The Books Interview: Michael Peppiatt

Michael Peppiatt talks about his new book, In Giacometti's Studio.

You've written extensively about Alberto Giacometti. What's different about your new book, In Giacometti's Studio?

I wanted to do something more in-depth, using the studio as a focus. This was a terrific opportunity to gather up photos of the studio and to publish them together in a single volume.

The studio was a rather confined space, wasn't it?

Yes, but through the photos you get the impression that it was vast. It was about five metres by four: five big paces by four big paces. And it was just full of stuff - finished sculpture, sculpture that was under way under wet rags, stacks of paintings, heaps of detritus, old plaster, broken-off fingers and God knows what else. But that made it one of the most visually fascinating spaces ever, and that's what attracted all those photographers. That's why they went there - to see the ordinary made so memorable. Brassaï's photograph of the studio makes it seem rather austere, almost monastic. Giacometti had one obsession and one obsession alone, and that was his work. Nothing else really counted and everything else was peripheral or secondary to that. The space suited him because he could work there. He worked well there.

Is this book as much about Paris as it is about Giacometti?

While Giacometti was there, there is no doubt that Paris was a cultural Mecca. And you might say he was very much part of the reason why it was a Mecca. He was one of the leading lights and Paris probably began to lose its supremacy around the time of his death in 1966.

Was Giacometti's break with surrealism the turning point in his career?

He had extraordinary early success as a surrealist. Along with Dalí, he was the number-one surrealist sculptor. But then he found that he had taken a wrong path and was producing objects rather than sculpture. When he crossed the surrealists, when he crossed Breton, he was out. People cut him
in the street and looked the other way. The Paris dealers just washed their hands of him. He could have gone on turning out those things for the rest
of his life. Stopping was a courageous thing to do, but for him there was no other way - it was necessary to stop. From about the mid-1930s right the way through to the late 1940s and early 1950s, he went into a period of neglect. He was looked upon as a sort of inspired madman who destroyed everything that he made.

How important to Giacometti was his friendship with Francis Bacon?

I think each was happy that the other was around. Although they were very different in virtually everything you could think of, they were both in their ways obsessed with the idea of conveying the force and brutality of human beings. In a sense, all great artists are concerned with that, but for them, living through the heyday of abstraction, it was particularly difficult. They were in something of a minority, and I think it was a great sort of solace to know that they were both struggling away. They were interested in each other's work, certainly. Bacon was more impressed by Giacometti's drawings than by the sculpture. Drawing is the touchstone of Giacometti's art, and drawing was the thing that Bacon couldn't do. He thought that he could go straight to the act of painting - partly because he'd never learned how to draw. So he was making a virtue out of a necessity.

Did he also associate much with writers?

He loved the company of poets and writers. He didn't have that many close artist friends. For discussion and just hanging out, he preferred the company of writers - Breton, Sartre, Genet and Beckett. He and Beckett arrived in Paris at about the same time; they were both outsiders. I don't do it in this book, but there is a study to be made of the relationship between Giacometti's art and Beckett's writing.

Michael Peppiatt's "In Giacometti's Studio" is published by Yale University Press (£35)
“In Giacometti's Studio: an Intimate Portrait", an exhibition of nearly 100 works by the artist, runs at Eykyn Maclean in New York until 18 December.

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This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle