Resnais, Giacometti and Seductive Maniera
By Richard Marshall.
‘Point to the fog. Now point away from it. Now brush your teeth.(Philosophy as a type of activity)
[Jerry Fodor parody of Wittgenstein]
‘Seduction is the premature ejaculation of the future. It works best after brushing your teeth.’
‘Always attach yourself to the best master and, following him everywhere, it would be unnatural for you not to take on his manner and his style’ writes Cennino Cennini in his ‘Libro dell’arte’ at the end of the fourteenth century. What is this style? Perhaps no more than the artists’ hallmark that can be acquired by others. Raphael writes: ‘ The monuments of our time are known for not having a style that is as beautiful as those of the times of the Emperors, or as deformed as those of the time of the Goths.’ In Vasari ‘style’ or ‘manner’ (the word used was ‘maniera’) becomes a key. It came to mean the surpassing of nature, with Michelangelo the parade case. By the seventeenth century Bellori could write: ‘Artists, abandoning the study of nature, have corrupted art with maniera, by which I mean a fantastic idea, based on practice and not on imitation.’ And then maniera becomes a negative.
Abraham Bosse in 1649 explained the proliferation of artistic style in terms of deficiencies of skill: ‘ .. because ignorance reigned for a period of time among the practitioners of this art, many of them as a result came to formulate manners that pleased their particular fancies.’ Manner/style was a hallmark and whim. Andre Felibien said it was ‘… the habit painters adopted for the practice of all aspects of painting, whether it be composition, or design, or use of colour.’ It was something students could copy and connoisseurs spot. By 1672 it had been loaded with negative connotations of being ‘… a more or less happy failing… a way of always seeing in the same way… a thing we put in place of nature … an art that consists merely of its perfect imitation, as compt de Caylus put it. It was a lack of manner that was approved in artists. Diderot writes in 1767: ‘ It would seem, then, that manner, whether in social mores, or criticism, or the arts, is a vice of civilized society… Every person who departs from the appropriate conventions of his state and his nature, an elegant magistrate, a woman who despairs and swings her arms, a man who walks in an affected manner, are all false and mannered.’
You get this condemnation of style in someone like John Cage. Perhaps his is an expanded sense, where sometimes now we condemn something because it strikes us as art. When Cage was trying to get across something about his work he talked about Webern and why Webern no longer created a situation of concentration for him. He said, ‘ He did… He no longer does… It’s just that it doesn’t work for me any longer in that way. It just sounds like art, that’s all.’ And then he goes on to liken the big music of Mahler, Bruckner and Wagner to machines, rejecting them and saying that ‘… I’m not making a machine. I’m making something far more like weather.’ This is taken on, perhaps in a different direction, by the painter Philip Guston when he talks about figuration and a Rembrandt self-portrait he’d been looking at. He says: ‘ Honest to God, I didn’t know what I kept looking at; finally, I didn’t know what it was. I mean, next to it was a Van Dyck and you said: yes, there’s a portrait; but, if the Van Dyke is a figure, well what is the Rembrandt? Actually, something very peculiar goes on there…the Rembrandt seems to be so dense; you feel that, if you peeled off a piece of forhead or eye, you know, as if you’d opened up this little trap door, there’d be a millennium of teeming stuff going on. I don’t know what it is, finally… the more you think about these things, the less the things appear as they are supposed to appear. In those great Rembrandts there’s an ambiguity of paint being image and image being paint which is very mysterious.’ I guess ‘manner’ in the pejorative sense is a cancellation of that mystery, when it is just recognized as art. Levered out of the plane of reality into that of art there’s a loss of a kind of frustration where the object under consideration – be it a painting, film, novel, poem, dance, sound etc, gets in the way of knowing where the plane is. It erases the plane and leaves us with a disturbance. Guston says: ‘ The Rembrandt says: I am not a painting, I am a real man. But he is not a real man either. What is it, then, that you’re looking at?’ Something similar happens with a Tinteretto portrait seen by Alex Katz in Berlin: ‘The interest… was gestural… there’s just about no colour and just about no form and there’s a real person there and everything is there with hardly any means…’
Something is happening that is mysteriously cast as unspeakable. Russian existentialist Lev Shestov in ‘Athens and Jerusalem’ in 1951 writes about the moment when, in a spectacular moment of transformational perception, we are able to access something of a universalisable truth – he thinks of universal truth as a kind of right for the ordinary, ‘empirical personality’, as he calls us. He writes; ‘It is only when we are alone with ourselves, under the impenetrable veil of the mystery of individual being, of an empirical personality, that we sometimes decide to renounce these real or illusory rights, these prerogatives that we enjoy by virtue of our participation in a world that is common to all. It is then that the final, or near-final truths suddenly burn bright before our eyes.’ Nicolas Berdyayev emphasized a more communitarian version of this but nevertheless saw that from this perspective ‘Truth is not a reality, nor a corollary of the real; it is the very sense of the real, its Logos, its supreme quality and value.’ It is through the creative act of the person that an eschatological meaning emerges, the sort of mysterious meaning Katz and Guston and Cage hint at.
Must we lose grace and beauty in overcoming manner and art? A grace that exceeded nature, couldn’t but be artifice, and might be condemned. But everything that can be found will be found. Find elegance as ‘… a certain light which is given off by the perfection of things which are well arranged and well divided between one another, and as a whole…’ then it avoids being merely agreeable art. There may be a way of rescuing manner and style and art. Perhaps the French chauvinism of the contemporary philosopher Badiou hints at the possibility when he places clarity at the disposal of seduction.
Badiou thinks Descartes wanted his thought to stand out sharp and lucid. He wanted it to be unambiguous whilst showing that he knew his way around the decadent Latin of science. French language was about the freedom to use language whilst holding to ‘scientific’ scholarly institutions. French philosophical language is conservative in this sense; it doesn’t want to totally break away. Badiou argues that the use of French is not about the language itself but rather was about the democratic communication of philosophy. He cites Descartes approvingly: ‘ Those with the strongest reasoning and most skill at ordering their thoughts so as to make them clear and intelligible are always the most persuasive, even if they speak only low Breton.’ Reasoning, digestion of ideas and clear transcription are its virtues. This latter point is the idea that there isn’t one pure transcription or formulation of truth. So for the French speaking French is just the option that they have to speak to all in France. According to Badiou being able to seduce women is also a reason for using conversational French for your philosophy. Again he cites Descartes: ‘ Such a varied and complete knowledge of all is to be found not in some aged pedant who has spent many years in contemplation but in a young princess whose beauty and youth call to mind one of the Graces rather than grey-eyed Minerva or any of the Muses.’
Badiou suggests that the French have been turning philosophy into a pick-up line ever since. ‘This intention will be repeated by all the notable French philosophers, who comprise a significant anthology: Rousseau, and also in his own way Auguste Compte, and then Sartre, as well as Lacan. All of them wished to be heard and admired by women and knew that they mustn’t be courted in Latin nor in the language of pedants.’ Answering two questions; where does philosophy come from? And; who is it for? Badiou answers the first by saying it comes from anywhere by a free act and the second that it’s for women and the working class. And who should it exclude? Intellectuals, especially those of the Sorbonne. It requires using contemporary literary French and although this carries the risk of being snobbish and aristocratic Badiou thinks it is worth those risks.
He contrasts this use of literary French on French philosophy with German philosophy which opens language up to their Indo-European roots, seeking out ‘being’ and ‘community.’ Literary French supposes itself as a vehicle of delights for the tongue and ear without priestly gravity, as Corneille says of the theatre. French philosophy is ‘not evoked by its origins but rather towards the idea… that a language in the hands of a writer can say exactly what it wishes and … by its charm seduce and rally those to whom it is addressed.’ French gives the transparency of an idea not its depth. Badiou rallies this thought via the phrase ‘the essence of language is syntax.’ Classical French has been policed to smoothness through Montaigne, Rabelais, La Rochefoucauld, Pascal to Racine’s alexandrines to present itself around verbs and liaisons. Empiricism and phenomenology are alien to its concentration. It is impatient and affirmative, better with solutions to enquiry than ‘hestitation, repentance … the slow questioning ascent toward the dark and saturated point of origin. He contrasts this with English, which he sees as the language of phenomena, nuance and descriptive subtlety. Badiou thinks that even in the creative disorder of Mallarme and Lacan it is ‘the spirit of the maxim that wins out when it concentrates.’ Lacan’s ‘women don’t exist’ and Mallarme’s ‘every thought sends out a throw of the dice’ pressurises their allusive content to these points. Domiciled in Paris, Milan Kundera writes to both these aphoristic and seductive appetites.
French hollows out substance. It reduces, searching for the aphoristic core. It is thin language. Compte writes in a language that’s articulated and pompous, ‘brutishly declarative’ and juxtaposes ‘ the speech of the flesh and that of the confession.’ French aims to achieve an extreme compactness that would make doubting it insolent. In Compte every noun is flanked with an adjective that consolidates it. In Sartre too there develops a style of syntactic heaviness to unify semantic contraries. In doing so the risk is the loss of colour and a mad surfeit of verbs and their sequences, a ‘vertiginous stretching of the verbal dough’ whose aim is not descriptive or analytic precision but is rather ‘to extract agreement from the readers as a result of their having seen the thought create and expose itself completely according to its proper declarative force.’ The lengthening of sentences, the gathering up of all the components of the thought all at once requires ‘navigation reading’.
Badiou asks whether this is Marxist style. It is doubtless the politicization of all philosophical language into this totalisation. The crafty charm of puns and Mallarmean formulas are equally so. Sentences of French philosophy are then required to be persuasively beautiful, holding opposite predications together in acts of fading. So we read Lacan: ‘An enunciation that denounces itself, a statement that renounces itself, an ignorance that sweeps itself away, an opportunity that self destructs – what remains here if not the trace of what really must be in order to fall away from being’ as enacting this. Enunciation fades to renunciation, and Badiou dances around with polyvocal conjunctions and ‘the extinction that still gleams’ to fuse aphoristic intuition with ‘the electric arc of thought’ using the syntactic precision equal to La Rochefoucauld and the formal binaries of a French garden a la Resnais’ ‘Last Year in Marienbad.’ Deleuze and Guattari are the great seducers in this line: ‘ pure positive multiplicities where everything is possible, without exclusiveness or negation, syntheses operating without a plan, where the connections are transverse, the disjunctions included, the conjunctions polyvocal, indifferent to their underlying support, since this matter that serves them precisely as a support receives no specificity from any structural or personal unity, but appears as the body without organs that fills the space each time an intensity fills it…’
What is this? It’s the laying out of the concept on a sort of sub-latin, one thing being said after another without verbal exchange save between those ‘authorised by the grammar of sequences and the regulation of univocities.’ Resnais’ great film and Robbe-Grillet’s script may be its cinematic metaphor. Badiou sometimes envies German philosophy with its ‘idolatrous semantics the depths offered by infinite exegesis’ and the English resource of irony, its suface textures, its ability to circumscribe argumentation and describe without totalisation because ‘the grammar is never of the here and now.’ Italian ‘muddles everything at will and is running thirty different conversations at once, all erudite and mimetic’ which allows it to keep an eye on ‘the other possible affirmation that a simple repentance over the sentence may bring to mind.’ His French philosophy offers ‘universal propositions in ‘stiff maxims or badly nuanced derivations.’ Translated into French Heidegger becomes lucid and boring, English philosophy flat and Italian just ‘discouraging chatter.’ French is one with the notion of an eternal philosophy – mathematics over myth, litigation rather than elegy, sophism rather than prophesy, democracy rather than tragic caesura. Badious thinks that certain things have to be said in French philosophy. Sartre’s ‘Man is a useless passion’, Lacan’s ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’, Althusser’s ‘ philosophy is that strange place where nothing happens, nothing but this repetition of nothing’ are maxims that are then endlessly looked at for their consequences. They work as axioms from which fertile derivations empty speech of colour. French philosophy becomes an endless process of purification once the idea is in the material place that grasps it. Descartes thought memory as slow perception. Badiou’s hilarious account of French philosophy is a series of seductive tropes working from a memory of pure likeness.
It’s no surprise that for Stewart Home, the master of inauthenticity, Alain Resnais’s film ‘Last Year in Marienbad’ is one of his favorites. Yet Resnais decoupled false and mannered in ‘Last Year In Marienbad’, as did Giacometti in his sculptured walking figures and his heads. So there’s maniera in the pejorative sense and maniera in the positive sense. Like I said at the start, it’s complicated. Resnais and Giacometti give us examples of mannered and true. They can still force attention on some of us. They look, and press on us a duty to concentrate so we go further. In the Resnais the images of the ceiling, the figures, the garden are resolute, simultaneously dead and alive, a haunted reality and abstract form that grasps the one without losing the other. Resnais takes us to the kind of restrictions we find in Egyptian and Byzantine art, an insistence on formal, compact, impassive poses, a deep impersonality where the value of a room, or its panels, its elaborate surfaces, the looming ceilings and ornate furnishings create a sense of cellular time that are imprints of gestures of eternal things. The figures are a state, a means to the next figure. We are watching something unfolding in time quicker than it’s unfolding in space. There are movements that are too slow for us to know. When philosopher Michael Dummett investigates the sorites paradox in his classic paper ‘Wang’s Paradox’ he describes a situation in which ‘… I look at something which is moving, but moving too slowly for me to be able to see that it is moving. After one second, it still looks to me as though it was in the same position; similarly after three seconds. After four seconds, however, I can recognize that it has moved from where it was at the start, ie, four seconds ago. At this time, however, it does not look to me as though it is in a different position from that which it was in one, or even three seconds before.’ There is an internal conflict in what we see. It is a conflict that binds us and cannot release us. Similarly, Resnais presents a film whereby something altogether unknowable is presented. The mannered style is nothing more than Resnais presenting us with our universe and its literal obscurity. In the face of such, the manner is coupled with a truth that is adroit and despite the surface, a matter of a glance. All the stillness and incomprehensibility takes in each of the observed figures and they become altogether unknown in that moment. The inertness gains weight and then a feeling of silence looms before everything transforms so movement becomes a series of points of that silence, as if fragmenting it. When a person is talking there is no movement but just this series of stillness, one after the other, each detached and when broken followed by another stillness going on for eternity. Here the manner gives us an experience we haven’t held before, a truth about heads and figures in a void, where the space is seen surrounding them, Giacometti’s ‘immeasurable chasms of emptiness’ even.
Etruscan, Sumerian, Egyptian and Cycladic art vibrate in Resnais’s weird armature and manner. The impression of flatness and slenderness is omnipresent despite the shadows that contradict this. A lateral attenuation is fixed in with his use of panning and is so extreme that there is over the time of the movie an unbearable sense of a disappearance of the figures on an unimaginable scale. Figures are placed so that it is impossible to not think they have been composed. Though clothed each figure is an erotic caricature that hints at the classical, a tendency towards the nude rather than the figure in lingerie. The unbearable tension is that of a postponement: a dénouement that is besides the point alongside a premonition of everyone being subsequent figures of another memory elsewhere, in another time. What strikes me always is the distance between the figures and the distance from the audience, as if there is such a violence in the concentration that perhaps we are too close to see, or not ever near enough. There is a dynamic presence throughout, a poetic mood constantly in tune with a direct confrontation that is taking place without you knowing quite where, or how, or between what. It is this that contributes to a sense of dread. The figures are neither caught unawares but there are secrets that their stillness and motionless, pinioned gestures suggest. Desire stays beyond reach – both ours as voyeuristic onlookers wanting the final say, and their own, inviolate within separate spaces. Dissociating time and space, the strange narrative voice is inconclusive, a work that can’t ever be finished. Its quiet activity throughout plunders the spaces presented to maintain a momentum of desire and sensuality that is shifting, fugitive and unquiet forever. Its rigid forms, the Resnais manniera, traps its male and female erotic desire to the intolerable pitch of unfinishable, unsayable, unseeable truth equal to the Tristan and Isolde liebestod and the spellbinding, palpable artfulness of Chirico’s ‘I piaceri del poeta’ of 1911. The gilded ceilings, diabolical parlor games, a gun, the long corridors, the whole décor and dance, Resnais presents both images of mystery but also the further mystery, that of the appearance of a figure. Resnais is investigating the reality of figures moving as if under a spell. Everything is disappearing at the edges of the frame. Each frame is sharp. The atmosphere of a dream is because of the precise recreation of aspects of an appearance. The monochrome adds artifice and poignancy to the belief that the film stock holds back the fleeting memories, that what is running on is staying in the same place, trapped like a ghost.
And then there is Giacometti and his three themes: a bust of a man, a walking nude male figure and a standing woman nude figure. He began from scratch every time he started, rather than take up from where he last left off. He would remake a sculpture fifty times. Each time he finished he would break it down again and start once more. Schoenberg once held a pencil with an eraser and pointing to the end with the eraser he said that that was the important end. John Cage disliked the use of an eraser. It suggested a lack of faith. He said; ‘ It means… that an action has been made, that it has been decided that it is not an action which one wishes to keep, and so it is removed …’ For Cage it was a failure of living with the consequences of ones actions. Duchamp was a model for Cage: ‘…look at what I’m doing. You see, I’m keeping all of those sketches exactly as Duchamp did. I think his example is the one that impresses me. He didn’t throw anything away. He wasn’t ashamed. Finally, what I’m objecting to is … guilt, shame and conscience., in the desire to appear good rather than bad.’
Giocometti erased previous versions not because he was striving for a better version but to test whether he could do it again a second time. The fiftieth version wasn’t likely to be any better than the first, or the twenty-seventh. His view of memory seems to have corresponded with a Cartesian view of it being slow perception. He made his sculptures from memory. He once did a head that was nostalgia for the kind of Greek sculpture that can’t be done any more but this wasn’t typical.
His figures are narrow and get narrower from memory as they get larger. His reproduced perception of 3 dimensional objects back into a 3D plain required he reduced the substance of what is normally found in sculptured figures. The Greek models were impossible from this perspective. Whether he worked from life or from memory they were both versions of the same pursuit. From life he didn’t narrow down and reduce as much as he did from memory. The memory ones were reduced too much and the ones from life weren’t reduced enough is how he saw things. So he wasn’t satisfied of course. But he thought the ones done from memory were better and more real. He could always see more than he could cope with so this helps explain why the ones from life were too full of substance. The ones from memory retained what had made the biggest impression. This was what the memory retained and this was what he then worked out. It enabled him to reduce and to continue to break down the memory more and more. He ended up much of the time working down to the small, narrow scale.
Giacometti gave up working from life when he realized he couldn’t overcome the plenum. He presented an illusion of seeing in his sculpture. The bronze statues were equivocal and mysterious. He would have liked to paint his sculptures so that the material was no longer of interest. He didn’t like the way bronze added darkness and weight avoided by his plaster sculptures. He realized that to have painted his sculptures he would have had to make them much thinner and they would have been intolerable: ‘ … on the one hand it would seem too real, or give you too great an illusion of being real, and then all one would feel was that it couldn’t move. That’s to say, it’s a dead object isn’t it? If you give it eyes, do you paint them? That would be very peculiar wouldn’t it? And if you paint them as if you were looking at them and then they don’t move, well, then the head could become an extremely unpleasant sort of object.’ Eyes were peculiarly fraught. He thought they could never convince you they were as real as supposed at first. Not even Egyptians could do that. But they were real in that they had ‘pent up energy’ which was enough to be disturbing. This is like Guston being disturbed by the Rembrandt, not knowing what he was looking at. There’s a tension which might be resolved as you looked, but might not. Giocometti knew Bataille who found the eye both troubling and erotic.
Giacometti was a realist. So his thin figures are realistic versions of what he is seeing, or remembered seeing. Other sculptures of figures – such as Greek classical sculpture, or Rodin – he thought they were not realistic but conceptual. They made forms based on what they knew was there rather than based on what they saw. Giacometti makes his sculptures based on what he visualizes. It is therefore right to wonder how far away the figure visualized was and where the figure being represented was in the visual field. People standing in front of you at a certain distance can be blocked out of sight by a hand, or a thumb. This shows that visually the figure is smaller than a hand, or thumb. Giacometti’s tiny walking figures were that far away. He was also concerned that by making the figure fit the concept the material used would increase the strain on realism: a stone figure would be impossibly heavy to convey the organic reality of a live body. That it required a crane to move it would render it absurd. And if of terracotta, the emptiness inside would also contradict. He said: ‘ … the fact that it’s empty or a lump of stone already makes it false, because it isn’t at all like that, since there isn’t a millimeter inside your skull that isn’t organic… at the British Museum, looking at the Greek sculptures, I felt they were great boulders, but dead boulders. When I see someone looking at them, the person looking at them has no thickness and seems like an appearance which is almost transparent – and light.’ Giacometti’s solution was to remove himself from the received idea of what a sculptured figure should look like. He said; ‘ If I made a sculpture of you according to my absolute perception of you, I would make a rather flat, scarcely modulated sculpture that would be much closer to a Cycladic sculpture, which has a stylized look, than to a sculpture by Rodin or Houdon.’ It was working from life that made visual realism more difficult because it would reinforce what he knew he was looking at rather than what he actually saw. He found heads in particular problematic, both in sculpture and painting. The one painting of a head he thought was close to what he saw was a van Eyck painting of a man in a red turban.
The size of what he made – a head for example – would depend on how far away the audience was supposed to be when looking at it. Giacometti was impressed that what he took to be the key works of the ancient civilizations of China, Egypt and Sumaria were all of a small scale. He thought this was perhaps a natural instinct to represent at such a scale. Perhaps it seems the size of the image we have has that small dimension, even though we know conceptually the figure we’re seeing is larger. Even as a child Giacometti was incapable of doing things in a larger scale. When drawing pears he kept erasing and erasing until they were tiny, much to the irritation of his dad. He never got figures of any kind back to life size. Giacometti figures are dependent on how far they are from the artist. None of them are closer than two metres because at that distance he couldn’t see them. Sitting in a café watching figures moving or standing across the street they are the tiny figures. Nearer they are different people again. Across the street not only are the figures small but the individual field is vast and so they are surrounded by all this huge space. Giacometti confessed that this space struck him as being so large he found it hard to believe in it. It defied him. He thought that on coming close the visual interest dies in a figure. Giacometti no longer looked at any figure who was close with anything like the concentration he needed, because emotions were being mobilized, and other senses took over, like touch or hearing. Close up the visual is no longer so important. Giacometti’s sculptures are about seeing and therefore he is working with some very concentrated ideas about when we see a figure, how we see them, when seeing is the right element and where it isn’t. Giacometti is incredibly responsive to distances between objects and figures. Fifty centimeter differences made infinite differences. The world is vast in Giacometti. The small figures insist on this vastness: it is about the space that surrounds them. His concentration on this sensitivity meant that he didn’t need to go for walks under the sky because he was able to see the vast spaces surrounding objects and figures form within a café, say, where adjustments in centimeters opened up infinite spaces around chairs, tables, and the figures. Once the pleasure of walking has gone because of this sensitivity than travelling by car or underground is superior to walking. Giacometti was able to see the wonder of single objects, and found the enterprise of trying to draw, say, a glass or a nose or eye so terribly difficult and impossible that it becomes an enterprise of appreciating every little thing in the world. He thought you needed more space to make little figures than large ones because the space surrounding a small figure was so huge and empty. But this was a practical truth too. Making a tiny figure he needed to step back constantly to see how small it was. With a large figure he knew how small it was without stepping back. He didn’t think surreal titles added poetic depth to what he was doing. A glass on a table in a bar was as poetic as anything else and having a fancy title just hides the fact. If we want to see what’s going on the titles are not helpful and don’t add anything.
Giacometti believed that the practical impossibility of reproducing realistically what we see meant that success or failure in art needed to fully acknowledge this fact. He thought we should display our poorer attempts rather than those that might be considered successes: ‘… we ought to exhibit our less good works rather than choose the best. Because if the less good hold up, then the good ones certainly will. If, on the other hand, you choose the ones that seem to be the best, you’re deluding yourself. Because if there are others hidden away that aren’t so good and don’t hold up, even if you don’t show them they still exist. And if someone looks very carefully he can see weaknesses even in the best of them. So we should start with the poorest.’ There’s in this a sensibility close to Cage when he talks about an ethical duty not to pretend to appear good. And it links to the destructiveness of Giacometti’s working practices. Breaking completed sculptures and redoing them, not in a search for perfection or making a better version but rather out of a sense of distrust – of the initial speed of making them – and of a need to continue the process of the grasp, a notion of the memory of ‘a glance.’ Giacometti makes much of the idea of his works capturing just an instant of perception. A glance is what he offers us. The speed of a glance is constituted by not having a second thought. Each time, therefore, that Giacometti makes and remakes the sculpture he is trying to see what the glance captures. In trying to memorize the glance ‘… you go very fast and can hardly have any second thoughts. You would have to demolish the entire sculpture and remake it as it was.’ And this is how he worked. He wasn’t seeking to get it right by remaking, but mistrusted the speed of the process and wanted to see if he could duplicate the first. He rarely did. He said that when eventually he stopped remaking a sculpture he had never made progress in rendering it right but actually stopped ‘… on the very day the work would just be beginning.’ Giacometti didn’t seek contradiction and paradox but nevertheless it resulted from his pursuit of likeness.
Eyes and noses were nearly impossible for him. Eyes seemed to require something that appeared both round and elongated at the same time. Giacometti studied eyes in art and thought no one had been able to master reproducing a realistic eye. The closest were those done by Egyptian sculptures – and Byzantine ones to a lesser degree – and yet not even the Egyptians had perfected it. Yet here we have art that is considered highly stylized and mannered. Giacometti considered it the truest to nature, the most realistic handling of its subject. Just as his own works are sometimes considered. Even when he attempts large figures he is looking to understand the limit of what is realistic, so if a large figure extends out of reality he knows when that happens, where the limit is when something crosses over to decorative art. Although perhaps he was more aware of where the zone of indeterminacy as to what was being produced was. Perhaps he was aware of this vague something, neither decorative nor non-decorative, ‘but another thing altogether.’
The more one looks at Giacometti the more he makes it less easy to see Egyptian art as stylized . The painting, as with the Roman art at Pompei and the portraits of Fayum, are examples of realism for him. They get close to likeness. Cimabue attracts him for staying closer to a Byzantine tradition than Renaissance, as do Cezanne and Giotto. It’s to do with elongation of the figures, as in the strange van Eyck ‘Man in the Red Turban’. What Giacometti dislikes is art that strikes us as art, something superficial and willed. He is still against mannerism in the pejorative sense, but doesn’t find it where others find it. He didn’t think taste stayed put. What is treated seriously now will be laughed at later on. Or forgotten. And maybe retrieved after that. Endlessly. He placed names in this area of his thought. Things were named and made sense for a while but there would come a time when the name was lost or forgotten or changed and then the named object would also change. He thought the massive enigma of a nameless ocean was a staggering reality beyond maniera. He wrote about copies of art and didn’t believe there was more to it than glances and the erosion through time towards loss. Everything important in them was fragile and precarious. Our attitudes change as we live, and things once thought important stop being important to us.
Francis Bacon knew Giacometti and painted from photographs. James Lord writes that Bacon saw ‘… how photography might by the very inaccuracy of its visual effects enlarge rather than restrict the extent of painterly possibilities.’ So here’s another direction for considerations of manner, style and likeness.
Bacon thought Giacometti the greatest draughtsman of his time but found his sculpture too much like art.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 10th, 2014.