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The Fondation de l'Hermitage in Lausanne is currently presenting an exhibition dedicated to Alberto Giacometti. It was curated by Michael Peppiatt. I took this opportunity to ask him a few questions about Giacometti and England.

1. You are well kown for your friendship with Francis Bacon and the important biography you wrote about him: Francis Bacon, Anatomy of an Enigma, first published in 1996. Could you tell us something about Alberto Giacometti and England.

1. Alberto Giacometti's first interest in England and anything English, I suspect, came from meeting the English painter and artists' model, Isabel Nicholas. She was one of the great loves of A. Giacometti's life, and (as I explain in the catalogue to this exhibition) it was the vision of seeing Isabel from a distance at night, dwarved by huge black buildings on the boulevard Saint-Michel that A. Giacometti desperately attempted to convey through the ever-tinier clay figures he made (and mostly destroyed) throughout the war years, first in Paris, then in Geneva. Part of the impossibility A. Giacometti felt about this undertaking stemmed, I believe, from the fact that, although A. Giacometti had been deeply in love for years and that Isabel was certainly no stranger to sexual adventures, nothing had happened between them. And I think it was not altogether a coincidence that when A. Giacometti returned to Paris and their love affair was consummated, his figures began little by little to grow again and he started to see a way forward for his sculpture.

Through Isabel A. Giacometti would have met a number of English expatriates, but most importantly she introduced him to Francis Bacon (who painted many memorable portraits of her). Isabel was a catalyst for Anglo-French culture (she brought Bacon and the writer Michel Leiris together, for instance); and I suspect, long after their brief affair had ended, she went on working behind the lines for A. Giacometti in the English art world. It was probably also through her, for instance, that A. Giacometti came into contact with Peter Watson, collector and owner of the highly influential London review 'Horizon' (edited by Cyril Connolly), as well as with the art critic David Sylvester, who was instrumental in securing exhibitions of A. Giacometti's work at the Arts Council Gallery in London in 1955 and again at the Tate Gallery in 1965. Interestingly, A. Giacometti painted portraits of both Watson and Sylvester.

A. Giacometti had already visited London, but his most important stays there centered round the preparation and opening of his Tate retrospective. Once again, Isabel provided an important link for him, and he spent most of his free time with her and Bacon, dining in Soho and trawling through the bars and drinking clubs. A. Giacometti's friendship with Bacon was brief but important. Bacon was particularly impressed by A. Giacometti's conversational range and prowess; and he singled out A. Giacometti's drawings, which he admired more than his painting and sculpture, as some of the most remarkable ever made. On his side, A. Giacometti was struck by Bacon's daring. "Compared with Francis Bacon's paintings, " he once remarked with wry self-mockery, "mine look as though they had been done by an old spinster."

2. Was the motor for your interest in Giacometti, Bacon's fascination with his work or are there other important reasons for this interest?

2. I was well aware of Francis Bacon's admiration for A. Giacometti, of course. I had also begun to talk during the 1960s to another highly gifted artist, Frank Auerbach, for whom A. Giacometti's art and attitude to life acted like a beacon during his formative years. In fact, A. Giacometti had a wide following among the young figurative artists in Postwar Britain. After all, whom else could they look to? To some extent Balthus and Dubuffet, but their appeal was in no way as universal and their dedication to art not as heoric as A. Giacometti's. So A. Giacometti's name cropped up frequently as I began to get to know London's figurative painters in the early 1960s. (Apropos - as they say in English - I have curated a couple of exhibitions under the title 'School of London', with Bacon, Freud, Andrews, Auerbach, Kossoff, Kitaj; and I have written about A. Giacometti's importance to those artists in the accompanying catalogues.) And then, with A. Giacometti's exhibitions in London, he was nevertheless known to a wider public.

My particular interest in A. Giacometti was first sparked because, when I arrived in Paris in January 1966 to take up my first job (at a magazine that no longer exists called 'Réalités'), Francis Bacon had given me a note of introduction to A. Giacometti. I was very young and rather intimidated at the idea of barging in on such a famous, foreign artist. Nevertheless I went to Alésia and eventually located A. Giacometti's studio on the rue Hippolyte-Maindron; but when I saw the name 'GIACOMETTI' painted on the door, I lost courage and turned tail. A little later, I heard that A. Giacometti had just died, and I realized that even if I had been able to summon up the courage to knock on his door, no one would have answered. But I was already fascinated by the myth and aura of A. Giacometti, and over the following years as an art critic in Paris I came to know most of the people who had been close to him - not only the poets and writers, the dealers and museum directors, the photographers and collectors - but also the two people who had been his most constant companions and models: Annette, his widow, and Diego, his younger brother and right-hand man in everything he undertook. I wrote several essays about A. Giacometti's art and continued to think of him very much as the spirit of a time and a place - Paris in the decade after the war - which interested me with the intensity of an experience that I felt I had almost lived through myself.

From this you can deduce how keen I was to curate an exhibition entitled, in its original English version, 'Giacometti in Postwar Paris'.

3. The Sainsburys are famous for the support they gave to Francis Bacon, the fact that they also collected Giacometti is less well known. How did they come to him?

3. This is a very pertinent question, and I have answered as fully as I can in one of the essay in the catalogue entitled 'Giacometti and the Sainsburys'.

4. How would you compare their collection to the collection of the Maeght Foundation in Saint-Paul de Vence, as far as its constitution and contents are concerned?

4. I don't think the two collections are really comparable, because they come out of such different experiences and milieux. The Maeght, which is one of the truly great A. Giacometti collections, was put together by A. Giacometti's main dealer in Europe with, I believe, a certain number of donations by the artist. The Sainsbury collection came about because two amateurs éclairés were drawn to the extraordinary magnetism of A. Giacometti's work and personality in the very dark days following World War Two. The first is an official collection, with Aimé Maeght making something of a statement not only about the artist but about his own taste and role as an influential dealer at the Fondation Maeght. The Sainsburys, although aware of their importance as collectors, bought more out of a private passion; for instance, they had two of their children drawn by A. Giacometti, and Robert Sainsbury sat for his portrait in oils (this picture, long believed abandoned and possibly lost, has been found in the Alberto Giacometti Estate and lent to the current exhibition).

5. The present exhibition is concentrating on the Postwar work of Giacometti, how did you come to the decision to focus on this creative period?

5. To some extent, if truth were told, it was a question of making a virtue out of a necessity. I accepted to curate this show without knowing that several other major exhibitions - in Paris, Zurich and New York - were already well under way. As I got further into the politics of attempting to secure this and that important piece, I realized that early A. Giacometti was going to be a particular problem. Since the works owned by the Sainsbury Centre which provided me with the nucleus of the show were almost all Postwar, and since I myself have always been more drawn to A. Giacometti's mature vision, I decided to focus on the postwar period. I think this has actually resulted in a stronger, more focussed show.

Michael Peppiatt interviewé par Patrick Schaefer.

L'art en jeu, 22 janvier 2002

Vers la version française.

Vous pouvez visiter les sites de

Sainsbury Center for Visual Arts, Norwich

L'exposition Alberto Giacometti, oeuvres de la maturité est présentée du 1er février au 12 mai à la

Fondation de l'Hermitage, Lausanne

quelques remarques bibliographiques.

Patrick Schaefer, L'art en jeu, 2002

art-en-jeu.ch, webzine d'information artistique et culturelle francophone de Patrick Schaefer vous offre des critiques d'expositions (plus de 200 pages); un agenda d'expositions sélectif (200 liens); treize années de chronique (blog) artistique au jour le jour depuis 2001. Les boutons ci-dessous vous permettent de naviguer dans le site.
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