Illustrated companion

In the context of Giacometti's association with Existentialism this portrait has a particular interest. Jean Genet was one of the leading Existentialist writers; he was also the author of a short book on Giacometti which the artist stated meant more to him than any other text, and which Picasso said was the best book about an artist that he had ever read.

About 1954 Giacometti saw Genet, whom he did not then know, sitting in a caf? and was fascinated by his appearance, especially his baldness which revealed the structure of the skull, in which Giacometti was particularly interested. He invited Genet to pose and a strong bond developed between the two men, their understanding of each other becoming so great that they were able to play the game of choosing from the passers-by those whom the other would find most desirable. The sittings resulted in two oil portraits and several drawings, and it was while they were taking place that Genet composed his essay on Giacometti.

The focus of the portrait is on the head, which is built up of successive layers of flickering linear brushstrokes to render, in a highly concentrated and compressed way, the presence of the sitter. Something of the significance of the head to Giacometti is indicated by a remark recorded by Genet 'I shall never manage to put into a portrait all of the power that there is in a head. Merely being alive already demands such will and such energy'. Within the head, the eyes have a peculiarly arresting quality, one of them being noticably blurred in focus. The critic David Sylvester has recorded Giacometti telling him that when the artist was a student in the 1920s he spent some months painting and drawing a skull: 'One day, when I wanted to draw a girl, something struck me, which was that suddenly I saw that the only thing that stayed alive was her gaze. Everything else ... came to the same thing more or less as the dead man's skull'. Giacometti went on to stress that what he was interested in was 'not the imitation of an eye [but] purely and simply a gaze. All the rest is a prop for the gaze'. Here, in the portrait of Genet, the quality of the gaze, combined with the slight upward tilt of the head and downturned mouth, create an impression of aloof remoteness. This remoteness also comes from Giacometti's characteristic distancing effects, created by the compression of the head and its smallness in relation to the body, and the shrinking of the figure into the lower right corner of the canvas. Genet himself was struck by this and wrote '... I have the impression ... that the painter is pulling back (behind the canvas) the meaning of the face'.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.197