Giacometti's studio



Commentary on the book by Jean Genet

“Loneliness, as I understand it, does not mean a miserable condition, but secret royalty, nor profound incommunicability, but more or less obscure knowledge of an unassailable singularity” (Jean Genet).

“Amid old solvent bottles, his palette of the last days: a piece of mud of various shades of gray” (Jean Genet).

For Silvana, a relentless fighter.


When I was 13 or 14 years old and lived in the interior of the State of São Paulo, I came across the two volumes of In the strength of age, by Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), stranded in one of the Piracicaban bookshops. The covers were a little discolored, I found the content interesting at a glance and bought them cheaply. I started reading them at the beginning of the summer vacation and didn't understand much – or rather, everything seemed strange to me, as Simone de Beauvoir's narrative spoke of a universe with which I had no familiarity.

However, three passages struck me about Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), namely: (a) “I was particularly intrigued by a man with a rough face, shaggy hair, and avid eyes, who wandered every night on the sidewalk alone or with a beautiful woman; he seemed at once solid as a rock and light as an elf; it was too much. We knew that one should not trust appearances and this one was too seductive for us not to suppose it disappointing: he was Swiss, a sculptor and his name was Giacometti” (Vol. I, p. 249-250).

(b) Giacometti's sculptures “were no bigger than the head of a pin (…) He had a strange way of working (…) everything he did during the day would break at night, or vice versa. He had one day piled into a wheelbarrow the sculptures that filled his workshop and threw them into the Seine” (Vol. II, p. 108).

(c) Simone says that “her sculptures baffled me when I saw them for the first time; it was true that the bulkiest was only the size of a pea. During our numerous conversations he explained himself. He had once been associated with the Surrealists, I actually remembered having seen him in Crazy Love his name and reproduction of one of his works; he then manufactured 'objects' as appreciated by André Breton and his friends and which only supported allusive relations with reality. But two or three years ago, that path seemed like a dead end; he wanted to return to what he now considered the real problem of sculpture: recreating the human figure ”(Vol. II, p. 109).



When I was young, I was always intrigued by the tiny sculptures by Giacometti, as well as his elongated objects, his somewhat “disjointed” bronzes, the minimal thickness of the works. The present edition of the atelier by Giacometti It features magnificent photographs by the Swiss artist Ernst Scheidegger (1923-2016). An editorial note informs that Scheidegger's photographs were taken on different occasions between 1948 and 1959, almost all of them in Alberto Giacometti's studio in Paris. “They appeared for the first time accompanying the text by Jean Genet (1910-1986) in 1963, in the French edition of L'Arbalete” (p. 7). However, this writing by Jean Genet was originally published in 1957. It is known that between 1954 and 1958, Jean Genet maintained an intense relationship with Alberto Giacometti, regularly attending his studio, “where he posed for several portraits. As a consequence of this friendship and admiration for each other's work, the text of this book was born” (p. 7).

At that time Alberto Giacometti began to gain international recognition: he had been holding, since 1955, retrospective exhibitions in Europe and the United States; in 1956 he participated in the Venice Biennale, and in 1958 he won the Guggenheim Prize for painting. Jean Genet, in turn, had already, at that time, written many of his main books, such as O miracle of the rose (1946) and diary of a thief (1949), and plays such as the maids (1947) and High surveillance (1949)

Célia Euvaldo wrote that Genet in her considerations “approaches with poetic intensity the work and person of Giacometti. Guided by a precise intuition, the text seems to follow small clues to form a whole as fragile and fragile as the sculpted figures drawn and painted by Giacometti”.



Ernst Scheidegger met Alberto Giacometti in 1943 and they remained lifelong friends. Photos of him, in the book, intersperse Jean Genet's writing, dialoguing with it. The reader may, here and there, feel a little disconcerted by the thought expressed by the author of the miracle of pink, who understands that the work of the Swiss artist “makes our universe even more unbearable”, seeming to be responsible for “moving away what disturbed his gaze to discover what will remain of man when the masks are removed” (p. 12) . 7His art seems to want to discover “the secret wound of every being and even of all things, so that it illuminates them” (p. 13).

Jean Genet understands that “it takes a strong heart to have one of Alberto Giacometti's statues at home”, because with one of them in a room, “and the room becomes a temple” (p. 15-16). The dialogue between the two takes place with intonations and words close to everyday conversation and Jean Genet says that his friend's way of expressing himself is similar to that of “a cooper” (p. 16). The writer follows the transformation of several pieces that, from the original plaster, were later sculpted in bronze. Provocative, Alberto Giacometti asks: “Do you think the statues won?” The Frenchman's answer is curious to say the least: “I wouldn't say they won, but the bronze won. For the first time in his life, bronze has just won. Their women are a bronze victory”. Alberto Giacometti, laconic, concludes: “That's how it had to be” (p.17).

Jean Genet describes the wrinkled skin of the studio owner's face, his smile, the gray color of his forehead. He thinks that “all of Giacometti has the gray color of the studio” and that “perhaps out of sympathy he adopted the color of dust”. He adds that “their teeth laugh – far apart and equally gray – the air passes through them” (p. 17).

The sculptor considers his statues “somewhat disorganized”. Jean Genet agrees and adds: “he is also quite clumsy. He scratches his gray, disheveled head (…) He picks up the gray pants that fell over his shoes” (p. 17-18).

The work of Alberto Giacometti communicates the knowledge of the solitude of each being and each thing, “and this solitude is our most certain glory” (p. 21). The Portuguese writer, poet and parliamentarian Manoel Alegre mentions the sculpture “City Square” (1949), commenting on this “small and admirable piece”, in which there are “five people in a square, completely alone, walking at odds with each other, five people in a square that is all squares in all big cities where there is always someone, now I understand, on the corner of sadness” (p. 68-69).

Jean Genet advances on the theme of solitude: “Each object creates its own infinite space. If I look at the painting (…) I perceive it in its absolute solitude as a painted object (…) What I want to learn in its solitude is simultaneously this image on the canvas and the real object it represents” (p. 22) .

Again, we find the record that Giacometti “raises his broken and dirty glasses from his nose” (p. 24). The studio is far from being cleaned, as well as the clothes he wears to work – on page 45 mentions the darkness of the place and the dust stuck to the windows. Previously, the floor in his and Annette's room had been beaten earth; now, it is covered in graceful red tiles, beautiful but simple. “It rained in the room. It was with a broken heart that he resigned himself to the tiles” (p. 61). “He says he will never have another home but this studio and his bedroom. I would like, if possible, to be even more modest” (p. 61-62).

Worried, Jean Genet writes that “this studio, on the ground floor, will collapse from one moment to the next. It is made of decayed wood and gray dust, the statues are made of plaster, leaving the rope, burlap or a piece of wire to show; the canvases, painted gray, have long since lost the tranquility they had in the store, everything is dirty and abandoned, everything is precarious and ready to collapse, everything tends to dissolve, everything floats: or is all of this as if captured in a absolute reality. Only when I leave the studio, when I'm on the street, do I realize that nothing else around me is true (...) In this studio, a man dies slowly, consumes himself, and before our eyes metamorphoses into goddesses” (p. 92 ).



Alberto Giacometti's bronze dog is admirable. “The curve of the foreleg, without marked articulation and yet sensitive, is so beautiful that it alone defines the smooth gait of the dog. For he wanders, sniffing, with his long snout close to the ground. He is thin” (p. 38).

The cat, in turn, “from snout to the tip of the tail, almost horizontal”, is “capable of passing through the hole of a mouse. Its rigid horizontality perfectly reproduces the shape of the cat, even when curled up” (p. 38).

For Jean Genet, Alberto Giacometti's gaze does not establish hierarchies: he never once looked at “a being or a thing with contempt. Each one must appear to him in his most precise solitude” (p. 72). He declares to his writer friend: “I will never be able to put all the strength in a head in a portrait. Just the fact of living requires so much will and so much energy…” (p. 72).

“I think that in order to approach objects, Giacometti's eye and then his pencil are stripped of all servile premeditation (…) What respect for objects. Each one has its own beauty because it is 'unique', there is something irreplaceable in it (…) Giacometti's art is not, therefore, a social art because he establishes a social bond between objects – man and his secretions –, it will be rather It is an art of superior beggars, so pure that only the recognition of each being and each object would unite them. 'I am alone', the object seems to tell us, 'caught in a need against which you can do nothing. If I am only what I am, I am indestructible. Being what I am and unreservedly, my solitude knows yours” (p. 94-95).



In an old rather cheesy film by Claude Lelouch (1937), watched many years ago, a character repeats a phrase attributed to Alberto Giacometti, whose tenor goes something like this: if a house is on fire and you have to choose between saving a work of precious art or a cat, save the cat. If Alberto Giacometti ever said or wrote this I don't know, but I resort to the old Italian saying: “if it's not true, it's very ben trovato” (“if it is not true, it is very well invented”).

*Afranio Catani he is a retired professor at the Faculty of Education at USP and is currently a senior professor at the same institution. Visiting professor at the Faculty of Education of UERJ, Duque de Caxias campus.



Jean Genet. Giacometti's studio. Translation: Celia Euvaldo. Photographs: Ernest Scheidegger. São Paulo, Cosac & Naify, 2001, 96 pages.



Manuel Alegre. “City Square”. In: The Square (and Other Stories). Lisbon: Dom Quixote Publications, 2005, p. 67-70.

Simone deBeauvoir. In the strength of age. Translation: Sérgio Milliet. São Paulo: Difel, 1961.



Source: Book O Atelier by Giacometti- Gato- Photo by Ernst Scheidegger

Source: Photo by Afrânio M. Catani – Dog- Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2018

Source: Photo by Bertha Hey Catani – Sculptures by Alberto Giacometti- Guggenheim Museum, New York, July-2018

Source: Book Atelier by Giacometti – Photo by Ernst Scheidegger

Source: Book Atelier by Giacometti – Photo by Ernst Scheidegger


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