I know that it is utterly impossible for me to model, paint or draw a head, for instance, as I see it and, still, this is the only thing I am attempting to do. All that I will be able to make will be only a pale image of what I see and my success will always be less than my failure or, perhaps, the success will be equal to my failure. I do not know whether I work in order to make something or in order to know why I cannot make what I would like to make.1
1 Alberto Giacometti, "My Artistic Intentions"/ Response to Peter Selz (1959), in Peter Selz, New Images of Man (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1959), p. 68.
When Tériade, a lifelong friend of Giacometti's and as good a judge of painting as anyone, told me in 1975 that he felt my portrait was the best portrait Giacometti had painted, he was doubtless partly paying a friendly compliment to a sitter, but there can be no doubt that this work is among the better paintings of Giacometti's last years. And it may be significant that it is not perfectly frontal: the sitter is turned slightly towards the right. The unusual pose has not gone unnoticed by writers, and they have naturally inferred that Giacometti chose here to depart from his usual practice. In fact, he didn't choose. Because of a flaw in my eyesight, if I look someone straight in the face I see double, which is painful, so that in order to sit and gaze at Giacometti as he required I had to get his agreement to my turning a little towards one side. For once, he could not control the pose, and this released him from the prison of his obsession [with the frontal view] and allowed him to pay attention to other things.1
1 David Sylvester, Looking at Giacometti (London: Chatto & Windus, 1994), pp. 173-175.
[Around mid-century] I came to see Giacometti, not only as the creator of a number of sculpted figures and heads which inhabited space in a uniquely vertiginous, hallucinatory fashion, but also as the saintly knight without armour who had come to redeem art from facility and commercialism… [He] gave serious substance to the hope that [figurative art] could be made new."1
1 David Sylvester, "Curriculum Vitae," About Modern Art, 2nd ed. (New Haven & London: Yale UP, 2001), p. 15.
At the first sitting he started two paintings—a large canvas for a three-quarter length in medium close-up, and a small canvas for a head-and-shoulders in close-up which was abandoned after the second day. He painted sitting down, putting thin paint on rapidly, mostly with sable brushes. His glance moved very quickly, almost continuously, between canvas and model; he rarely hesitated before making a mark. He never got up to stand back and take a look at the picture. He waited till the next break for a more distant view—and then, as this particular canvas was large by his standards and there was little room to move in the studio, he would sometimes take it outside. There would generally be three breaks in a session, two of them to allow me to stretch my legs, the other long enough for coffee at a nearby bar.
Sometimes, at the end of the day, the head was softly modelled, atmospheric, and sometimes hard and stark. One small area, the middle of the forehead, remained relatively unchanged, as if this central vertical plane were serving as a point d'appui. At one stage, after a few days, the head was rather bright in colour, predominantly terracotta; within a day or two it was grey and dark; later some colour came back, then went again. The underlying aims seemed to be, from what he said recurrently, to get the nose to appear to project from the face as it did in Byzantine art and to give the head the presence of a portrait of Gudea: he several times spoke, alluding to my ancestry, of the ancient relationship between the Jews and Chaldeans.
The painting developed as Giacometti's talk habitually developed: one line of argument was pushed to an extreme, and then an opposing line was taken up and pushed to an extreme; any assertion had to be balanced against its antithesis; reality was not either/or but both/and. The more he pinned down something he had seen, the more aware he would be the next day of just those things in the model which contradicted what was on the canvas—as if by being on the canvas this was not subtracted from his sensation of the model. Each day's work seemed an attempt to reconcile the contradictions between what had been got so far and what emerged as he went on looking…. A remorselessly dialectical approach precluded the idea of reaching a conclusion.1
1 David Sylvester, Looking at Giacometti (London: Chatto & Windus, 1994), pp. 125-130.
David Sylvester (1924-2001) was a highly regarded art historian, critic, and curator who championed Giacometti's work over the course of his career. He was introduced to the artist in 1948 and they met at his studio periodically for many years. The twenty sittings required for this portrait, which the artist initiated, began in the summer of 1960. The portrait's heavily worked surface reveals Giacometti's struggle to convey his perception of reality, a common theme in Sylvester's essays about the artist.