Alberto Giacometti

Jean Genet

1954 or 1955

Not on display

Alberto Giacometti 1901–1966
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 653 × 543 mm
frame: 795 × 686 × 55 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1987

Display caption

Genet was among the leading French writers of the twentieth century. His novels, poems and plays celebrate his gay identity and criminal past. He also wrote a short book on Giacometti.
Like many of Giacometti’s portraits, this work uses a reduced palette of colours. Giacometti gradually builds a likeness of Genet through a series of small tentative brushstrokes. This technique creates a tense, shifting outline around the figure, which parallels the rough, highly-worked surfaces of Giacometti’s sculptures.

Gallery label, August 2021

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Catalogue entry

T04905 Jean Genet 1954 or 1955

Oil on canvas 653 × 543 (25 7/8 × 21 3/8)
Inscribed ‘Alberto Giacometti 195[?4 or 5]’ b.r.
Accepted by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue in lieu of tax and allocated 1987
Prov: Jean Genet by 1955 when lent to Arts Council; the artist by 1956 when lent to Bern;...; anon. sale [Mrs Rosica Colin, London], Sotheby's 28 June 1961 (97, dated 1959) £3,600 bt Ewan Philips for Philip Goldberg; his widow, Mrs A.E. Goldberg (d. 1986), from whose estate accepted by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue in lieu of tax
Exh: Alberto Giacometti, Arts Council Gallery, June–July 1955 (51, as ‘Portrait of Jean Genet’); Alberto Giacometti, Kunsthalle, Bern, June–July 1956 (66, repr., as ‘Jean Genet I’, 1954/5); untitled display, Kaplan Gallery, c. 1961 (no cat.); Ecole de Paris, Tate Gallery, May–June 1962 (not in cat.); Alberto Giacometti: Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings 1913–65, Tate Gallery, July–Aug. 1965 (122, repr. pl.49); Alberto Giacometti: The Artist's Studio, Tate Gallery Liverpool, March 1991–April 1992, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, April–July 1992 (no number, repr. in col. p.43); Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945–55, Tate Gallery, June–Sept. 1993 (61, repr. in col. p.120)
Lit: Jean Genet, ‘L'Atelier d'Alberto Giacometti’, Derrière le Miroir, no.98, June 1957, pp.3–26; Jean Genet, L'Atelier d'Alberto Giacometti, Paris 1958; John M. Nash, ‘Works that Please but Do not Lead’, Yorkshire Post, 3 May 1962, p.7; Jean Genet, ‘Giacometti's Studio’, Observer, 11 July 1965, pp.27–30; Jean-Marié Magnan, ‘Essai sur Jean Genet’, Poétes d'aujourd'hui, no.148, June 1966, pp.41–7, repr. opp.p.96; Robert Nugent, ‘Sculpture et théâtre: L'Influence de Giacometti sur Genet, Obliques Littérature-Théâtre, no.2, Paris 1972, pp.65–9; David Piper, Personality and the Portrait, 1973, p.46, pl.64; James Lord, Giacometti: A Biography, New York 1983, pp.348–50; Tate Gallery Report 1986–88, 1988, p.79, repr. (col.); Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, 1990, p.193, repr. p.193 (col.) and p.188 (col. detail); Frances Morris, ‘Laboratory for Likenesses: Giacometti's Studio’ in Alberto Giacometti: The Artist's Studio, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool 1991, p.14, repr. p.43 (col.); Thierry Dufrêne, Giacometti: Portrait de Jean Genet, le scribe captif, Paris 1991, pp.13–14, repr. p.13. Also repr. Art International, vol. 6, no.7, Sept. 1962, p.46; Jacques Dupin, Giacometti, Paris 1962, p.142; Jean Genet, L'Atelier d'Alberto Giacometti, Paris 1963, [p.9]; Edward Lucie-Smith, Movements in Art since 1945, 1969, pl.40

Giacometti and the author Jean Genet met frequently and regularly during the period 1953–7 (see Liverpool exh. cat., 1991, pp.16–332). Giacometti made three oil paintings of Genet including T04905. The other two painted portraits are ‘Portrait de Jean Genet’, 1955 (730 × 600, 28 3/4 × 23 5/8, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, repr. Dufrêne 1991, on fold-out card in col.) and ‘Jean Genet’, 1957 (810 × 650, 32 × 25 1/2, Galerie Beyeler, Basel, repr. ibid., p.24). All three are characteristic of Giacometti's portrait painting style of the mid-1950s in which he portrayed the model full face and at a distance. It was his custom at this time to use a reduced palette of browns, black and grey to build up his imagery through a network of superimposed brushstrokes. Typically, the head of the sitter is the focus of Giacometti's most intense labour and in each work there is an accumulation of strokes around the head. T04905 and the Beyeler portrait depict the head and shoulders alone. In contrast, the Pompidou portrait shows the artist seated with his hands folded in his lap. In all three paintings the portrait is framed by a painted border and the background space is filled out with broader strokes. The artist also made a number of drawings of Jean Genet. Four of them are dated 1 September 1954 (repr. Dufrêne 1991, p.11) and show the head alone. Two later drawings dated 1957 (repr. ibid. p.25) are of the writer seated in front of a staircase. There is no obvious relationship between the drawings and any of the paintings. Giacometti did not usually make drawings as studies for paintings.

The novelist and playwright Jean Genet (1910–86) was a bizarre and outrageous figure in French literary society in the 1950s. His father was unknown, and he was abandoned at an early age by his mother and placed in institutional care. At the age of ten he was caught stealing and was sent to Mettray, a notorious state reformatory where he experienced the kind of depravity later described in his novel Miracle de la rose, published in 1965. In his autobiographical novel Journal du voleur (1949) he described without restraint his vagrant life as a thief and homosexual prostitute during his twenties. It also ‘reveals him as an aesthete, an Existentialist, and a pioneer of the Absurd’ (Encyclopedia Britannica, Micropaedia, IV, London 1975, p.464). Genet's first novel, Notre-Dame des fleurs (1944) which portrayed the seamy underworld of pre-war Montmartre, was written while he was serving a prison sentence for burglary at Fresnes. This novel established his reputation among the literary avant-garde in Paris. In 1947 Genet was again convicted of burglary and this time sentenced to a life in detention, a sentence which was eventually dropped as a direct result of appeals from France's leading artists and writers in a campaign orchestrated by Jean Cocteau. Among his most fervent champions were Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Sartre later published a lengthy and extraordinary appreciation of Genet and his work in Saint Genet, comedien et martyr (1952). Freedom brought its own problems: ‘The period of Genet's official condemnation was over. Faced with an inner crisis occasioned by liberty and fame, Genet wrote no more for six years though what he had already written was widely discussed’ (Tom F. Driver, Jean Genet, New York 1966, p.4).

In contrast, the years 1954–61 were Genet's most productive. In 1954 he commenced work on Le Balcon, the first version of which was published in 1956 and included a lithograph by Giacometti. In 1955 Genet began to draft Les Nègres, which was published in 1958, and in 1956 he began writing Les Paravents which was finally published in 1961. In 1957 extracts of Genet's essay on Giacometti, L'Atelier d'Alberto Giacometti were published in Derrière le miroir. It was published in full in 1958. James Lord (1983, p.350) recalls Picasso's response to L'Atelier d'Alberto Giacometti: ‘Picasso's, never at a loss where intuition was called for, said that Genet's book was the best one about an artist that he had ever read.’

According to James Lord (1983, p.349), Giacometti first came across Jean Genet sitting at a table in a café and was immediately struck by the appearance of his face and his bald head. The artist invited Genet to sit for him and these sittings took place in Giacometti's studio at 46 rue Hippolyte Maindron, off rue d'Alésia. According to Genet, Giacometti insisted on working with him ‘sitting up straight, immobile and rigid (if I move he will soon call me back to order, to silence and to repose) on a very uncomfortable kitchen chair’ (Liverpool exh. cat., 1991, p.31). It was Genet who finally terminated the sittings. As Giacometti explained to James Lord, ‘Genet felt that posing was completely passive. And he stopped posing because he felt that he was being transformed into an object’ (James Lord, A Giacometti Portrait, 1981, p.78).

Genet's account of sitting for Giacometti is both anecdotal and interpretative:

When people heard that Giacometti was making a portrait of me (my face might be called more round and broad than anything), they said: ‘he'll make your head as thin as a knife blade.’ He hasn't yet made the clay bust, but I think I know why he has painted lines on the various portraits which seem to stretch themselves out from the centre line of the face - nose, mouth, chin - back to the ears, and if possible around to the neck. Because, it seems to me, a face reveals its full expressive power only when it is seen frontally, and because everything must originate at this centre in order to make what is hidden behind, alive and strong.

(Jean Genet 1958, translated in Reinhold Hohl,
Alberto Giacometti, New York 1971, p.280)

Supporting Genet's description is the painting itself. It displays a heavy concentration of painted marks in the area of the head creating a thickly impastoed area, a dense accumulation of strokes defining the body, and a much more summary treatment of the background.

Giacometti's post-war working method required a model at all times when he was painting or drawing, and repeated sittings would continue for weeks or even months. According to the art historian Valerie Fletcher (Alberto Giacometti 1901–1966, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institute, Washington 1988, p.49), Giacometti was extraordinarily fastidious in his approach to the model. He would arrange his easel and model's chair at a precise distance marked out on the floor, and insisted on absolute immobility and eye contact. The portrait of Genet is typical of Giacometti's work at this time in several important respects: the use of multiple lines in creating an image, the posture of the model, the structuring of space, the distinct framing device and the overt emphasis in the treatment of the head and eyes. Describing the way that Giacometti built up his compositions through lines which are non-descriptive in themselves, the artist Avigdor Arikha has written that, ‘Giacometti believed, so he told me, in the small, hesitant line, in the point-by-point approach by which a sitter's likeness can gradually emerge ... What we see in his drawing is the diametrical opposite of the single-line drawing’ (‘Giacometti's Code’, New York Review of Books, 18 May 1989, p.20). In his drawings Giacometti often deliberately blurred the outline of a form by partially erasing or smudging lines with an India rubber. In painting, he created a similar effect by using long thin sable brushes. The process has a parallel in Giacometti's sculpture where surfaces are rough and variegated, creating shifting contours and a fusion of form and space. The posture of Genet in this painting is also typical. Giacometti had employed a strictly frontal view of the human figure in his paintings since 1937. In T04905 the sitter is placed just right of centre and very low down in comparison to the height of the canvas. The size of the head is exaggeratedly small beside the bulk of the body, and this creates a feeling of deep recession. This device also finds a parallel in Giacometti's sculpture, in which large bases are used to support very small heads or figures creating the illusion of great distance between subject and viewer.

The painted setting of T04905 is quite generalised but in it and in both the later oil portraits of Genet there is a rounded form depicted on the left side of the canvas. From photographs of the artist's studio, especially one by Sabine Weiss (1954) depicting the artist's wife, Annette Giacometti, sitting for her portrait (repr. Washington exh. cat., 1988, p.50, fig.10), this circular form can be identified as the iron lid of the stove, open and in an upright position, resting against the tall straight stove pipe. In his account of sitting for the artist Genet refers to ‘the stove and its pipes behind me’ (Liverpool exh. cat., 1991, p.26). Apart from the curved lines delineating the position of the stove lid, the background to the portrait of Genet is animated largely by straight lines - verticals, horizontals and diagonals in fine black lines and areas of grey paint washed in with a broader brush. These straight lines probably refer to canvases stacked against the back wall, and the area of diagonal shading lines cutting across the upper right corner indicates the staircase featured in many other portraits and interiors. Thus, however apparently abstract it may seem, the linear structure of the space in T04905 was based on reality.

This structure is combined with the use of borderlines which create a painted frame around the image. This is a device which Giacometti had used from the late 1930s. In its earliest guise it is simply a border drawn over the image towards the edge, for example, in ‘Portrait of the Artist's Mother’, 1937 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, repr. Hohl 1971, p.145). Increasingly, from the late 1940s, border-lines divide the image from a wide and unadorned area of blank or plainly painted canvas. In T04905 this internal frame creates the effect, characteristic of Giacometti's late work, of a tunnelling recession, already activated through the perspectival distortions created by the exaggeratedly large size of the body in relation to the head. When asked why he employed the frame technique Giacometti explained that it was, ‘Because I do not determine the true space of the figure until after it is finished. And with the vague intention of reducing the canvas. I try to fictionalise my painting ... And also because my figures need a sort of no man's land’ (‘Alberto Giacometti, “Autres propos”’, 1965 in Pierre Schneider, Alberto Giacometti dessins, exh. cat., Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris 1985, p.83).

The gaze of the model was of extreme importance to Giacometti who recalled in 1951 the contrast between drawing a skull and drawing from life:

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 - the head turning into a skull - came to the same thing more or less as the dead man's skull. What made the difference between the dead man and the person was her gaze ... New Hebrides sculpture is true, and more than true, because it has a gaze. It's not the imitation of an eye, it's purely and simply a gaze. All the rest is a prop for the gaze

(quoted in Hohl 1971, p.283)

In both sculpture and painting Giacometti employed a number of techniques to draw attention to the eyes of the sitter. He said ‘The strange thing is, when you represent the eye precisely, you risk destroying exactly what you are after, namely the gaze ... In none of my sculptures since the war have I represented the eye precisely. I indicate the position of the eye’ (ibid., p.283). Giacometti frequently drew attention to the position of the eyes of his model by clearly etching them in line. Very unusually in T04905 he achieves the same end by blurring the definition or focus of Genet's right eye.

T04905 is signed and dated in the bottom right-hand corner. When the work is unframed, it is apparent that the final digit in the date, which is normally obscured by the right-hand vertical member of the frame, has suffered a degree of paint loss, making identification extremely difficult. The digit seems to be a ‘5’ but could be read as a ‘4’, and even ‘9’ is possible. Although the latter is out of the question, the painting was listed in the Sotheby's 1961 sale catalogue as ‘signed and dated 1959’. It is assumed here that T04905 is the portrait of Jean Genet that was included in the 1955 Arts Council exhibition. This assumption is based on the fact that the dimensions of the work given in the catalogue of that show correspond almost exactly to those of T04905 and are substantially different to the dimensions of the other known portraits of Genet by Giacometti. In the catalogue to the Arts Council exhibition a date of 1954 is given. The Arts Council exhibition originated from a Giacometti exhibition held at the Galerie Maeght, Paris in May 1954. If T04905 were included in the Paris show, the date of 1954 would be established. Unfortunately, the records of the Galerie Maeght are incomplete, and the essay ‘Les Peintures de Giacometti’ by Jean-Paul Sartre that was published in Derrière le Miroir, no.65, May 1954 to accompany the show did not include a list of works. The records of the Arts Council do not provide information concerning the transfer of works from the Galerie Maeght to London. The precise date of T04905 cannot therefore be confirmed.

The provenance of T04905 is also incomplete. The 1955 Arts Council exhibition catalogue lists Jean Genet as the lender of the work. According to Genet, the artist did indeed give him one of the portraits for which he had recently sat:

Since Giacometti gives me the choice ... I decide to take a small head, of myself ... this head really is very small. Alone on the canvas, it is only seven centimetres high and three-and-a-half or four wide, and yet it has the strength, the weight and the dimensions of my actual head ... ‘Right, it's yours ... It's yours. You can take it away ... But later ... I have to put a bit of canvas on it.’

And now that he has shown me, I realise how necessary this correction is, as much for the canvas itself - to make my small head even smaller - as for the head, which thus acquires its full weight.

(quoted in Liverpool exh. cat., 1991, p.30)

The dimensions of the head in T04905 (95 × 72 mm) bear no relation to those quoted by Genet above. Moreover, T04905 (like both later works) is a single piece of canvas, and while it is possible in principle for Giacometti to have intended to add a section of canvas to the painting, the placing of the head with such a characteristically generous area of background space in T 04905 suggests otherwise. The evidence indicates that T04905 was in Genet's possession, but that it is not the painting Genet describes in his memoir. Possibly Giacometti worked on a fourth work which was subsequently abandoned, lost or destroyed. Interestingly, Genet also wrote in 1958 that Giacometti intended to make a clay bust (Liverpool exh. cat., 1991, p.28). No such work can be traced by the compiler.

Genet's possession of T04905 may have been temporary for, when it was included in Giacometti's exhibition at the Kunsthalle, Bern in 1956 (66, as ‘Jean Genet I’), it was, according to the catalogue, lent by the artist. The Bern catalogue gives the date as 1954/5 but the reproduction reveals that the work had not yet been inscribed at that time. Giacometti, who rarely regarded a work as truly ‘finished’, frequently dated his paintings months or years after making his final mark. Following the Bern exhibition, T04905 was on the books of the Galerie Maeght, Giacometti's dealer, from 1956 to 1961. It was then put up for auction by Mrs Rosica Colin, Jean Genet's agent in London. It is not known whether Mrs Colin had owned the work herself or whether she was acting on behalf of the artist or Genet or the Galerie Maeght. The compiler has been unable to have this point clarified by the Galerie Maeght or the family of the late Mrs Rosica Colin. The painting was purchased at auction by Mr Ewan Philips, director of contemporary art at the Kaplan gallery, on behalf of Philip Goldberg, and was exhibited at the Kaplan Gallery following the auction. In 1962 Philip Goldberg lent T04905 to the Arts Council's Ecole de Paris exhibition at the Tate Gallery. It was part of a small group of Giacometti works added to the exhibition at short notice, just before it opened, and was not therefore included in the catalogue.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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