The fleeting embrace of Alberto Giacometti, or the artist in the rain

Alfonso Armada

The Walking Man II

Alberto Giacometti
Homme qui marche II [The Walking Man II], 1960
Fondation Giacometti, Paris
© Alberto Giacometti Estate / VEGAP, 2020

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Like castaways, like orphans, like children. We never stop asking the poets of the moment about the meaning of culture in times of darkness. And they always have a well-oiled reply, like a repeating rifle. One has to live. Obviously. Culture has to serve, and those who are not artists have to provide the artist (like Buddhist monks) with their daily sustenance. So they can continue praying. So they can continue creating. And providing the general public with a key to interpretation that they can take with them, like prayer, when night falls again over the terrified city.

Giacometti is not an embraceable artist. If you look, for example, at The Walking Man II, what we barely recognize is our trace in the snow. A silhouette fading away, shedding body mass, consciousness. Without baggage, alone. Is that what this is about? And what about hope?

I have not been able to look again on any of Giacometti’s figures or think about him without hearing, like raindrops falling on an asbestos roof, the words written by John Berger in Mirar: “The extreme proposition on which Giacometti based all his mature work was that no reality could ever be shared.” Yet he took this interpretation a step further: “The act of looking was like a form of prayer for him – it became a way of approaching but never being able to grasp an absolute. It was the act of looking which kept him aware of being constantly suspended between being and the truth.”

Berger started his text by talking about a photograph in which we see Giacometti crossing the street, alone, in the rain, near his studio in Montparnasse, covering his head with his raincoat. He could easily have been one of his own figures. Those figures that the exegetes usually classify with adjectives that are easy to recognize, and which as nouns still appear more like quartz, feldspar and mica: anguish, anxiety, pain, fear.

I never tire of Giacometti, just as I never tire of Morandi. Because I know they are asking nothing of me. Or they are asking nothing more than for me to look and, if anything, think.

We desperately seek comfort, explanations, a hug that protects us, because we are bereft in a world that once seemed solid. Giacometti ‘wrote’ his sculpture like Beckett wrote his plays. After the smoke of World War II had vanished. One day Cioran saw his friend Beckett sitting on a bench on a secluded avenue in the Jardins du Luxembourg in Paris, reading a newspaper as one of his characters would, and preferred not to interrupt him.

Like castaways, like orphans, like children. Are we going to learn anything from this universal lockdown? I can’t speak for anyone else. I can barely speak for myself. Can we really ever get to share reality with someone? Art doesn’t work. Art just is. And the art of Giacometti is art with the minimum of resources. It doesn’t even question us. The figure vanishes in the rain, without an umbrella, sheltering under his own raincoat. Or not even that. Letting his head get soaked. The meaning of life? The meaning of art? A path in the dark. And that intimate glow, like a lamp.

Alfonso Armada. Writer and journalist. Currently deputy editor of ABC and editor of the ABC Cultural supplement. He is also the editor of the digital magazine FronteraD.