing as his have been.” This book takes the studio as focus for an investigation into the man and the myth, which is perceptive, thought-provoking and enjoyably readable. For those who saw Peppiatt’s 2001-02 show “Alberto Giacometti in Postwar Paris” at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, and the Fondation de l’Hermitage, Lausanne, the author’s authoritative knowledge of the intricacies of this artist’s deepest preoccupations will be familiar. Others will know Peppiatt as the distinguished biographer of Francis Bacon.

It is revealing that the two artists Peppiatt has written most extensively about, Bacon and Giacometti, both worked in small chaotic studios packed with the detritus of long occupancy. (Incidentally, Peppiatt wonders in passing whether Bacon actually modelled his own dishevelled studio on Giacometti’s, whose person and work he so admired.) Undoubtedly the layered experience of these semi-monastic cells made them special, magical places, powerhouses of creativity and destruction. They were not geared towards comfortable living but to concentrated thought and the endless struggle to communicate in a world given over increasingly to cacophony and thoughtlessness. A quest for truth animated both artists and drove them to the edge of endurance. Out of such extremes they made their art.

Giacometti spent nearly 40 years in the same studio in Montparnasse, from the very end of 1926 until December 1965, when he went home to Switzerland to die. He never intended to stay when he first moved in, it was too small and inconvenient, but he nevertheless adopted it like a hermit crab does a shell, and built himself into it. As a child, Giacometti had been drawn to caves and holes, and his studio became the quintessential manifestation of this desire for security. Peppiatt, who describes the studio with its earth floor, damp walls and leaking roof as a “near slum-like hovel”, became fascinated by the way it “crystallised his work, personality and life in a single compact space”. He continues: “In the end, the studio came closer to that vision than any single work or even body of works, and certainly closer than an exhibition or book. The studio was both the theatre and the archive, a stage for sublime achievement and even more interestingly a repository of repeated failure.”

If there is some danger here of fetishising the studio, of over-stressing its role in Giacometti’s existence, then perhaps this is a necessary corrective to other accounts that haven’t given it the prominence it deserves. From here, Giacometti made his sorties to cafés and prostitutes, occasionally to exhibitions (travelling to Venice, England and the US for prestigious shows of his work late in life). And it was here he painted, drew or sculpted his sitters: art world movers and shakers such as the curator and critic David Sylvester, the biographer James Lord and the art dealer Pierre Matisse, literary figures such as Sartre, de Beauvoir and Genet, and his much-depicted brother Diego and wife Annette.

Peppiatt’s book is divided into three main sections, beginning with a gripping personal memoir of the author’s own progress towards knowing Giacometti, and then tracing in two sections the history of the artist’s studio at 46 rue Hippolyte Maindron—before and after the second world war. Peppiatt lived in Paris for many years and understands the city well, and this affectionate knowledge illuminates his writing. He is also a seasoned explicator of difficult work, a writer of exemplary clarity and good sense, and thus a welcome guide to Giacometti’s world. He places particular emphasis on aspects he knows best—for instance the important place in Giacometti’s life occupied by Isabel Rawsthorne, muse to so many artists, and a key figure in London’s bohemia. He speculates about the conversations between Beckett and Giacometti during late-night peregrinations around Paris, and mentions the sculptor’s tantalisingly brief dalliance with Marlene Dietrich. Although he dwells on the studio as refuge, it was primarily a workshop, and Peppiatt does not neglect the stream of masterpieces that emerged from it. The book is packed with riveting material, and concludes with eight pages of usefully detailed chronology. The most beguiling book on Giacometti I’ve read.

In Giacometti’s Studio

Michael Peppiatt

Yale University Press, 220 pp,

£35 (hb)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The studio as stage, incubator and archive'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 225 June 2011