Art and Film: Giacometti’s petulant eye

Alberto Giacometti’s portrait of James Lord, 1964.

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson /  Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti was renowned for his inability to finish artwork. It’s tempting to caricature that kind of chronic dissatisfaction as precious narcissism and feigned perfectionism. But it’s also too easy, and in Final Portrait, writer and director Stanley Tucci – better known as an elite character actor specializing in bemused suaveness – deftly shows why. The film expands Giacometti biographer James Lord’s famously agonizing 1964 sitting for a portrait – the artist suggested a single afternoon, which turned into eighteen of them – into a study of the artistic process and mentality. It helps that Geoffrey Rush is very good as Giacometti, whom he resembles in appearance and whose mien he seems to have completely absorbed beyond conscious imitation.

Every time Lord (a suitably pent-up Armie Hammer) is poised to behold a completed masterpiece that flatters his patience and adulation, Giacometti, a ubiquitous cigarette hanging rudely from his mouth, emits an extravagant “Fu-u-u-ck” and besmirches some of his handiwork. If it has become a cliché that art is a series of creative mistakes, this film deconstructs and critically re-examines that idea. Invariably, the frustrated Lord can’t see what was so bad about what Giacometti had painted. His terse explanations are enigmatic but intuitively convincing. They seem to boil down to the reality that only the artist truly knows what he intends, and aesthetic integrity obliges him to approximate that vision as best he can. Ultimately, his adherence to that obligation may be what his admirers value most. If not, however, fu-u-u-ck them.

Alberto Giacometti’s studio

Tucci’s confinement of the action largely to Giacometti’s gray, rough-and-ready Paris studio, in which nothing much happens, may at first seem claustrophobic and inert. But the director maximizes its narrative utility. Through that space circulate the artist’s wearily stoic wife, the blithely chirpy prostitute who serves as his model and mistress, and the steady brother (Tony Shalhoub, arch and constrained) who mediates his contact with the rest of the world. In a manner akin to Beckett’s – he and Giacometti were friends – the studio models a morally distressed and psychologically shattered post-war Europe whose survivors, even twenty years on, still cannot rely on the institutions they once took for granted. Giacometti hoards his cash, eschewing banks, and flouts ethical standards. He is snide about Picasso due to his itinerant precocity, but reverent of Cezanne on account of his unfaltering focus. Against this backdrop, it is Giacometti’s private meticulousness – his petulant eye – that saves him from abject fatalism and despair. Art emerges as existentially practical, if not indispensable.

Final Portrait, written and directed by Stanley Tucci. On view at City Cinemas 1-2-3 and the Angelika Film Center.

Related posts:
Giacometti in Bushwick: “Art, reality and the myth of life became one”
The gap between: “Unfinished” at the Met Breuer
The impossibility of painting and the equally persistent impossibility of not painting

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2 thoughts on “Art and Film: Giacometti’s petulant eye”

  1. Am I wrong but is Rush’s Giacometti speaking in a Yiddish accent? Weird for a Swiss. Otherwise anything on G. is welcome.

    1. remember that attending congress in Copenhagen, I went one day to Louisiana to experience exhibition on Giacometti and Cézanne. Design of this nicely explained here: http://hotelmagazine.dk/articles/cezanne-giacometti/ (although images and life of G are not explained). The movie struck a cord. A dissonant one. To ruin a nearly finished art-piece and having to start again. . . terrible. Yet, at arriving at the finishing moment of an artwork, it feels like imminent death. The creation is more important than the created…

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