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Day 10/10/2012

Henri Cartier-Bresson on his friend Alberto Giacometti

Portrait of Alberto Giacometti taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1961 (via magnumphotos.com)

For Alberto Giacometti – Essay by Henri Cartier-Bresson

The expression hardly changes on that craggy face; the mask surprises you: you’re never quite sure whether he has heard you. But his responses! Always right on the mark, profound, and personal, on the most varied subjects.

Giacometti is one of the most intelligent and lucid men I know, honest with himself and harsh with his own work, digging right in where things are most difficult. In Paris, he gets up at about three o’clock in the afternoon, goes to the corner cafe, works, rambles over to Montparnasse, and goes to bed at daylight. Annette is his wife.

Giacometti’s fingernails are always black; but he isn’t sloppy or in the least bit affected. He hardly ever speaks about sculpture with other sculptors, unless it’s with Pierre Josse, one of his childhood friends, a banker and sculptor, or with Diego, his own brother. I was overjoyed to learn that Alberto had the same three passions that I have: Cezanne, Van Eyck, and Uccello. He has said things that are so right about photography and the attitude one needs to have, and also about color photography.

Of Cézanne and the other two, he once said admiringly: “They are monsters.” His face has the look of a sculpture–not one of his own–except for that furrow of wrinkles. His gait, the way he moves, is very distinct: one heel set far ahead–perhaps he’s had some accident, I don’t know. But the movement of his thinking is even more particular: his answer goes far beyond what you have said; he draws a line, adds everything up and starts another equation altogether. Such vibrancy of spirit: the least conventional, the most honest.

In the town of Stampa, in the Swiss Graubünden canton, three or four kilometers from Italy, is his mother’s house; she is ninety years old, alive and intelligent, and she knows how to make her son stop working on a painting she likes, if she feels it’s finished. His father’s studio is an old barn. Alberto works there in the summertime; in the winter he shuts himself up in the dining room. Either he or his brother Diego calls their mother every day from Paris. Diego is extremely modest, and very reserved. Alberto greatly admires his brother’s talent as a sculptor; Diego makes beautiful furniture and casts Alberto’s sculptures. More than once, Alberto has said to me: “The real sculptor isn’t me, it’s Diego.”

The house where his father was born is now the village inn–it belongs to his cousin; the grocery store is owned by another cousin. When he asks the price of the apples he is buying to paint them, she says: “Well, that depends on how much you’ll get on your painting!” Alberto has told me that he used to get bored, and would try to do too much at one time–apples, landscapes, portraits–and that he had to concentrate on just two subjects. It’s marvelous, such a sense of economy, which is the measure of taste.

The openings for his exhibitions are grand events, but for him they are a sore subject. He says: “I should just bring out everything I have at a given date and show it, and say, ‘This is where I am right now.'” Again, such honesty. But no matter what he says, his work comes off as being hand-in-glove with beauty itself.

For Alberto, intellect is an instrument at the service of sensitivity. In certain areas, however, his sensitivity takes odd forms; for example, his deep scorn for all emotional sloppiness.

But enough: he’s my friend.

Source Cartier-Bresson, Henri. The Mind’s Eye: Writings on photography and photographers. New York: Aperture, 1999. Print.

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