Friday 9 November 2012


The week after Giacometti’s death Paris-Match published a remarkable photograph of him which had been taken nine months earlier. It shows him alone in the rain, crossing the street near his studio in Montparnasse. Although his arms are through the sleeves, his raincoat is hoicked up to cover his head. Invisibly, underneath the raincoat, his shoulders are hunched. 
The immediate effect of the photograph, published when it was, depended upon it showing the image of a man curiously casual about his own well-being. A man with crumpled trousers and old shoes, ill-equipped for the rain. A man whose preoccupations took no note of the seasons. 
But what makes the photograph remarkable is that it suggests more than that about Giacometti’s character. The coat looks as though it has been borrowed. He looks as though underneath the coat he is wearing nothing except his trousers. He has the air of a survivor. But not in the tragic sense. He has become quite used to his position. I am tempted to say “like a monk”, especially since the coat over his head suggests a cowl. But the simile is not accurate enough. He wore his symbolic poverty far more naturally than most monks.
Every artist’s work changes when he dies. And finally no one remembers what his work was like when he was alive. Sometimes one can read what his contemporaries had to say about it. The difference of emphasis and interpretation is largely a question of historical development. But the death of the artist is also a dividing line.
It seems to me now that no artist’s work could ever have been more changed by his death than Giacometti’s. In twenty years no one will understand this change. His work will seem to have reverted to normal - although in fact it will have become something different: it will have become evidence from the past, instead of being, as it has been for the last forty years, a possible preparation for something to come. 
The reason Giacometti’s death seems to have changed his work so radically is that his work had so much to do with the awareness of death. It is as though his death confirms his work: as though one could now arrange his works in a line leading to his death, which would constitute far more than the interruption or termination of that line - which would, on the contrary, constitute the starting point for reading back along that line, for appreciating his life’s work. 
You might argue that after all nobody ever believed that Giacometti was immortal. His death could always be deduced. Yet it is the fact which makes the difference. While he was alive, his loneliness, his conviction that everybody was unknowable, was no more than a chosen point of view which implied a comment on the society he was living in. Now by his death he has proved his point. Or - to put it a better way, for he was not the man who was concerned with argument - now his death has proved his point for him. 
This may sound extreme, but despite the relative traditionalism of his actual methods, Giacometti was a most extreme artist. The neo-Dadaists and other so-called iconoclasts of today are conventional window-dressers by comparison. 
The extreme proposition on which Giacometti based all his mature work was that no reality - and he was concerned with nothing except the contemplation of reality - could ever be shared. This is why he believed it impossible for a work to be finished. This is why he believed it impossible for a work to be finished. This is why the content of any work is not the nature of the figure or head portrayed but the incomplete history of his staring at it.  The act of looking was like a form of prayer for him - it became a way of approaching but never being able to grasp an absolute. It was the act of looking which kept him aware of being constantly suspended between being and the truth. If he had been born in an earlier period, Giacometti would have been a religious artist. As it was, born in a period of profound and widespread alienation, he refused to escape through religion, which would have been an escape into the past. He was obstinately faithful to his own time, which must have seemed to him rather like his own skin: the sack into which he was born. In that sack he simply could not in all honesty overcome his conviction that he had always been and would always be totally alone. 
To hold such a view of life requires a certain kind of temperament. It is beyond me to define that temperament precisely. It was visible in Giacometti’s face. A kind of endurance lightened by cunning. If man was purely animal and not a social being, all old men would have this expression. One can glimpse something similar in Samuel Beckett’s expression. Its antithesis was what you could see in Le Corbusier’s face. 
But it is by no means only a question of temperament: it is even more a question of the surrounding social reality. Nothing during Giacometti’s lifetime broke through his isolation. Those whom he liked or loved were invited to share it temporarily with him. His basic situation - in the sack into which he was born - remained unchanged. (It is interesting that part of the legend about him tells of how almost nothing changed or was moved in his studio for the forty years he lived there. And during the last twenty years he continually recommenced the same five or six subjects.) Yet the nature of man as an essentially social being - although it is objectively proved by the very existence of language, science, culture - can only be felt subjectively through the experience of the force of change as a result of common action. 
Insofar as Giacometti’s view could not have been held during any preceding historical period, one can say that it reflects the social fragmentation and manic individualism of the late bourgeois intelligentsia. He was no longer even the artist in retreat. He was the artist who considered society as irrelevant. If it inherited his works it was by default. 
But having said all this, the works remain and are unforgettable. His lucidity  and total honesty about the consequences of his situation and outlook were such that he could still save and express a truth. It was an austere truth at the final limit of human interest; but his expressing of it transcends the social despair or cynicism which gave rise to it. 
Giacometti’s proposition that reality is unshareable is true in death. He was not morbidly concerned with the process of death: but he was exclusively concerned with the process of life as seen by a man whose own mortality supplied the only perspective in which he could trust. None of us is in a position to reject this perspective, even though simultaneously we may try to retain others. 
I said that his work had been changed by his death. By dying he has emphasized and even clarified the content of his work. But the change - anyway as it seems to me at this moment - is more precise and specific than that. 
Imagine one of the portrait heads confronting you as you stand and look. Or one of the nudes standing there to be inspected, hands at her side, touchable only through the thickness of two sacks - hers and yours - so that the question of nakedness does not arise and all talk of nakedness becomes trivial as the talk of bourgeois women deciding what clothes to wear for a wedding: nakedness is a detail for an occasion that passes. 
Imagine one of the sculptures. Thin, irreducible, still and yet not rigid, impossible to dismiss, possible only to inspect, to stare at. If you stare, the figure stares back. This is also true of the most banal portrait. What is different now is how you become conscious of the track of your stare and hers: the narrow corridor of looking between you - perhaps this is like the track of a prayer if such a thing could be visualized. Either side of the corridor nothing counts. There is only one way to reach her - to stand still and stare. That is why she is so thin. All other possibilities and functions have been stripped away. Her entire reality os reduced to the fact of being seen. 
When Giacometti was alive you were standing, as it were, in his place. You put yourself at the beginning of the track of his gaze and the figure reflected this gaze back to you like a mirror. Now that he is dead, or now that you know that he is dead, you take his place rather than put yourself in it. And then it seems that what first moves along the track comes from the figure. It stares, and you intercept the stare. Yet however far back you move along the narrow path, the gaze passes through you. 
It appears now that Giacometti made these figures during his lifetime, for himself, as observers of his future absence, his death, his becoming unknowable. 

John Berger