Seldom has a biographer been better equipped for his task than is the case with James Lord. As related in the prefatory material, Lord first made Alberto Giacometti’s acquaintance one evening in February, 1952, at the Café des Deux-Magots in Paris. Situated on the Left Bank, this café had at the time become a popular social rendezvous for many adherents of the philosophic credo known as Existentialism. It was here that one of his friends introduced him to Giacometti. Even though Lord’s own professional aspirations were literary in nature, he also possessed a passionate interest in painting and sculpture and was already a great admirer of the Swiss artist’s work. The young American writer came under the spell of Giacometti’s powerful personality and subsequently became a frequent visitor to the artist’s studio as well as one of his models. Before long, he also succeeded in becoming one of Giacometti’s social companions. While Lord never makes any claim of close friendship with Giacometti, their relationship did give him access to much intimate knowledge of the artist’s personal life and aesthetic objectives. Lord put all of this to good use by writing numerous articles on Giacometti in both French and English over the following years. In 1963, moreover, he published a short book entitled A Giacometti Portrait that is devoted to a step-by-step description of Giacometti’s creative methodology. This work is based on Lord’s experience of sitting for his own portrait in oil over a period of eighteen days, and its text is appropriately supplemented by many photographs of the work in progress. A few years later, in 1971, Lord published an extensive collection of the artist’s graphic work under the title Giacometti’s Drawings. All this preparatory activity has now culminated in the publication of Giacometti: A Biography, a labor of love that took the author fifteen years to complete.
Alberto Giacometti was born on October 10, 1901, in a small village called Stampa that is located in southeastern Switzerland, not far from the Italian border. In terms of governmental administration, the village is part of the Swiss canton called Graubünden in German, Grisons in French, and Grigioni in Italian. Giacometti’s parents were Annetta and Giovanni Giacometti, and Alberto was the eldest of their four children. Listed chronologically, his two brothers and one sister were named Diego, Ottilia, and Bruno. The opening chapters of Lord’s biography are highly successful in conveying the special qualities of the Giacometti household as well as those of the region itself. Lord’s sole shortcoming in this regard lies in his failure to identify the primary language spoken in the Bregaglia Valley, where the village of Stampa is located, or even among the Giacomettis themselves. It would surely be of interest to the reader to learn that this language was Romansh, a Rhaetic-Romanic dialect that is still spoken by approximately fifty thousand people within this Swiss canton. Despite this miniscule number of native speakers, Romansh ranks along with German, French, and Italian as one of the official languages of the Swiss Confederation. All that Lord chooses to say about his subject’s linguistic background is to report that Alberto was a brilliant student who excelled in languages, as well as in history, literature, and art, during the time that he spent in residence at the Evangelical Secondary School in the nearby town of Schiers between August 1914 and April 1919.
The canton of Graubünden is much renowned for having produced many notable artists and architects over the centuries. Alberto’s own father was, in fact, regarded by his contemporaries as a painter of major importance by virtue of a large body of work that manifests aesthetic affinities to both Impressionism and Expressionism. Although never mentioned within this biography of Alberto, Augusto Giacometti, a second cousin to both his father and mother, was an avant-garde painter of great distinction. Notwithstanding this rich artistic heritage, Alberto was never overtly encouraged by anyone to take up art as a vocation, although he did receive the full moral support and financial backing of his parents once he arrived at this decision of his own accord. Alberto could never recall precisely when it was that he began to draw, but at thirteen years of age he made his very first sculpture—a bust of his brother Diego. This act of creation proved to be so emotionally exciting that his interest in art henceforth turned into an obsession. Shortly before his eighteenth birthday, after having taken a three-month leave of absence from the secondary school at Schiers, he decided to enroll in the School of Fine Arts in Geneva upon the advice of his father. The formal instruction offered by this institute proved to be uncongenial to the independently minded young man, and he later insisted that he had attended classes for only three days. Lord, for his part, conclusively demonstrates that Alberto actually continued to attend for many months. In any event, Alberto left Geneva after six months and returned to the home of his parents.
In the course of the next two years, Alberto spent much time in Italy. In April, 1920, he went to Venice in the company of his father, who was a member of a government-appointed commission in charge of the Swiss pavilion at the international exhibit of art known as the Biennale, and immediately fell in love with the city and its artistic treasures. Above all, he was thrilled by the art of Tintoretto and, after a visit to nearby Padua, by that of Giotto as well. After his trip to Venice, Alberto decided to continue his studies in the art academies of Italy. All he managed to do, however, was to join an art league in Rome that held classes for a few hours each evening. During the six months that he spent in Rome, he lived in the household of Antonio Giacometti, a confectioner who was a close cousin of both his father and mother. Antonio and his wife were the parents of six children, the eldest of whom was a fifteen-year-old beauty named Bianca. Alberto fell madly in love with her at...
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