The Wisdom of Giacometti

Swiss-born Alberto Giacometti in one of the world’s most controversial sculptors. A major exhibition of his work, now at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, wilt go to Chicago in November and to California next year. Last fall, while he was preparing for this exhibition, Carlton Lake, American art critic and collector, talked with him in the Paris studio where he has worked for forty years.

I WALKED into the café Le Gaulois on the Rue d’Alcsia. Down past the bar at my left, against the back wall, I could see Giacometti, bent over his coffee. It was a little after noon — his breakfast time. I walked on past the bar into the small, crowded back room and stopped at his table. He was reading his mail, slowly stirring the steamy black coffee in the cup before him. The conversation at the surrounding tables was loud. Two waiters crisscrossed the room, called out orders, went to the bar to pick them up. Outside, cars and buses strained toward their destinations. Giacometti, absorbed in a catalogue of an exhibition of drawings by the Belgian poet Henri Michaux, seemed oblivious to everything else. Finally he drained his cup and looked up at me. I could see the wheels begin to turn.

“Tiens,” he said. “Sit down.” He pointed to the chair opposite. I sat down. He asked me if I wanted coffee. I said, “No, thanks.” “Encore un petit café,"' he shouted. He pushed aside his mail and offered me the remnants of a cellophanewrapped piece of fruitcake. The waiter arrived with his coffee, and he began to stir it.

He has the head of a tired lion, long, narrow, and bony, the lines in his face engraved with furrows deeper than any you have ever seen. His hair is a slightly graying dark-brown curly bush that accentuates those furrows and the pallor of his skin. His nose is large, and his mouth broad and never quite closed. He pulled off his horn-rimmed glasses and rubbed his bleary eves. I told him I had tried to reach him several times but hadn’t found him at home or in the café whenever I had looked.

“I just got back a little while ago,” he said. “I’ve been to Switzerland and in the Midi.” I asked him if he was having an exhibition in Paris this year. He shook his head wearily.

“There’s not enough to show, and I haven’t been able to get anything else done. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t get into anything. Nothing seems right. I’m only interested in heads now, and there’s nothing harder than doing a head. I can’t do anything. Must be something wrong with mine.”

I told him I’d like to take a look at what he was doing. He shook his head again.

“There’s nothing to see in the atelier. Nothing at all. I just can’t do anything. I gave up figurative sculpture in 1925 because it was absolutely impossible for me to do a human head. For ten years I did abstract work. Then in 1935, I came back to figuration. It was just as though I had never done a head before. I didn’t even try to do a complete figure. It was too much. And it doesn’t get any easier. It just gets harder all the time.”

Giacometti grew silent, He sipped his coffee, puffed on his cigarette, lit another from the end of that one. Through the haze I could see he was studying me, staring right through me, alternating between intensity and a preoccupied air. I had the feeling he was trying to imagine what my head looked like under the skin, visualizing a portrait and at the same time probing behind the eyes, into the sockets, for the cranial and maxillary structures, as he seems to have done in some of the portraits of his wife, Annette, his brother Diego, and other favorite models.

The waiter began sweeping under our table, first around, then over our feet. Loud stereophonic wails were coming out of the jukebox behind us. Giacometti rubbed his forehead as though the sound were oppressive to him. He looked gray and distant. I got up and told him I had to be getting along. He pushed aside the unwanted piece of fruitcake, slid out from behind the table. “I do, too,” he said.

I walked with him back to his atelier but only as far as the sagging gray door that leads from the sidewalk into the little courtyard where lie lives and works. I told him 1 was sorry there was no chance to talk more about his work and said something about another time.

“Maybe next week,” he said, in a sudden change of tone. “How about Wednesday?” I said that would be fine. “Gome after seven o’clock,” Giacometti said. “I like to take advantage of the light until then.” We shook hands. I started up the street toward my car, a block and a half away. All the way along I had an urge to turn around, but I resisted it. When I reached the car, I had to search for my keys. Sideways I looked back toward Giacometti’s door. He was still standing there, staring at me.

WHEN I returned to see Giacometti the following Wednesday evening, one side of the double door leading from the sidewalk into his courtyard was open. 1 walked inside. On my left the door to Giacometti’s atelier was ajar. Almost immediately I heard his voice coming from another room nearer the back of the smali narrow courtyard. He was talking on the telephone about a trip to London.

“I’ll be arriving via Newhaven about four thirty in the afternoon,”I heard him say. I shut the door leading to the street. On the back of the other panel was an improvised mailbox more than filled by a package of books from Gallimard, the house that publishes the works of many of Giacometti’s friends Jean Genet, Michel Leiris, Sartre, and others.

The courtyard — alleyway would describe it better — was about thirty feet deep. At the right of the entrance was a studio with small windows, a Scandinavian name on the door, and the appearance of having been unoccupied for years. Straight ahead, two thirds of the way toward the back of the alley, a narrow open wooden stairway led up to a pair of small rooms perched precariously on top of a succession ol outbuildings, which ran along the left side of the alley and which I knew to be Giacometti’s. The one nearest the entrance had a curtained glass door, now partly open, with “Giacometti" painted on it. A large window to the left of the door was curtained from the bottom to just above eye level, with a small skylight set into the slanting roof above it. Next to it was another small room, its door secured by a sturdy new lock. Beyond that door was a large window, similar to the first but narrower, and another skylight set into a dormer. That room, I knew, was the living quarters of Giacometti and his young wife, Annette.

At the other end of the alley, electric wires were festooned along and across every projecting beam. Except for some newly installed drainpipes and the lock on the second door, everything appeared ripe for collapse. In the background Giacometti’s voice seemed the one element that held it all together. One of the purposes of his London trip, it became clear, was to inspect the Fate Gallery. He had never visited it, and a forthcoming exhibition of his work there was giving him some concern. After about fifteen minutes the telephone conversation ended, and Giacometti came out into the aliev. He apologized for the delay and repeated some of the details 1 had heard him explain during the talk, lie pulled out a cigarette and lighted it. His long horny fingernails, packed with green modeling clay, made a strange contrast with the chic dark-blue sport shirt and gray tweed jacket he was wearing.

“Come on inside,” he said, and pointed to the half-open door to his atelier. We entered the small room. “ I never have time to go anywhere,” he said. “I’ve never been to the United States—not even to Germany. This trip to England is just for a few days. I’m only going because I’ve never seen those rooms in the Tate, and I want to get an idea of what my sculptures will look like in them.” He looked at his watch. “I’m expecting a call from Switzerland in ten or fifteen minutes,” he said. “Will you hear the bell?” I told him I would.

“Bon.” He walked over to a stand on which he had set up an armature barely covered with green clay, the beginning of a sculpture of a standing female figure about two feet high. The breasts were indicated clearly, the facial features more sketchily. He began to pinch the clay into shape, moving rapidly with both hands up and down the spindly body. I heard him mutter “Merde!” He picked up a small gob of clay from a mound at the base of his sculpture and filled in a few of the concave surfaces with it. The movement of his thumbs and fingers made a faintly hollow slapping noise like the sound of quick padded footsteps in a quiet high-vaulted room. He kept moving around the sculpture nervously, picking up other bits of clay from the base, sticking them on, pinching them into place.

“You’re sure you’ll hear the bell?” he asked. I told him I was. After a minute he left the atelier and came back almost immediately. “I’ve got all the doors open. It will be easier to hear now.” He went back to his sculpture.

I sat down on a stool and surveyed the disorder. The room was about twelve feet by fifteen. At my right against the wall a small rickety stairway led up to a loggia across the back. At the foot of the stairs, two five-foot statues in plaster, one bearing the remains of some paint, were actively decomposing. A faded wash drawing and rough sketches of standing figures were tacked to the wall. Behind Giacometti, in front of the window, was a long table covered with an indescribable clutter. On a small table beside him I could make out the form of a recently modeled clay bust tightly wrapped in translucent white plastic secured with clothespins. In the right-hand corner of the wall behind him hung a small framed etching by Cézanne, Guillaumin au pendu. In the other corner, on the floor, I could see a plaster bust of a man who resembled Diego, an early realistic head, several female nudes in gilded bronze, and, incongruously, a few green plants in parched earth. The telephone began to ring. Giacometti kept turning around his sculpture, pinching and squeezing. After five or six rings, I told him the phone was ringing. He looked up. “What’s that?” he said, puzzled. I reminded him that he was expecting a call from Switzerland. Perhaps this was it. ”Ah) out,” he said, and left the room.

WHILE he was gone, I went over to a group of paintings stacked against the rear wall of the atelier. All but three faced the wall. These three were portraits of a seated female model, who appeared to be in her late twenties or early thirties. The smallest canvas was about two feet by a foot and a half; the next, perhaps three feet by two and a half; the largest, about four and a third by three and a quarter. In all of them she sat facing and very close to the painter. Her features were carefully delineated in Giacometti’s characteristic manner of constructing a kind of scaffolding for the general framework of the face and then reinforcing all the focal areas — eyeballs, nostrils, lips — with repeated stress. In the smallest, the face had been built up in gray and black, and the head was set off by a whitish-gray nimbus effect with a touch of ocher. The model’s dress was barely outlined and without color.

In the next, the dress had been more carefully worked over in red, and the model’s hands were clasped serenely in her lap. Here the contour lines of her face were painted in white rather than in the gray and black of the smallest portrait. In the largest of the three, the head was markedly smaller and even blacker than in the small canvas, but the lines that repeatedly crossed the face were in white. Only in this large one were the knees and legs of the sitter visible, and the knees were painted with an insistence that made them the most arresting element of the composition.

When Giacometti returned to the atelier after about ten minutes, I was studying the framed Cezanne etching, in an effort to determine, beneath its dusty glass, the vintage and source of the restrike.

“A friend gave it to me,”Giacometti said. I replaced the frame on its hook. In one respect, at least. Giacometti reminded me of Cezanne, and I told him so.

“That’s too flattering,” he said. (Giacometti has a slight speech defect: his r’s sound almost like w’s.) I told him I didn’t mean it that way, but I felt that he had the same intense preoccupation with his own private vision the visual sensation — that Cezanne had and that for him nothing else really counted. He looked alarmed.

“Not at all,” he said. “People mean a lot to me. My friends, that is.” I conceded that, but said 1 felt he couldn’t care much about reputations and current vogues or he wouldn’t so obstinately follow that private vision in a direction that ran counter to current trends.

Giacometti nodded. “You’re right there. I am working against the current. And as for reputations — mine or anyone vise’s—He shook Ids head. “I’ve had a bellyful of those.”

I asked him if he worked on sculpture and [tainting at the same time. “Always,” he said. “Every clay. For years.” Then he reconsidered. “Oh, sometimes I let a lew days or even a few weeks go by in which I do only sculpture, but in general, I do both every day. Either I work at my sculpture in the afternoon and paint at night, or vice versa. I have to: there’s so much to do. Next year I have an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and at the same time, one at the late Gallery. Two separate exhibitions. A lot of work, no?” Giacometti looked around the atelier distractedly. “I’ll be right back.” he said, and left the room. In a moment he was back, stirring a cloudy liquid in a tall glass. “I’m supposed to lake something for my stomach after I eat, but tonight I forgot.” he said. I knew he had had a serious abdominal operation in Switzerland, and I had heard conflicting reports about his health since then. I asked him how things were in that department.

“All right,” he said. “ 1 just have to take it easy.” He took a sip of his medicine, looked around the studio, and continued to stir his drink. “There’s almost nothing left around here. I’ve sent off’ everything except for a few things in plaster that I have to go back to work on one of these days.” He took another gulp from the glass. “I ought to start making drawings. I need some for the two exhibitions. Eve got plenty of sculptures, since there are always several casts of each one, but I could use some drawings.” I asked him if he drew a lot.

“Sometimes I go six months without doing any, except maybe sketches on a piece of newspaper. Then I start in again and do a lot. But if I can manage to get back to drawing over the next six months, I’ll be sure to have plenty for both shows.”

“How about paintings?” I asked.

The earlier ones — there are enough in America for the New York exhibition. Plenty. And in England there must be almost enough, too. If they need a few more, I’ll be doing more between now and then. When T go over there on September second to take a look at the Fate, I’ll have a better idea about that.”

Giacometti lighted a cigarette and then turned to the paintings of the seated female model. “Those I started about a month and a half ago.” He peered at the smallest of the three. “Can’t see a thing.” He turned on two naked bulbs that hung from the ceiling. They glared down at the portraits and lighted up other features of the room I hadn’t paid particular attention to before: a castiron stove and a commode with a small Egyptian head under the stairway, a variety of drawings and telephone numbers scrawled on the wall, and a rich profusion of cigarette butts on the floor.

1 hey’rc not very far along, those three,” he said. “I’ve been trying to make something of the two smaller ones. Then I’ll go back to work on the big canvas.” He turned over two small paintings of a male head: one about sixteen by twelve inches, the other about thirty-two by twenty-one inches. “I have to go back to these, too. T his is a friend of mine who comes to pose for me on weekends.” I suggested one would need courage and patience to sit for him. Giacometti nodded matter-of-factly. This man comes every Saturday or Sunday. But she” — he pointed to one of the seated-woman portraits “has posed almost every evening I’ve been in Paris during the last three years. I’ve done quite a few of her. I don’t know how many twenty-five, maybe. I said he had a reputation tor finishing them slowly and releasing them with d ifficulty.

“Finishing? They’re never finished,” he said. “If I have to go away or it’s time for an exhibition, I stop work right where I am. Tout pis. But finished — never. I couldn’t finish a painting if I wanted to. It’s impossible.” He picked up the small painting of the girl and held it off at arm’s length. “ “Take that painting and finish it in the sense that most people use the word ‘finish’? Totally impossible. It would always need something more. First of all. the head must be transformed into colors, no? Then, the longer you work at it, the larger the space around it grows. And then the hands — oh, no, it’s out of the question! The more you try to finish it, the more you find yourself beginning all over again. With sculpture it’s the same thing. If you have an idea of what you want to do and you rely only on memory, you can finish. But if I work from life, I see a little bit at a time, things I spot as I go along. And it’s always changing. Life is in continuous evolution. Each time I make her take the same pose in the same light. Try as I may, it never looks the same to me. So how can I finish?”

GIACOMETTI pointed to the face starkly outlined in black. “I’d like to do that head with colors, not black, but it’s impossible for me to do the construction and the colors at the same time. I begin with the colors, and then the construction gets the upper hand. And to go from there to the color is something which seems almost impossible for me. I don’t know how it’s done. I just don’t see it. Maybe I see less well than the others. They see more quickly, even from a distance, how to make a portrait, and they manage to do it quickly. I see slowly, and I see badly.”

I told him I thought many artists —for example, Picasso in his more recent work — were sometimes less interested in seeing profoundly than in annotating for future use and then passing along to another idea. But not Giacometti, I gathered.

“Not in things like that.” Giacometti said, pointing to one of the three canvases of the seated girl. “But there are things where I work in just that way.”

“In drawing?” I asked.

“In drawing and in some of my sculptures,” he said. I must have looked surprised. “But yes,” he insisted. “I made a sculpture of a dog once. I did it in an hour because I had it so clearly in my mind. You get the essential elements and let it go at that. But I’m much more interested in working the way I do here,” he said, nodding in the direction of the three canvases, I asked if he throught thet difference in method could be attributed to the fact that Picasso worked so rarely from life.

“No,” Giacometti said. “Even with a model, he visualizes his painting beforehand; so whether he works from a model or without one, it’s all the same. He immediately makes an abstraction, takes what he wants. But I don’t. It’s not a matter of choice with me. If it comes out black, that’s not because I want to make it black. I try to do it with colors, but I can’t put on color if I don’t have a framework. And to construct that framework is already such a job, there’s no end to it.” Giacometti pointed to a small taborct in the center of the studio. “While I was in Switzerland, I made a number of drawings — like that: a little table, some chairs. But the longer I worked at them, the more I realized that it was such a complex and difficult job, I could spend the rest of my life just drawing two chairs and a table. I made the drawings to add to the Thompson Collection of my work, which is on exhibition in Zurich. A dealer in Basel brought it from Pittsburgh and sold it to a group of Swiss businessmen. They’re going to create a foundation to keep it as a permanent collection in Zurich. There are at least sixty sculptures, in addition to paintings and drawings. Thompson had only early drawings, and I wanted there to be some recent ones, so I gave them about twenty of the last ones I did. Now I’d like to do some paintings of that composition.” He pulled a chair alongside the little table, moving it back and forth. “This chair, tiiis taboret — I haven’t painted any still lifes in a long time. I’d like to see how it comes out.”

I told Giacometti it seemed to me that he could hardly concern himself to that extent with the woman in the three canvases we had been looking at, and with the infinite possibilities inherent in those two pieces of furniture, if he didn’t have a deep love for the metier of painter and for the objects of his preoccupation. He nodded. “That’s right.” But I had been reading a book about him which talked of his work in terms of violence, sadism, cruelty, rape, and sexual murder. How did he reconcile such opposing concepts?

He shook his head. “That’s going too far,” he said. “There is something of that, perhaps, in the old work of the surrealist period, but certainly not in what I have been doing for nearly thirty years since then. I’m following along in the path of traditional painting, simply trying to understand what I see. In those things of the surrealist period there is a feeling of violence and destruction, but none in what I’ve done since then. Just the opposite, in fact. Since 1935 I have been working from life: the subject is what matters most to me — and because I find it beautiful, that’s all.” He pointed to the head in the smallest canvas. “I could go on painting that head for the rest of my life. And when you work that way, you build a human relationship based on friendship; just the opposite of solitude or cruelty, no? Solitude isn’t my theme, either. Friends mean a great deal to me. It’s always been that way. I’ve always had lots of them and lots of curiosity about people. And when I work, I never think about solitude.” He hesitated. “You know, I think people must get that idea about me because I paint one person alone on a canvas. But when you’re painting one person, you can’t paint two at the same time, unless they’re very small, off in a landscape.

“For the last four years I’ve been working on a book illustrated with one hundred and fifty lithographs. I’ve started, stopped, begun again, done them over, and now the book is completed. Tériade is going to publish it. There are lithographs of the street, my atelier, the room I live in, the café, and lots of other places where I’ve just happened to be — like out in the suburbs, or in a railway station. Let’s say I do a lithograph of you in that café where we were. There are half a dozen people sitting around. But close up like that, I can’t draw you and someone else too. It’s not possible. Either I look at you or I look at someone else. If I succeed in giving an idea of how you look in space, of setting down your head the way I see it in space, I’m not thinking at all about your ‘solitude.’ Of course, if I do a good job, it creates that kind of impression, perhaps. But I’m not making that sort of statement in the lithograph. The same thing with a glass on a table. I do a glass, all by itself on that stand, with its space around it, because that’s the way things are, because the space from where we are to that stand over there is as vast as the space from here to the other end of Paris or from here to the moon. There’s no difference.” The phone began to ring again. I called it to Giacometti’s attention.

“Merde,” he said. “I’ll cut it short this time.”

WHILE he was gone, I studied the three portraits of the seated girl. When he returned, I asked him to show me where he sat while he painted her. He pointed to some small reddish marks on the cement floor, near the back wall. “You see those? They were made by the legs of my chair.” He picked up the chair and placed it so that the front legs covered the marks. He pointed out other marks left by the legs of his easel. “That’s the first mark, then one over there and one down there.” Fie moved the easel onto its marks, sat down in his chair, pulled a small taboret with a bowl of brushes on it nearer to him, and held out his arm straight in front of him. “There,” he said. “She sits right there.” I pulled up “her” chair and sat down on the other side of the taboret, next to the three portraits. In the large canvas with the small head the girl looked as though she were well back from the position of the easel: there was a good deal more depth in that space than in the other two canvases. I told him so. He shook his head.

“At that distance, in that space, a head gets very small,” he said. “No bigger than that.” He made the shape of a rather small grapefruit with his hands. “Just like that. No bigger. It’s obvious. You look at someone across the street. He’s no bigger than that.” With his two index fingers Giacometti measured off the dimensions of a truly pint-size human. I saw his point. But it was difficult, I said, for a nonpainter not to make allowances for the distance and wind up with a mental image that reconstructed the approximate life-size in such circumstances.

“Even painters do that,” he said. “Very few see it the way I do — not to the same extent, anyway. Up until the war I used to think I saw people life-size at a distance. Then little by little I realized that I was seeing them much smaller — and even near to me, not just far away. The first few times it happened, I was walking. It surprised me, but I got used to it. Then I began to notice it at other times. Now it’s that way all the time. That’s the way I see. I just don’t ever see anybody life-size anymore. Not ever.” He leaned nearer to me. “Life-size doesn’t exist,” he said. “It’s a concept. It doesn’t mean anything. Life-size is your own size. And you can’t see yourself. You’re not conscious of your own dimensions. If you couldn’t look at somebody else, you wouldn’t know the size of your own head. And when you get too close to another person, you don’t really see him, either.”

I took another look at the largest of the three canvases. I told Giacometti I had the impression that the model was fairly tall. “No, she’s rather small,” he said. Her head, of course, seemed small and seemed to recede into the background, but the space around it gave one the idea that her frame was that of a larger person, I said. Giacometti studied the painting. “Well,” he said slowly, “I may have exaggerated the depth there very slightly” — he squeezed out the syllables slowly — “mais pas beaucoup.”

I asked him if he had worked on the three portraits concurrently. He nodded.

“For a very practical reason. You can’t go back to work on a painting while it’s still damp. You have to let it dry out. So alter working a while on one, I skip a day or two and work on the others. I dilute my paint pretty thin, but in time, working so long over a canvas builds up a layer, and I have to let it dry.” He leaned over and rubbed the lace of the large portrait with his thumb. He felt the knees, then shook his head. “That’s complicated,” he said. “It’s impossible at this distance to see the head and the knees at the same time. But they’re really not so much exaggerated, you know. Maybe a quarter of an inch in all.”

He got up. “You remember the big Bathers of Cezanne, where one of the heads ends almost in a line, off in the distance — fades off almost to nothing? Or his portrait The Boy in the Red Waistcoat? People say the boy’s arm is too long, but that’s not true. On the contrary, it’s very accurate; not at all exaggerated. It’s just that we’re so in the habit of looking at things from the viewpoint of classical art and its idealized forms that we don’t see anymore.”

I wondered if perhaps that explained Giacometti’s habit of staring long and deep within his subjects. One critic, I recalled, had equated that with a form of mental dissection and attributed it to a preoccupation with death. I asked him about it.

“Nothing at all like that,” Giacometti said. “The outside and the inside are one and the same, anyway. Perhaps that’s the impression I give when I study people, but if you want to construct a head the way you see it, you have to feel the structure of the skull that underlies it. The longer you work at it, the more you feel that structure. If, in the end, you bring it off, the structure disappears once again under the facade. But in order for the facade to stand up, it needs to have that solid structure beneath it. And you feel that. If not, what you clo doesn’t amount to anything.

“Every living head lias a skull and eye cavities and all the rest, and if you want to construct the head, you have to understand the function of a nose, for example. So at one moment your sculpture is the bone of the nose. You can read the structure of the skull better at the top of the nose because it is covered with so little skin there.” He pushed his own ample nose and his frontal bones. “It’s the structure of this, and this. It’s the bone, with a bit of skin over it. If you want to paint the most beautiful girl in the world” —he pushed at his nose again -“that’s what you have to work from. Afterwards you put on colors, but there has to be a structure to hold those forms together. If not, you ve got nothing. So if you don’t concern yourself with what’s inside, you’ll never bring off the outside. Impossible. Everything is impossible, but without that, it’s more than ever impossible.” Impossible or not, the job didn’t seem to discourage him, I said.

“Discourage me?” He shrugged, then remained silent for a moment. “I keep at it because I know that’s the way it is. But the harder I work, the less I succeed. And yet, at the same time, I have all the more desire to work, because it seems all the more amazing to me that I am able to do anything at all. For example, that table with the chair that I thought about while I was away on vacation: it seemed such an impossible task that I just had to try. I couldn’t wait to get back to Paris, just to do a still life of this chair and that taborct. That was the most vital thing in all of Paris. Paris, for me, was that.”

GIACOMETTI looked around the studio. “It’s funny, when I took this place in 1927, I thought it was tiny, ft was the first place I found, and I had no choice. I planned on moving as soon as I could because it was too small —just a hole. But the longer I stayed, the larger it grew. It seems to me now it’s twice as big as it was when I got back here a month ago. I could do anything here. I’ve already made my big sculptures here, the ones of the Man Walking. At one time I had three big ones — two of those and one other — here all at the same time. And I had room to paint, along with them. If I had a larger atelier, the space I’d utilize wouldn’t be any larger. If now I want to do larger things, I have a little house across the street that I bought. Diego lives there. It has a big courtyard. If I want to do something very high, outside, there’s all the room I need.” I asked him if he had any plans of that kind. He shook his head.

“I’m not really interested in doing any more large-scale figures,” he said. “It’s not worth the trouble. I gave up doing them because the eye can’t take in such big things all at once. It’s a waste of time. I decided it would be more useful to me to do heads.” He hesitated. “I would like to do one of Annette, though, starting with a bust and then trying to work down to the feet, if possible. But a little smaller than life-size. That would be plenty big enough.”

He walked over to the small figure in green clay he had been working on earlier in the evening. “Even here you can see it’s not necessary for a sculpture to be big in order to appear big. Even a relatively small head like this one has everything a large head has. And if you make a whole figure, you’re better off to make it undersize rather than oversize so that the eye can take it all in at once. But when you make a head that’s too big and you carry it over into a full-size figure, the whole thing gets out of hand.”

Giacometti came back to his chair under the glare of the bulb. “Look at the Egyptian sculptures —take The Scribe, for example. It’s not big, but the effect is monumental. The finest heads in Egyptian sculpture are the small ones. When they get larger, they’re never quite so good, It’s the same with Sumerian sculpture. Some of those in the Louvre are very small. When they are bigger, they look like enlargements. For use in architecture that’s fine, but they don’t have the same intensity. Besides, it’s much more interesting to try to do what you see rather than just to make an effect. No, big tilings are finished as far as I’m concerned. They don’t interest me a bit.”

Giacometti’s statue Man Walking (1960) reaches a height of six and a half feet; his several versions of Standing Woman, of the same year, are over nine feet high. At the other extreme, he has done a number of figures small enough to get lost in one’s pocket. I asked him if the very small ones still held any interest for him. “If they’re too small, you’re limited, but less,” he said. “Some of the smallest Egyptian sculptures at the Louvre have the most clearly detailed heads. There are two or three where the construction is so perfect that, small as they are, you think they’re big. So if you want to make a sculpture that gives the impression of being very big — a head, let’s say — you should make it like that” — he held up two fingers two inches apart — “but do it to perfection. Then the whole cosmos is in it. That’s true. It’s nothing I thought up. It’s always been that way, whether we’re talking about Chinese sculpture, archaic, prehistoric. It’s the vision that counts.”

I ASKED him if a man with as personal, as private, a vision as his found much to interest him in the work of his contemporaries. “Oh, yes,” he said. Very much? He thought. “Quite a lot,” he said more guardedly. Then, looking at me cautiously, he asked, “Who, for instance?” I mentioned Miró, whose preoccupations seemed far from Giacometti’s.

“Miro’s work played an influential role for me between 1925 and 1930,” he said, “and I felt rather close to him. When I made those abstract constructions, I was pretty much allied to Miró and other surrealists. And then we grew apart. He went one way, and I another. But I still find his work interesting. In fact, the latest things he’s done, those huge hallucinatory heads you may have seen at the opening of the Maeght Foundation in St.-Paul-de-Vence a week or so ago, I like better than anything he’s done in a long time. They’re very strange and dramatic. They make me wonder where he’s going from there.

“Miro is always interesting, but I have the feeling that many artists today are so afraid of being considered old-fashioned, they wouldn’t dream of following nature, of working from life. They think that if they make a head that looks like a head and it’s really well done, they’ll be called postimpressionist, and if it’s very realistic, they’ll be labeled pompier: unoriginal and banal. Actually, it’s just the other way around. The closer you stick to what you really see, the more astonishing your work will be. Reality isn’t unoriginal; it’s just unknown. If one could copy something just as he saw it, it would be as beautiful as any masterpiece of the past. The truer it was, the closer it would be to what you might call a great style. People think Egyptian heads are stylized, or Chinese Buddhas, or Sumerian sculpture. They aren’t stylized; they’re just more true. And when they are more true, that becomes a style. It’s just the opposite of what people imagine. They have the idea that if they stick as close to the truth as possible, it will be photographic or stupid, and it’s just the contrary. But they’re so afraid, they limit themselves. They become prisoners inside a little box. They don’t dare to come out. They don’t dare to do anything, and what they turn out is miserable. Mi-se-ra-ble,” he repeated slowly.

“I never worry about whether a painting or a sculpture is a success or a failure.” He pointed to the canvas of the girl with the head that was a quarter of an inch too small. “That one, for example: it’s a failure in comparison to what I see. Necessarily. If it were a success — but that would be unimaginable. I mean unimaginable. But the more of a failure it is, the more chance there is that there’s a little something worth holding on to. If along with that 95 percent failure, there is 5 percent of something positive, that’s quite a lot. So the word ‘failure’ is meaningless. The same thing with ‘choice.’ When I hold an exhibition, I never choose between the good and the bad things. Never. I put in what I have. If tomorrow I had to hold an exhibition in Paris, I’d put in that” — he pointed to his “failed” painting — “exactly the way it is.” He looked around the studio, pointed to the figurine in green clay he had been working on. “And that, too. That’s where I am. I’m not somewhere else. It’s pointless to give the impression that you’re further advanced than you really are, isn’t it?”

I told him I doubted that very many others took the same point of view about that. Was it a question of humility?

“Not at all,” Giacometti said. “I’m neither modest nor humble. In fact, I think one has to be a little stupid and pretentious to do anything at all. Otherwise you’d never even dare to begin. Just to have the courage to start, you need a touch of idiocy. Without it you wouldn’t even want to start. You’d realize there was no point in trying a head; it’s just too complicated. And if you thought maybe you could do something with a chair, you’d look at the chair and say, ‘Well, I’ll probably never finish it.’ But the more you play around with the idea, the more excited you get about it.

“When I want to do a head in sculpture, I limit myself to an attempt to understand the function of the nose. Because if I understand that a little bit, I’ll understand the rest, too. If I don’t understand that, I don’t understand anything. If I thought ahead to the job of getting as far as the cars or the back of the head, that would seem so immense I’d feel there was no hope of making it. Well, so what? You make it or you don’t, and you stop worrying about how far you get with it.” Giacometti stretched his legs and lit another cigarette. I asked him if perhaps he felt one was better off not to make it.

“But you can’t, even if you want to. So you get as far as you can, but whether you almost make it or you’re far from it, in the end it’s all the same. It’s like someone living to be fifty or ninety. While they’re alive it seems important, but when their life is over, it makes almost no difference at all. You do what you can as long as you’re here, and then you forget about it. My father died at sixtyfive. My mother, who died last January, lived to be nearly ninety-three. When I look back on them, it’s just as though there weren’t any great difference in their ages. One lived a little less than the average, one a good bit more, but now that they’re gone, it evens itself out, and the age doesn’t seem important.

“Time is like that: all of a sudden a childhood memory comes back at you across fifty years as though it were yesterday, and something that happened last year can seem half a lifetime away. Chronological order is as meaningless as a yardstick. If you want to measure a piece of road or a room, a yardstick has a certain utility value, but in itself it measures nothing. You can put the whole world in the length of a yardstick. It can be tiny or immense. It’s the same way in painting: in the space of a yard you can paint three bottles or an infinite landscape. And even in painting that still life with three bottles, you understand the infinity of space. The distance between where I’m sitting and that wall over there has exactly the same effect as all of space.” He looked up at the ceiling. “T can sec that ceiling now, but if I paint the still life, the ceiling passes beyond my vision. If you stand at the far end of St. Mark’s Square in Venice, you see St. Mark’s no bigger than that,” he said, holding up his thumb and index and squinting at them. “If I’m here, and there are three bottles over there, I see them just as big as that, exactly the way I see St. Mark’s from a distance. If I try to paint them, they become just as big as St. Mark’s. It all amounts to the same thing.

“There’s a magnificent painting by Chardin, a plate of strawberries, that was exhibited at the International Exposition here in 1937 in the exhibition Masterpieces of French Art. There were many big canvases, some of them immense. Chardin’s was a very small picture. But it was, in a way, the biggest one in the whole exhibition. That plate of strawberries was as big as a pyramid. It was almost overpowering. It’s the same way with Rembrandt’s drawings. No matter how small they are, as you study them they become enormous.”

Giacometti stood up. For the first time he smiled. “Put them beside some of the biggest paintings you see around these days,” he said, “and even the littlest one seems monumental.”

He walked over to his sculpture-in-process and fell silent again as he began to pinch at the green torso. After a moment I asked him where he thought the future lay in painting. He looked over toward me and smiled again, wanly. “There’s a crisis in painting, they say. The papers are full of it. They’re worried about where it’s leading us. All that seems very remote to me, whether it goes well or badly. Oh, I have a vague interest in it, as a kind of sociological phenomenon, the same way I’m aware of politics and current events, but it really doesn’t touch me very deeply. In fact, not at all. Today, before you came, I was reading about the Battle of the Marne. I find that a thousand times more exciting than all the fuss about who’s a tachiste and who isn’t. Maybe some good will come out of this crisis. Maybe it will let in some fresh air. There’s one fellow who’s doing a lot of good right now, the way I see it. That’s Rauschenberg. He’s stirring things up a little with his photomontages, which aren’t exactly like dad a but are really something new. That doesn’t stop me from continuing to do exactly what I was doing yesterday. But I guess he’s shaking up the nonfigurative painters. All the better.

“But painting, as we know it? I think it has no future in our civilization. Neither does sculpture. What we might call ‘bad painting’ — that has a future. They’ll go on turning out little Brittany landscapes. There’ll always be people who’d like to have a picturesque landscape, or a nude, or a bouquet of flowers hanging on the wall. And they’ll go on turning out illustrations and advertising art. But what we call great painting is finished. From now on there’ll be only discussions of what painting is, a branch of philosophy. Nobody paints anymore to achieve a finished painting like the Van Eycks. They just pose questions about the nature of painting, about what constitutes a painting.

“It’s very strange, isn’t it? I was reading the other day a book of extracts from Hegel’s writings on art, dating from about 1827. He foresaw a kind of painting that would be nonfigurative, that would be based only on color harmonies and would attempt to create the sensation of music. And he said that that painting would not be able to last. Painting as it had existed up until then —that is, 1827 — was finished, he said. And he was right. Because when Cézanne painted a picture, he was no longer painting in the sense that Courbet had painted. Toward the end of his life, Cezanne said, ‘I’m making experiments — experiments toward painting.’ So in his mind the idea of making paintings was finished. And when Picasso does his variations on Velàzquez, on Courbet, on Delacroix’s Women of Algiers, or on Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, he’s no longer asking himself, ‘How do I see a man today?’ He’s making variations and comments on the history of art, exercises in style. But painting — painting is finished.”