Final Portrait: Lord by Giacometti and vice versa, by Tucci
Traditional biopics of artists are both entertaining and pompous, allowing middle-class audiences the vicarious pleasures of Bohemian excess; of shaking our heads at the benighted art audiences of the past; and of ascending with the art-martyr (Vincent, Frida, Jackson) into cultural immortality. I like them, in general, and think they help build the case for an artist’s serious work, but sometimes they verge on the formulaic in attempting to reach a mass audience. Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life and Ed Harris’s Pollock, both very good movies present the creative life as a kind of holy melodrama, hitting the marks of the various Stations of the Creative Cross. For my taste, Peter Watkin’s Edvard Munch, concentrating on the painter’s youth in the sexually liberated but fraught artistic circles of 1880s Christiania/Oslo, immerses us in the culture and engages our sympathy without falling into aesthetic hagiography. (Julie Taymor’s Frida was also relatively free of sentimental gravy, despite the melodramatic life of the artist, perhaps because of its fantasy interludes with puppets — its Brechtian distance from illusionism.) The carefully selected episode of an artistic life can serve as a microcosm or metonym that informs and illuminates the whole life and career. Less is more.
The new film Final Portrait, by the actor-director Stanley Tucci, wisely takes the path of simplification and compression, aided by its source material, A Giacometti Portrait, the 68-page memoir (written for a magazine, but published in book form in 1980), by James Lord, a young American who became friends with the Swiss-Italian sculptor and painter in Paris and consented to pose for him. Fortunately for us, what was intended to have been a simple oil sketch that would require, in Lord’s words, “but an hour or two, an afternoon at most” grew into a project that consumed the eccentric and stably unstable (or unstably stable) genius artist, requiring eighteen session, from September 12, 1964, to September 29, before Lord’s deadline date, his return to New York having been postponed several times.
His reward was not just a valuable painting and token of his friendship with the famous artist, but also, through his covert note-taking, a day-by-day journal of the vicissitudes of the creative process, alternating between Giacometti’s ferocious drive to work and the creative destructions which he felt powerless to control, marked by interludes of despair and self-doubt. (Lord writes that “Giacometti sometimes “exuded gloom.”) Having just reread the book, I now see what an ideal collaborator Lord was for Giacometti: both curious and almost inhumanly patient, especially for a “youngish” (his term) man. Others might not have endured the dramatics: in 1935, when Giacometti despaired of being able to paint or sculpt a head (as he did repeatedly in the book), André Breton said, with the exasperation one would not have expected from the pope of Surrealism, “Everybody knows perfectly well what a head is.”
Well, not everybody. Matti Megged, in Dialogue in the Void: Beckett & Giacometti1, summarizes a story that the young Giacometti wrote, about the feelings of dislocation and panic that sometimes afflicted him, with objects appearing to have lost their normal roles in the universe, and infused with mystery; in Giacometti’s words, “both living and dead at the same time,” and “suspended in a dreadful silence”:
The art historian Peter Selz, who curated the 1965 Museum of Modern Art exhibition of Giacometti’s work, verified that this sense of alienation persisted forty-five years later:
...after a time he began to use the large brush with white, painting the area around the head and shoulders and finally part of the face, too. This led me to infer that little by little he was painting out what he had previously done, undoing it, as he said. Presently he took one of the fine brushes again and began to paint with black, concentrating on the head. He was constructing it all over again from nothing, And for the hundredth time at least..... I meant to try to stop him.... I observed him with painstaking attention, and when the moment I had foreseen came, I said, ”I’m very tired. Do you mind if I have a little rest?.... I stood up, went behind him, and looked at the painting. It was superb. The awkward vagueness of 45 minutes before had completely disappeared. Never before had the picture looked just as it did then, and it has never looked better. I said, “It looks fine. Why not leave it as it is now?”.... He’s sighed.... “Well,” he said, “we’ve gone far. We could have gone further still, but we have gone far. It’s only the beginning of what it could be. But that’s something, anyway.” “I think it’s admirable,” I said. “That’s another matter,” he replied.
I have gone on in some detail about the Giacometti-Lord collaboration because Tucci’s movie, which has received criticism from some film critics for its apparent lack of plot and lack of character development—for being, as one wrote, tantamount to watching paint dry—adheres so faithfully to the book, and therefore evinces both its virtues and faults. Tucci is a fine actor and director, and in my opinion, the creator of the best Woody Allen comedy in the early, funny style (appreciated by the aliens of Stardust Memories) ever made by a non-Allen director (though Allen performs a small role as a small-fry stage director), The Impostors, with Tucci and Oliver Platt as a pair of picaresque actors on the lam. I was therefore thrilled to hear that Tucci was taking on this project with a fabulous cast including Geoffrey Rush as Giacometti; Armie Hammer as James Lord; Tony Shalhoub as Diego, the artist’s brother, and an artist himself; Sylvie Testud, as Giacometti’s Swiss wife, Annette; and Clémence Poesy as Giacometti’s young model and mistress, Caroline. The acting is superlative, even if the ‘characters’ are not given much to do, plotwise, and Tucci’s command of tone and pacing are all that could be desired with what is essentially a two-man play (with the painting as the MacGuffin). James Merifield’s set, which replicates Giacometti’s famous, much-photographed studio at 46 rue Hippolyte-Maindron, becomes almost another character: dusty and disheveled, black, gray and earthen colored, it’s an exudation of its chain-smoking, muttering tenant from 1928 to 1965, a nest shaped by its odd bird. The music, by Evan Lurie, is sprightly, insouciant, and French, comme il faut.
Since I have just seen the movie and reread the book, I can’t help but mention some of the slight differences, none of them substantive: Caroline and her BMW do not appear in the book; the comical money-hiding and pimp-paying scenes are transposed from Lord’s later biography (I think, not having read it recently); Yanaihara, implicitly depicted as Annette's lover, is barely mentioned in the book except as a sympathetic friend and model; Alberto comments on the beauty of the trees not from his studio, while convalescing, but while walking down Rue d'Alesia afterward; and his criticism of Picasso is also taken from the biography in all probabiity; and it was Alberto who read LeCarré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and who thoughtfully analyzed its plot and characters, not Shalhoub’s drolly laconic Diego; finally, there’s a hint in the movie at Lord’s homosexuality which is not in the book. Noteworthy on the other side of the balance sheet is its accurate depiction of Giacometti’s habitual lunch at the rue Didot cafe-tabac: ham, hard-boiled eggs, two glasses of wine, and two cups of espresso.
When Giacometti asked on Day 6 if the process was “getting on your nerves,” Lord protested that “the entire experience was an exhilarating one.” On day 15, as the project wound down. Lord “tried to tell him what a wonderful experience posing for him had been and how much I had appreciated is letting me do it. “Are you completely nuts?” he said. If you are a Giacometti fan, you will feel that the filmed book on seeing and depicting, Lord by Giacometti and vice versa, by Tucci, was light-hearted and drily humorous but deeply respectful—strangely moving and exhilarating. (If you are instead a casual artster, you may mutter, stamping your foot, that the film was nuts.)
Giacometti died a year later, of cancer, in 1965, before Lord could make a return visit. Lord, who wrote Giacometti: A Portrait, in 1985, died in Paris of a heart attack in 2009. In 2015, Portrait of James Lord, 1964, oil on canvas, 45-5/8”x31-3/4”, was valued at twenty to thirty million dollars—about what Jeff Koon’s Play-Doh sculpture is expected to fetch.
1 I was fortunate enough to have taken a seminar class from the figurative sculptor Stephen deStaebler (whose work bears some resemblance to Giacometti’s) in the late 1980s. Megged was a scheduled guest, so I looked up his book, which compares the existentialist/absurdist sculptor and playwright.
2 Giacometti, who cared more about process than product, as exemplified by his destruction of some twenty-five or thirty drawings made on defective litho transfer paper, depicted in the film. He showed no work between 1937 and 1945, as he transitioned from Surrealist sculptures depicting juxtapositions of real objects to his mature style, based on observation of the model and his interior vision. The figures that he made kept shrinking, almost to nothingness. Charles Juliet recounts, in Giacometti (1986):
On the eve of Giacometti’s return to Paris, Albert [Skira, the art-book publisher] asked him what arrangements he had made for shipping his sculptures. “But I’m bringing them with me,” he replied. “They were packed,” ... Skira was surprised to note, “in a matchbox a little bit bigger than the ordinary ones.”