Peter Bogardus "Going to Gansu" mixed-media photos at Corden/Potts (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com)



Peter Bogardus
Corden/Potts Gallery, San Francisco, California  
Recommendation by DeWitt Cheng  
Continuing through May 12, 2018

A century ago modernist art was regarded as a possible means of redeeming European culture, corrupted by kings, priests, and generals. The artist was seen as akin to an Old Testament prophet, and art-making as a kind of spiritual quest. Much of that utopian idealism came crashing down following the Great War and the purges of 1930s, but some of us in an art world corrupted by market values hunger for a return to spirituality and transcendence in art — sans art-profiteer executions. The work of Peter Bogardus would seem to be motivated by just such an interest in the spiritual and historical. 

Over the last two decades he has created seven fine-art books, from “The Great Mystery” (1996) to “Places of Reverence” (2017). Each documents his travels to religious sites. Documenting is not really the right term: Bogardus’s monochromatic photos, generally shot on 4x5 film and printed with the labor-intensive medium of photogravure, are the by-products of an artistic quest.

In ‘’Going to Gansu,” curated by Kate Contakos, Bogardus presents monochromatic photogravures from square-format Rolleiflex photos he took during a two-day train ride east-west to Gansu, at the western edge of the Gobi Desert in northern China, in 1992. Presumably his destination for that trip was the Mogao Buddhist caves at Dunhuang, created between the 4th and 14th centuries. But this body of work details the journey itself, with thirteen untitled misty landscapes that invoke mystery of an ecumenical sort.  The photogravures, which are photo-based aquatint etchings, hand-printed, with their soft focus and technical imperfections of scratches and areas of unprinted paper, resemble old daguerreotypes, while recalling in spirit the poetic landscapes of Asian painting. Printed on Kodohadamashi (“cloud surface”) hemp/mulberry paper, generally employed for painting, with traditional oyster-shell priming and mineral pigments (including woodblock-printed gray and beige background tones), these unpeopled works, glimpses from a speeding window twenty-six years ago, look back in time and history — and, to the meditatively inclined viewer, within.

Agony in Effigy: Art, Truth, Pain and the Body at Berkeley Art Museum (reprinted from East Bay Monthly, May 2018)

 

Suffering for Art in Historical Prints
Agony in Effigy: Art, Truth, Pain and the Body at Berkeley Art Museum 

The Keatsian notion that “'beauty is truth, truth beauty,' – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" has been a cultural imperative for almost two hundred years now, and it still shapes the thinking of many people when it comes to the visual arts; vide Matisse’s notion of a painting as a comfortable armchair for a tired businessman. But beauty is not the only truth we need to know, any more than “happy talk” is all the local TV news we can use. There is room in the capacious planet of art for many truths, including the inconvenient or upsetting ones. Goya’s etching, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” reveals the flipside of Keatsian aestheticism: that turning a blind eye to the darker side of life—say, being amused by sinister buffoons—allows the rot to spread. Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others, indicts the willful ignorance of the comfortably insulated: “Someone who is permanently surprised that depravity exists ... has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.”

Agony in Effigy: Art, Truth, Pain, and the Body explores (despite its punning title, recalling The Agony and the Ecstasy) the fraught aesthetic territory of depictions of pain, with its various messy complications, in prints from its permanent collection.  In devotional illustrations of Christian martyrdoms, death and suffering are horrific yet inspiring, as in works by Ribera and Baldung Grien depicting, respectively, the tribulations of St. Jerome and Christ.  (Jean de Gourmont’s depiction of the Flagellation reveals as much interest in architectural perspective and multiple views of motion as in the Passion.) Works by Jacques Callot in the seventeenth century and Goya in the nineteenth depict violence without the religious gilding, in tragic, secular terms more aligned with our contemporary worldview, expressed by

W.H. Auden, in “Musée des Beaux-Arts,” inspired by a Breughel painting, “About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters: how well they understood. Its human position: how it takes place. While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Agony in Effigy: Art, Truth, Pain and The Body runs through June 17, 2018; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2120 Oxford Street, Berkeley, 510/642-0808; bampfa.org. —DeWitt Cheng

 

 

 

 

 

Chester Arnold's "Borderline" paintings, Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com)


Chester Arnold: “Borderline"
Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco, California  
Review by DeWitt Cheng  
Continuing through May 5, 2018

Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay, “The Wall and the Books,” imagined the mentality of China’s First Emperor, who ordered the Great Wall built and the Great Books — histories of the Middle Kingdom’s previous three thousand years — burned. Americans used to consider such despotism to be ancient history, but the walls now encroaching on our city on a hill and on our minds could be seen as punishment for our hubris. Twenty years ago, we had the luxury of considering “the end of history” as the triumph of global capitalism — and, we thought, liberal democracy. Today, unfortunately, we have to wonder about civilization’s future.

In “Borderline,” Chester Arnold, whose epic-scale landscapes have often borne ecological messages, takes aim at our current plight. The oil paintings, small and large, are both detail-packed and cosmic, like the world landscapes of Pieter “the Droll” Bruegel the Elder, who combined a wealth of lovingly rendered detail with a tragicomic moral vision. “Borderline” refers to the Mexican border wall beloved of home-grown and unschooled xenophobes. Arnold’s landscapes of crumbling ruins of concrete and brick, defaced with graffiti, and maintained by small, faceless, lumpen workers, are absurd and sad, yet strangely beautiful; indeed, they’re Bruegelian. Think of the antlike figures clambering over the ramps, cranes and scaffolds in the 1583 painting, “The Tower of Babel,” warning of pride and failure; the tower, sporting Colosseum-style columns, invokes both fallen, decadent Rome and its often imperious, unholy successor, the Roman Catholic Church. Arnold writes, “The architectural expression of the will to contain or separate one group from another became the formal structure of many of these works.” So the armored, contested border in his paintings — which we view from above, as if from a high tower, with eagle-sharp vision, in an even, cool northern light — is an obstacle and prison, but one that the human hive chooses to build and repair. In Louis Malle’s 1981 prescient satirical film, “My Dinner with André,” André Gregory described New Yorkers who fantasize about leaving town, but never do, as prisoners in love with their prisons.

Literal and philosphical considerations of containment, enclosure and sequestration are the themes of nearly all of these thirty-one paintings. The numerous walls, towers, ladders, escape openings, ladders and scaffolds suggest both entrapment and a desire for escape which is never quite achieved — or rarely.
“Beyond This” is a large, square-format canvas depicting a brick wall, seen close up, with each brick captured in preternatural detail. At the center is a large, jagged circular hole, allowing a view through the wall, into what looks like Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, with a pair of hikers, parent and child, ascending a rocky hillside. Two small studies for this painting, “Opening” and “Passage,” are accompanied by a trio of other escape paintings, “Leaving Arizona,” “A Hole in the Wall,” and the punningly titled “By Extension,” all of which include the motif of a blue aluminum ladder crudely extended with a four-step wooden splint that leans against a concrete wall that has been heightened with a wooden fence or stockade surmounted by barbed wire. Arnold depicts the ramshackle surroundings with their random detritus with such odd tenderness that they become beautiful. His brick and concrete surfaces are sumptuous. 
The titular “Borderline” is a large painting, also in square format, depicting a scarred, graffitied section of wall, seen obliquely, with rootlike stubs of black steel rebar sprouting from the broken top edge. Junkyard miscellanea — a sheet of plywood with odd cutouts, a broken refrigerator, a half-buried traffic sign, a five-gallon bucket, bald car tires — abut its bottom edge. A young man, having spray-painted the politically charged word “Resist,” pauses, lost in thought, ignoring a tattered Trump banner and the scrawled words ‘Imagine’ and ‘No.’ The diagonal-wall motif appears in half a dozen smaller paintings, with the gray-blue median strip running from top left to bottom right, separating ground planes of pale ocher which appear to be at different levels, suggesting stressed retaining walls or levees that are on the verge of collapse. The torn white Trump banner reappears in “The Great, Big, Beautiful Wall,” “Mending Wall” and “The Jerkoff.” Ravens or crows—another Bruegel reference, ominously perched atop gallows and Catherine’s wheels — fly by in “Vagrants” and “Carrion Crows.” 
Arnold comments as well on the plight of refugees and displaced persons, presenting in “Detention” and the ironically named “Scenes from the Land of Milk and Honey” aerial views of their makeshift housing: white tenting and blue tarps atop tan-colored dirt. The crude, ruined brick tower of “Empire’s End (study for The Stonebreaker),” and the straw/clay relic (mountainous in close-up) in “Slave-Made Brick, New Orleans 1860” serve as poignant bookends to this exemplary show of contemporary history painting, Old-Master style.

DVD EXTRAS.
RAW (unedited) file:
CHESTER ARNOLD: Borderline
Catharine Clark Gallery

Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay, “The Wall and the Books,” imagined the mentality of China’s First Emperor, who ordered the Great Wall built and the Great Books—histories of the Middle Kingdom’s previous three thousand years—burned. Americans used to consider such despotism to be ancient history, but the walls now encroaching on our city on a hill and on our minds could be seen as punishment for our hubris. Twenty years ago, we had the luxury of considering “the end of history” as the triumph of global capitalism—and maybe liberal democracy; today, unfortunately, we have to wonder about civilization’s future.

In Borderline, the painter Chester Arnold, whose epic-scale landscapes have often borne ecological messages, takes aim at our current plight. The oil paintings, small and large, made in 2017 and 2018, are both detail-packed and cosmic, like the world landscapes of Pieter “the Droll” Bruegel, who combined a wealth of lovingly rendered detail with a tragicomic moral vision. ‘Borderline’ refers, of course, to the Mexican border wall beloved of home-grown and -unschooled xenophobes. Arnold’s landscapes of crumbling ruins of concrete and brick, defaced with graffiti, and maintained by small, faceless, lumpen workers, are absurd and sad, yet strangely beautiful; they’re Bruegelian. Think of the antlike figures clambering over the ramps, cranes and scaffolds in the 1583 painting,  “The Tower of Babel,” warning of pride and failure; the tower, sporting Colosseum-style columns, invokes both fallen, decadent Rome and its often imperious, unholy successor, the Roman Catholic Church. Arnold writes, “The architectural expression of the will to contain or separate one group from another became the formal structure of many of these works,” so the armored, contested border in his paintings—which we view from above, as if from a high tower, with eagle-sharp vision, in an even, cool northern light—is an obstacle and prison, but one that the human hive choosea to build and repair. In Louis Malle’s 1981 prescient satirical film, My Dinner with André, André Gregory described New Yorkers who fantasize about leaving town, but never do, as prisoners in love with their prisons.

Containment, enclosure and sequestration are the themes of nearly all of the thirty-one paintings in oil on canvas, linen and linen panel. The numerous walls, towers, ladders, escape openings, ladders and scaffolds suggest both entrapment and a desire for escape which is never quite achieved—or rarely.

 “Beyond This” is a large, square-format canvas depicting a brick wall, seen close up, with each brick captured in preternatural detail—individualized; at the center is a large, jagged circular hole, allowing a view through the wall, beyond, into what looks like Arizona’s Sonoran Desert (or is it Sonora’s?), with a pair of hikers, parent and child, ascending a rocky hillside. Two small studies for this painting, “Opening” and “Passage,” are accompanied by a trio of other escape paintings, “Leaving Arizona,” “A Hole in the Wall,” and the punningly entitled “By Extension,” all of which include the motif of a blue aluminum ladder crudely extended with a four-step wooden splint, leaned against a concrete wall that has been heightened with a wooden fence or stockade surmounted by barbed wire. Arnold depicts the ramshackle surroundings with their random detritus with such odd tenderness that they become beautiful; his brick and concrete surfaces are sumptuous.

 “Borderline” is a large painting, again in square format, depicting a scarred, graffitied section of wall, seen obliquely, with rootlike stubs of black steel rebar sprouting from the broken top edge, and junkyard miscellanea—a sheet of plywood with odd cutouts, a broken refrigerator, a half-buried traffic sign, a five-gallon bucket, bald car tires—abutting its bottom edge. A young man, having spray-painted the word “Resist,” pauses, lost in thought, ignoring a tattered Trump banner and the scrawled words ‘Imagine’ and “No.” The diagonal-wall motif appears in half a dozen smaller paintings, with the gray-blue median strip running from top left to bottom right, separating ground planes of pale ocher which appear to be at different levels, suggesting stressed retaining walls or levees, and collapse. The torn white Trump banner reappears in “The Great, Big, Beautiful Wall,” “”Mending Wall” and “The Jerkoff,” while ravens or crows—which Bruegel painted several times, ominously perched atop gallows and Catherine’s wheels)—fly by in ‘Vagrants” and “Carrion Crows.”

 Arnold comments as well on the plight of refugees and displaced persons, presenting in “Detention” and rhe ironically named “Scenes from the Land of Milk and Honey” aerial views (as if from a drone or satelllte) of their makeshift housing, i.e., white tenting and blue tarps atop tan-colored dirt. The crude, ruined brick tower of “Empire’s End (study for The Stonebreaker)” and the straw/clay relic, mountainous in close-up, in “Slave-Made Brick, New Orleans 1860” serve as poignant bookends to this exemplary show of contemporary history painting, Old-Master style.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Political Art: Fire and Furor (reprinted from VisualArtSource.com, May 2017)




In case you have been on a media fast for the past week, the big news in the little art world has been the heated controversy over the painting by Dana Schutz, shown in the current Whitney Biennial, called “Open Casket.” (If you are already heartily sick of this subject, after wave upon wave of angry rhetoric crashing over your screen, please surf on.) The painting is a semi-abstract depiction of the black teenager Emmett Till, savagely murdered and mutilated in 1955 by bigots enraged by his alleged whistling at a white woman — a fabrication, the supposed victim has now admitted. Till’s mother demanded that his coffin be open so that viewers could “see what I have seen,” in all its graphic glory. Schutz used the photo as a starting point for managing, in paint, her own emotions of fear and insecurity as a mother, she pointed out, in these nasty times of snapping and snarling.

 

What could be more important than to educate complacent, ignorant Americans about this stain on our national history and honor? Alas, nothing is ever simple in the art world. The painting aroused fierce opposition from the left, nicely described by Roberta Smith in her New York Times article, “Should Art That Angers Remain on View?” [https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/27/arts/design/emmett-till-whitney-biennial-schutz.html] (March 27, 2017). Two black artists took extreme umbrage at what Smith wittily characterized as Schuz’s possibly “inappropriate appropriation.” Parker Bright stood in front of the painting, blocking the view to other museum goers, while wearing a T-shirt imprinted “Black Death Spectacle.” Hannah Black denounced Schuz’s exploitation of “black subject matter ... for profit and fun.” Many in my social media feed denounced the work as typical white hubris that, however sympathetic a veneer, perpetuates the idea of black victimhood. Also raised has been that in spite of its opting for abstraction rather than realism, the work somehow whitewashes the realities of black history through aesthetic distancing.

 

Race relations in the U.S. are a mess. The interlude of liberal rationality that Obama hoped to inaugurate clearly failed, a victim to white working class economic rage exacerbated by eight years of right-wing animus, sensationalism and alternate facts. If no Alex Jones and Bill O’Reilly types failed to fan the flames of Schutzgate, it’s only because they were distracted by quips about a James Brown wig and the premature announcement of the end of Obamacare.

 

But let us return to the artwork, which is successful on its own terms. Not as a political statement — an interpretation which the artist never claimed, yet one which its detractors opted to emphasize. Smith adduces, in defense of creative freedom of speech, several powerful art-historical precedents: Ben Shahn’s moving tribute to the unjustly executed Sacco and Vanzetti (despite the artist being Jewish and the victims Italian); Abel Meeropol’s song about race lynchings in the South, “Strange Fruit” (again by a Jewish person, and not just any, but one who adopted the orphaned sons of the executed Ethel and Julius Rosenberg); and the white William Styron’s brilliantly complex 1967 novel “The Confessions of Nat Turner," the less-than-exemplary or heroic leader of the 1831 black slave revolt in rural Virginia. 

 

One could cite many other examples of the depiction of inflicted suffering as noted by sympathetic cultural or racial outsiders: Delacroix’s "Massacre at Chios," about Turkish atrocities; Dorothea Lange’s "Migrant Mother," about the Depression tribulations of displaced Okies; or Matthias Grunewald’s "Isenheim Altarpiece," still shocking today, five centuries after its creation, with its painfully mortal King of the Jews. Any crucifixion painting, in fact, rebuts the racial exclusivity idea. 

 

Kara Walker, who explores the horrors of slavery culture in her silhouette drawings, concurs in opposing the censorship and destruction of the painting sought by some. Smith: “[Walker] concluded that an artwork can be generative regardless of how it offends or falls short, giving ‘rise to deeper inquiries and better art. It can only do this when it is seen.’” Another artist, Clifford Owens, similarly declared his opposition to what is in effect a politically correct iconoclasm: “I don’t know anything about Hannah Black, or the artists who’ve co-signed her breezy and bitter letter, but I’m not down with artists who censor artists.”

 

Why so much furor from the art world left then? The painting is unobjectionable in itself — but for its provocative title. The black artist Henry Taylor, in the same Whitney show, depicted, with a greater degree of realism than Schutz employs, the police murder of Philando Castile, and aroused no animosity. It is my belief that certain ideas that were almost universally taught in universities in the 1980s and 90s — identity art, postmodern relativism —  have hardened into dogma, and can become exaggerated and counter-productive. Making, seeing and ‘using’ art primarily or solely as tendenzkunst, as propaganda, as the hypostatization or reification of sacred truths, is bad for the country and bad for art. Let creative people make their work, and let a thousand exegetical flowers bloom.; but let’s not become cultural commissars. Artists and citizens should be truth-seekers, not avoiders of trigger issues. We have serious challenges; one painting in one biennial — and it’s not as if all blacks are furious about it, as some imply — is a molehill, if that. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize, not minor distractions.


Stanley Tucci's peculiar paean to Giacometti in "Final Portrait"


Piece below was written for VisualArtSource.com, April 14, 2018. It is not online yet.
The longer, unedited version follows.

Editors' Roundtable
by DeWitt Cheng

"Why does one paint or sculpt? Nobody knows the reason … One does it out of madness, out of obsession, out of a more automatic than conscious need... I have always failed. — If only I could draw! — I can't. That's why I keep on drawing…"  — Alberto Giacometti 

Traditional biopics of artists tend to be both entertaining and pompous, allowing middle-class audiences the vicarious pleasures of Bohemian excess; of shaking our heads at the benighted art audience 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. 

The new film "Final Portrait," written and directed by Stanley Tucci, wisely takes the path of simplification and compression. This was 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. Lord was a then young American writer 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 genius artist, ultimately requiring eighteen sessions 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, the artist's mood was marked by interludes of despair and self-doubt. He at times "exuded gloom." Having just reread the book, I now see what an ideal collaborator Lord was for Giacometti: both curious and extraordinarily 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, 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 & Giacometti," summarizes a story that the young Giacometti wrote about the feelings of dislocation and panic that sometimes afflicted him. Objects appeared to him to have lost their normal roles in the universe, and become infused with mystery; in Giacometti's words, "both living and dead at the same time," and "suspended in a dreadful silence." 

Art historian Peter Selz verified that this sense of alienation persisted: "Everyone before him in the whole history of art had always represented the figure as it is; his task now was to break down tradition and come to grips with the optical phenomenon of reality. What is the relationship of the figure to the enveloping space, of man to the void, even of being to nothingness?" 

In "A Giacometti Portrait" Lord describes with admirable composure what might have driven many to despair, the heroic but foredoomed grasp for the unattainable. Giacometti paints (in black and white with fine pointed sable brushes) and unpaints (in gray, which, for him, contained all colors, with a medium-sized round brush) Lord's portrait innumerable times over the eighteen-day process. Giacometti's wife and sometimes model, Annette stoically advised: "You'll get used to it." 

As Lord's last day of modeling approaches, he devises a stratagem to forestall yet another collapse of his portrait into entropy: 

"…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, … 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. 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 have gone on in some detail about the Giacometti-Lord collaboration because Tucci's movie adheres so faithfully to the book, and therefore evinces both its virtues and faults. The acting, lead by Geoffrey Rush as Giacometti and Armie Hammer at Lord is superlative, even if the characters are not given much to do, plot-wise. Tucci's command of tone and pacing are all that could be desired with what is essentially a two-man play. James Merifield's set, which replicates Giacometti's famous, much-photographed studio at 46 rue Hippolyte-Maindron, becomes itself 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

When Giacometti asks on Day 6 if the process was "getting on your nerves," Lord protests that "the entire experience was an exhilarating one." By 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 his letting me do it." Replies the artist, "Are you completely nuts?" For the knowledgable viewer "Final Portrait" is light-hearted and drily humorous, but deeply respectful, emotionally moving and exhilarating. If you are instead a casual artster you may, echoing Giacometti, come away feeling that the film was just nuts.




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Final Portrait: Lord by Giacometti and vice versa, by Tucci

Why does one paint or sculpt? Nobody knows the reason. Nobody decides: now I am going to make sculptures, or now I am going to paint. One just does it. One does it out of madness, out of obsession, out of a more automatic than conscious need... I have always failed.—If only I could draw!—I can’t. That’s why I keep on drawing...

 
Anyway, this is what I deserve for 35 years of dishonesty. ... All these years I’ve exhibited things that weren’t finished and never even should have been started. But on the other hand, if I hadn’t exhibited at all, it would have seemed cowardly, as though I didn’t dare to show what l’d done, which was not true. So I was caught between the frying pan and the fire.

 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 story is that of a painter or sculptor or who has to get hold of reality through its essentials. Objects and memories flee, change, disappear, lose their relation to time and space, both the artist may catch them, give them proper space and shape. And the way to do that this is “not to take a hold of the outline, but of the center. All that is there is a hard core closed with a suggestion of mass dissolving into space.

 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:

“To render what the eye really sees is impossible,” Giacometti repeated one evening as we were seated at dinner in the inn at Stampa [Switzerland, Giacometti’s birthplace]. He explained that he could not really see me as I sat next to him—I was a conglomeration of vague and disconnected details —but that each member of the family sitting across the room from him was clearly visible though diminutive, thin, surrounded by enormous slices of space. Everyone before him in the whole history of heart, he continued, had always represented the figure as it is; his task now was to break down tradition and come to grips with the optical phenomenon of reality. What is the relationship of the figure to the enveloping space, of man to the void, even of being to nothingness?

 
Lord describes with admirable grace and sang-froid what might have driven many of us to imprecations and theatrical gestures of despair and despondency like the artist’s, as in his heroic but foredoomed grasp for the unattainable, he paints (in black and white with fine pointed sable brushes) and unpaints (in gray, which, for him, contained all colors, with a medium-sized round brush) Lord’s portrait innumerable times over the eighteen-day process. (Giacometti’s wife, Annette, and brother, Diego, were sympathetic, but as experienced models, themselves, phlegmatic in the Galliuc mode. Annette: “You’ll get used to it.”) It should be noted that Giacometti admired Cézanne’s perception-based method, his commitment to interpreting reality, and his lack of finish, without reservation: “He was the greatest of the nineteenth century. He was one of the greatest of all time.” For his part Cézanne had a similar existentialist (avant la lettre) role model, identifying himself, according to Rilke, with Frenhofer, a fictional artist invented by Balzac, who works in secret on a mysterious masterpiece, but kills himself, leaving behind an immense canvas of inchoate paint, a pictorial mist from which only a woman’s foot emerges. As Lord’s last day of modeling approaches, he devises a stratagem to forestall yet another collapse of his portrait into entropy2:

 ...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.

I have always been sensitive to the fragility of the living beings, as if it took an incredible amount of energy just for them to stay on their feet ... I shall never succeed in showing in a portrait all of the force there is in a head. Just staying alive demands so much will power, so much energy.

 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.”