A timeless memoir of watching an artist at work in Paris in the 1960s
A Giacometti Portrait. By James Lord. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 117 pp., $15, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
In 1964 James Lord sat for a portrait by his friend Alberto Giacometti, who had won the grand prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale two years earlier. Lord — a young, handsome, American writer — took notes and drew on them for an elegant memoir that has retained its appeal for nearly half a century.
A Giacometti Portrait gives a vibrant account of the work habits of a man who lit cigarettes as he painted (holding them in his left hand, which also held his palette and brushes) and seemed unaffected by the whorls of smoke that wreathed his head. The book is also a perceptive study of an artist who believed he could never reproduce on canvas what he saw but who had a compulsion to try that caused him continual anxiety.
At times it was exhausting take part in “an effort that acknowledged in advance its own futility but which at the same time insisted that nothing was more valid than to make that effort anyway,” Lord says. One day Giacometti lamented that the portrait was going badly: “It’s the revenge of the brush on the painter who doesn’t know how to use it.” Later that day, he seemed to change his mind. The painting gave him an “opening” to make progress: “This is the first time in my life I’ve had such an opening.”
For all the ups and downs, Lord enjoyed the 18 days that Giacometti spent on his portrait and had the foresight to take photographs of the picture different stages, a dozen of which appear in his book. He doesn’t speculate on whether his friend’s hairpin mood turns might betoken more than the usual artistic insecurities, perhaps a low-grade mania, and his restraint has helped to keep his work from becoming dated: It lacks the therapeutic cant that of recent memoirs. Apart from its insights into the creative processes of a modern master, A Giacometti Portrait has striking glimpses of the artist’s relations with his wife, his dealers, his admirers, and his brother Diego, and others who moved in and out of his Paris studio.
In an optimistic moment, Giacometti suggests to Lord that his portrait may lead to an artistic breakthrough: “You see, you’ve done me a tremendous favor.” No evidence suggests that the work was a watershed for an artist better known for his attenuated sculptures that suggest the weariness of Europe after World War II. But Lord did Giacometti another kind of favor with this memoir. In an afterword, he expresses the hope that people will see in his book a small part of what made the artist remarkable and adds, rightly, “To see even so little will be to see very much.”
Best line: Giacometti explains why he believes Cycladic heads are “more alive and convincing” than Roman busts: “To make a head really lifelike is impossible, and the more you struggle to make it lifelike the less like life it becomes. But since a work of art is an illusion anyway, if you heighten the illusory quality, then you come closer to the effect of life.”
Worst line: None.
Published: 1965 (Doubleday hardcover edition), 1980 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux paperback). This review is based on the 1965 book.
You may also want to read: Man With a Blue Scarf, the English art critic Martin Gayford’s 2010 account of sitting for a portrait by Lucian Freud. A Giacometti Portrait is perhaps more revealing because Lord and Giacometti were closer than Gayford and Freud are, but the books are of similarly high quality.
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© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.