It is rare to find intimate detail regarding an artist’s working practice, brush, colour, mood, atmosphere, in fact the daily activity needed to create a portrait, and the character of the genius behind that work. James Lord’s A Giacometti Portrait, 1, is such a work.
On day nine Lord records ‘Then he would begin to work with the same brush again but using white or gray pigment. From this I deduced that he was beginning to develop the contours and volume of the head and to add highlights.’ 1, p52
Lord, a friend and muse, sat for several portraits for Giacometti. This book records the eighteen days he spent sitting for the painter in 1964, two years before the artist’s death.
http://www.christies.com/features/Alberto-Giacomettis-Portrait-of-James-Lord-6658-3.aspx The work was auctioned last year by Christies in New York realising $20,885,000.
Lord writes honestly but sensitively about his friend, aware that he is living through history. The repetition, the frustration, the despair of the artist are at the forefront of this work, offering insight into the determination and sheer brilliance of the man.
This insightful video maps the work in progress https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7Jpy4mAZXg. This video, the structure of the work as he first applies paint to the canvas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QS0PzOwfmHo.
Paul Moorhouse, curator of Pure Prescence at the National Portrait Gallery earlier this year, interviewed for the Christies auction catalogue about James Lord’s portrait, said ‘As each sitting started Giacometti always said, ‘It’s helpless!’, ‘I don’t know why I’m even trying’, or ‘It’s impossible! I can’t make portraits, no one can.’ Lord was driven almost to despair by the length of the process. He thought Giacometti was neurotic and a bit mad. But Giacometti is trying to grapple with pure sensation. He’s trying to capture something that actually precedes perception, and that takes you into a very strange place.’ 2
Moorhouse talks of Giacometti’s double life as a portrait painter. ‘In 1925 Giacometti said it was necessary to abandon the real, to give up figurative art. He immersed himself in making abstract and surrealist sculpture in Paris. That’s misleading because he was making figurative work throughout. He basically put out a false perception. He led people astray. What I’m saying in this show actually contradicts what Giacometti said about himself. It shines a light on something less well known. From the word go, age 13 when he started making art, right through to his death, Giacometti had an unbroken relationship with portraiture.’ 2
Referencing Sartre’s comment that Giacometti’s work was ‘pure presence’, ‘He’s describing Giacometti’s interrogation of people, his stripping away of everything that you associate with people — identity, biography, mood, psychology, even their appearance.’2
When Moorhouse was asked ‘Were there any great surprises in the research for the show?’, he replied ‘His thinking. Giacometti emerged to me as a deeply philosophical man. He understood that reality is essentially unknowable — that all you have is appearance. Portraiture was the vehicle for his thinking. It all takes place in the studio with his sitters, interrogating their appearance and trying to unravel the mystery of perception.’2
Giacometti and his researchers have opened my eyes to what I am intuitively trying to achieve with my work. To expect a formulaic approach is a falsehood. There is no easy root to capturing the human condition, but it helps to understand that herein lies madness.
Here again I find a false perception from Giacometti, confirming my belief that his comment that he had enough trouble with the outside, without bothering about the inside, that he was copying from life, was far from the truth. Maybe he did perceive it to be true, but the facts speak otherwise.
1 Lord, J 1980, A Giacometti Portrait Faber & Faber
2 Moorhouse, P Christies Catalogue http://www.christies.com/features/The-double-life-of-Alberto-Giacometti-6568-1.aspx