6 Things you didn't know about Alberto Giacometti
Catherine Grenier's new biography of Alberto Giacometti reveals fascinating facts about the Swiss sculptor's childhood and adult life...
The Giacometti family (Alberto, Annetta, Diego, Ottillia and Giovanni) on the steps of their home in Stampa, c. 1906
The eldest of four children of a well-known post-Impressionist painter, Giovanni Giacometti, and Annetta Giacometti, Alberto grew up in a well-to-do family and a highly artistic environment that sparked his own passion for art.
It was his mother Annetta, however, who had a particularly strong influence on young Alberto which continued to manifest itself throughout his entire life.
A strong matriarch figure, she was both adored and feared by all four of her children: Alberto, Diego, Bruno and Ottilia. Biographer Catherine Grenier writes, “A protective and loving presence, this formidable woman kept the core of the family together as long as she lived.”
Indeed, throughout Giacometti’s entire life, Annetta would support him financially, and influence his life choices when it came to women, political views or art. Her judgement was a source of great anxiety for the artist, who sought his mother’s approval for every woman he’d ever been with.
An encounter with a stranger
An open-minded and curious young man, Alberto once took a trip with a stranger that changed his life. On a train trip from Paestum to Pompeii in 1921, he casually started talking to an elderly man who turned out to be an incredibly knowledgeable, intelligent Dutch librarian, Mr Van Meurs.
Sometime later, Van Meurs invited Alberto to join him on a trip to the Italian Alps and Venice, an invitation he promptly accepted. His letters to his parents reveal that he learned many things from the cultured man, who knew all about flowers and plants.
However, the trip took a sudden dark turn when, on the fourth day, Mr Van Meurs fell ill and died suddenly. Since a doctor couldn’t be found, Alberto looked after the dying man in his final hours. This event scarred the 20-year-old artist and left a profound mark on his perspective on life and death.
In a letter to his parents, he wrote, “My dear ones, I am still full of terror and astonishment, I feel lost. Fate can be so inexplicable and terrible. Less than three hours ago, Mr Van Meurs died in the presence of me and a chambermaid. It’s appalling, it seems incomprehensible.”
Alberto and Annette Giacometti and Yanaihara near Stampa, 1961
Following an attack of mumps when he was just an adolescent, Giacometti became infertile. As a result, he was plagued with doubt about his virility and impotence issues for the rest of his life.
To alleviate this burden, he would frequently turn to brothels and prostitutes: the only sexual scenario that would put him at ease. He said: “I have always felt very inadequate, sexually speaking. When I came to Paris, in 1922, I was always wriggling out of love affairs because of this. That’s why I’ve always preferred to go with prostitutes...When you live with the problem of impotence, a prostitute is ideal. You pay, if you mess it up or not, it doesn’t matter. With a ‘normal’ woman, when feelings also come into play and you want to leave after an hour, it’s awkward, she doesn’t understand, and failure has its consequences. That is why, when I was 25, I couldn’t bear to spend the night with a woman I loved.”
An eclectic circle of friends
Henri Sauguet, Jean Desbordes, Luis Buñuel, Francis Poulenc, Christian Bérard, and Alberto Giacometti at Villa Noailles, Hyères, 1932
At the height of his career Giacometti knew everyone and everyone knew Giacometti. An important figure on the Paris art scene, he hung out with the likes of Francis Bacon and Luis Bunuel, vacationed with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, took late-night, largely silent walks with Samuel Beckett and was a regular visitor at Pablo Picasso’s studio, though the two would frequently criticise each other’s work; Picasso would mock Giacometti for his constant repetition and Giacometti Picasso for the decorative, superficial nature of his work.
He also shared a friendship with writer and historian Carl Einstein, whom he would frequently meet up with, and who turned the spotlight on Giacometti’s work in his book, Art of the Twentieth Century.
The car accident
Once, on his way back home, Giacometti was hit by a car driven by a drunk driver. It happened so fast that he didn’t even have the time to make sense of what had happened: “I just suddenly knew something had happened to my foot, because it pointed away from my leg as though it was no longer part of my body. I took hold of it, returned it to its normal position and it stayed in place.”
He was taken to the hospital where his foot was set in a cast and he spent the following week at a clinic—an event that shook him to the core. As someone who loved to mythologise the various events in his life, Giacometti attached great significance to the accident.
His foot never completely recovered as he returned to work too soon and neglected physiotherapy. As a result, he developed a limp and was forced to start using a cane—which became an integral part of his eccentric persona.
The Giacometti family on the occasion of Annetta Stampa’s ninetieth birthday (Annette, Alberto, Odette, Annetta, Bruno, Françoise, Diego, and Silvio), August 5, 1961
Forever dissatisfied with his work, Giacometti would relentlessly re-paint and re-make his sculptures and paintings till the very last moment and, even then, he would never be quite prepared to declare them finished.
Such was the case with his exhibition at the Venice Biennale when, in the last moment, as the exhibition was already being hung, he grabbed his brushes and started painting the sculptures on the very last night. For Giacometti, nothing was ever quite as it was supposed to be and he would have loved to redo it all.
Alberto Giacometti: A Biography by Catherine Grenier is out now, published by Flammarion