Homage to Giacometti : Introduction : "Portraits" Heads Faces

Homage to Giacometti  1. Introduction 
"Portraits" Heads, Faces  
Photographs Inspired by or Related to the Paintings,  
Drawings & Sculptures of Alberto Giacometti

1.  Introduction : "Portraits" Heads Faces
2.  Line-Drawing Photograph Portraits
3.  Figures & Triadic Visual Poems 
4.  Landscapes, Still Lifes, Place and Presence
5.  Regarding Giacometti's Fear of Death  
6.  Vision, Re-vision and "Recurrence of Creation"
7.  New Work, Commentaries, Epilogue

Introduction to the Project 
This project in Homage to the great painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) is long overdue, for I have studied his work and his life with great interest intermittently over the past fifteen years.  Without doubt, and in many noticeable ways, it is quite obvious to me that his work, his life stories, his way of seeing the world has influenced my work from at least 2002 to the present, and perhaps earlier.  In 2007 I read James Lord's fascinating biography Giacometti, and this definitely intensified my empathy and helped me welcome with a greater awareness Giacometti's influence on my Departing Landscape Project though I had never acknowledged it publicly.

Giacometti was an extremely unusual, compulsive, highly intelligent and gifted creative individual.  He was an articulate writer and conversationalist, and he observed with acute awareness the mysteries of his life and his creative process.  I am particularly interested in his work, and what he had to say about it after his epiphany in 1945 when he returned to Paris after the war.  He experienced a life transforming epiphany that escalated his work to an entirely new level of insightful revelations.  It is now ten years later, and I am re-reading James Lord's biography for the second time, and I found myself once again enthralled by his life and work, and I simply knew I must pay homage to Giacometti with a project which, it appears, will be multi-chaptered.


It's odd that it has taken so long for me to decide to do this project.  Over the past forty years I have acknowledged the importance of many other artists to my creative process, including the composers Morton Feldman, Charles Ives, Thelonious Monk and Steve Lacy (click here);  the painters of the Hudson River School (click here), and Zen Buddhism (click here);  the painters Paul Klee (click here), Giorgio Morandi (click here) and Charles Burchfield (click here)  In 2011 I discovered and celebrated the Sacred Art of Islam with a large multi-chaptered project (click here)  and in 2015 I unveiled the relationship between my photography and my practice of Siddha Yoga Meditation (click here).

Giacometti's work is most noticeable as an influence in three of my Departing Landscape projects: the Portraits, Faces & Figures, the Faint Photographs, and the Visual Poems.  It seems to me the conceptual themes and the emotional heart of these Departing Landscape projects relate to many of the themes central to Giacometti's work, including a preoccupation with death and decay, separation and loss.  (Giacometti was so stunned by his father's death in 1932 that at he became very ill and could not attend the memorial service with the rest of his family members.)

In June, 2017, after President Donald Trump announced his decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord, and even before that, when he ordered to permit continuation of work on the Dakota  Access Pipeline on the Sacred Stone Indian Reservation, I became so angered and despairing by these callus, unethical and uncaring acts by Trump and his administration that I felt compelled to revise the Introductory page of the Departing Landscape Project and the Portraits, Faces & Figures project.  When I revisited the Portrait project I once again felt motivated to study Giacometti's work, and I began re-reading with an even greater appreciation and interest James Lord's biography, Giacometti.  As I actively contemplated Giacometti's work and his writings I recognized more consciously this time relationships between myself and him.  Indeed I feel as though I am a kindred in spirit to him.

Entering Giacometti's world again after so many years was a surprising change of pace for me.  For the past six years most of the projects I've been making have been focused on a rapidly growing series of projects exploring the idea of the sacred in art.  Visit my link Sacred Art Photography Projects to see a full list of the online projects.  I am now fascinated to discover that many of the ideas central to the Sacred Art Projects actually have a relationship to the work and philosophical ideas which pervade the late period of Giacometti's work (1945-66).  In fact my most recently completed project, Alone highlights many of the ideas that I will to try to introduce in relation to Giacometti's work, such as theophanic vision, recurrent creation, and the Intermediate Imaginal World--three key ideas which the great 12th century Andalusian Sufi scholar-mystic-saint, Ibn 'Arabi wrote extensively about and which Henry Corbin explores in depth in his important book Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi.  

With this Introductory project a collection of my own portraits which I feel inspired by or related to Giacometti's portraits, I will present examples of Giacometti's portrait paintings, and write about some of the experiences and ideas that are key to knowing about and appreciating Giacometti as a person, his creative process, and the late "portraits."  I anticipate that this will be only the first project in a larger collection of related projects in homage to Alberto Giacometti.  I have provided above a tentative list of probable forthcoming project titles which includes a chapter dedicated to his figurative works, and one dedicated to his landscapes and still lifes.  I will attempt to show and unveil some of the visual and conceptual relationships I find particularly meaningful between his work and my own in hopes of shedding light on both.

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An Introduction

Image #9   Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces  

Introduction to my Photographs 
All the portrait photographs I am presenting below were made around 2007-09.  The images were selected based on what I perceive to be certain similarities they share with the portrait paintings and drawings Giacometti made after his 1945 epiphany in Paris.  These photographs should be seen in the context of an additional collection of images which I published in 2007 and which I have just recently revised (in June 2017):  Portraits, Faces & Figures for the Departing Landscape.  Indeed, I consider both collections of photographs equal parts of a larger whole.

The portraits Giacometti made between 1945 and his death in 1966 are strange, numinous works that give visual form to his uniquely personal way of seeing his reality.  I will elaborate on this in the texts that follow the presentation of my portrait photographs.  Based on my understanding of Henry Corbin's writings about Ibn 'Arabi's mystical revelations of what he called Creative Imagination, I believe Giacometti's late portraits represent two of the key ideas in 12th century Sufi's writings, namely:  theophanic vision and recurrent creation.  I will focus on theophanic vision in this chapter, and devote a separate chapter to recurrent creation.  I encourage you to visit my project Alone for a brief summarization of these two ideas.   

Giacometti was prone to theophanic-epiphanic experiences throughout his life, and certainly his art was an attempt to make visible what he saw and experienced in those visionary episodes.  Other than the paintings, sculptures and drawings themselves, James Lord's biography entitled Giacometti is the best resource I know by which one could come to understand Giacometti's extraordinary visionary world.  Another important, though brief book by Lord, A Giacometti Portrait, is an invaluable account of Giacometti's process of painting portraits, and specifically in relation to James Lord's experience of having his portrait painted by Giacometti.  I highly recommend both books.

Giacometti's portraits are essentially Self portraits.  And when I use the word Self I am indicating a transcendent dimension of being that is not only human, but of the highest order--what in Sufism and Hinduism is associated with the divine Creative Absolute.  Most of my Sacred Art Photography Projects are a visual and textual contemplation on the mysteries of the Self.  I experienced an epiphany myself one day in which I realized that my experience of photography was in the truest sense an extension, or more accurately a merging of my creative process with my practice of Siddha Yoga Meditation.  Thus, based in my own experience, I believe that what others have called presence in the portrait works of Giacometti is nothing less than the divine principle that takes as Its abode the center of the heart of every human being.  In this regard, then, it seems to me that human presence, as a manifestation of Giacometti's best portrait work, should be understood to be one and the same as divine presence. 

Presence, Grace, Shakti, Self 
I have been practicing Siddha Yoga for thirty years.  I understand that when the heart of an artist is opened--epiphanically--by the mystery known as grace, it is no longer "the artist" (his or her personal ego-psychology) that is making the images; rather it is the creative energy or power of the universe--the divine Self that is giving visual symbolic equivalent form to its own hidden-invisible essence . . . according to the capacity and stylistic language of a particular individual artist.

In Siddha Yoga, the word shakti is used synonymously with grace to identify the creative power of the universe.  Shakti is the divine presence which takes the form of all aspects of the created universe.  Every human being, object, situation, event, place, space, perception . . . everything is a manifestation of shakti, and it is shakti that pervades all aspects of the created universe.  From the yogic perspective, when we come face-to-face with a living presence for example in a stone, another person, or a portrait painting by Giacometti, we are experiencing the shakti, the grace of the divine Self which dwells within not only the other thing, but which also dwells in the abode of our own hearts.   (See my project Photography and Yoga.)

I firmly believe that whatever we find meaningful in our perceptions of the outside world are merely reflections of what is within our own selves, that is to say, our own hearts.  Visual art, the very best of it, at least, gives visible, significant, grace-filled form to the invisible, ineffable, numinous presence of the Absolute divine Self.  The creative process is an unfolding revelation of the knowledge of what is most sacred within all things, and within our own heart.  It is an impulse or a feeling of inner necessity that is central to any productive creative process.  Artists feel compelled to make and then share their work with the world so that we all can experience and absorb the shakti or creative energy within it. This project in homage to Giacometti is my way of expressing gratitude for what I have received from this great artist and his creative process.  Through this project I have come closer to a more complete understanding of my own creative process and my own self.  May it be so for you as well.

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Portrait of Gloria,  August 1969

Image #1   Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces    "Apparition"  2007

About the Two Portrait Images Above
The collection of my portrait photographs below are radical transformations of relatively conventional portrait photographs.  For example, the image above entitled Gloria, August 1969 was the source image for the 2007 "portrait" image below it entitled Apparition.  

I made the Gloria, August 1969 image just weeks after we were married.  A couple of months before I made that image Gloria was hit by a car and suffered the effects of a serious concussion which lasted for nearly a year after the accident.  The Gloria photograph describes both the beauty of her human form and at the same time one of those recurring moments when a comma-induced state of consciousness intervened in the natural flow of our lives.  In the first several months of that first year after her accident I would often see her slip into this mode of being before my very eyes without warning.  In the Gloria image, her presence has disappeared, dissolved.  In other words, it describes  what I saw and experienced in that particular moment, and it is about the absence or temporary dissolution of Gloria's presence from her physical form. 

The image below it, entitled Apparition, is a transformation of the Gloria image above it.  Apparition is, for me, about presence.  But I do not mean to imply that this presence is particular to Gloria.  Rather the image is about presence in its more pure, undifferentiated essence; it's about the radiant presence, or shakti, or grace which pervades all things.

Not every portrait photograph I have presented below is for me about presence in its most pure mode of being.  But each individual viewer must come to terms with that question in their own way.  We see in images, especially those that function for us as true symbols, what is already deep within us.


I hope to make new portrait photographs for this project as I work through the other anticipated parts of this multi-chaptered project.  However, the transformed photographs you will see below have as their source images portraits I made over the course of many stages of my sixty year picture-making career, going back as early as the 1960's and the 1970's and including photographs made as recent as 2010.

In the section that follows the photographs, we will explore Giacometti's creative process, how he made his "portrait" images, and as best as possible discuss what they are "about" in the context of several examples of his portrait paintings, all made after 1945.  The photographs I have presented below in Homage to Giacometti, though influenced in various ways by my study of Giacometti's work and his life story, are nonetheless, for the most part, spontaneous products of my own Creative Process--that is to say, they are manifestations, or gifts of grace.  They are for me at least related to Giacometti's late portraits if not directly influenced or inspired by his work.  All of the images I am presenting here are are radiantly alive with shakti or presence, though in varying degrees of purity.  ~  Welcome to the project.

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Homage to Giacometti

(Click on the images to enlarge)

Image #1   Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces    Apparition

Image #2   Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces    Blurred Face

Image #3   Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces  

Image #4   Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces    Negative-Positive

Image #5   Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces    Face in Dark Shroud

Image #6  Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces   Mask 

Image #7   Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces   Pompeii figure

Image #8   Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces   Gloria's face suspended in black space

Image #9  Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces

Image #10   Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces    Blurred Head with Streaks of Light

Image #11   Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces   Lines of light & Shadow on Hat

Image #12   Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces   Eye Shadow rimmed with light

Image #13   Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces   Split Face 

Image #14   Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces   Two Dark Eye Sockets 

Image #15   Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces

Image #16  Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces   One Darker Eye, One Darker Nostril

Image #17   Homage to Giacometti "Portraits " Heads Faces   Man on the Street

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Giacometti  "Annette"  1957  oil painting

"Portraits" & "Presence"
The "Portraits" Giacometti made after his epiphany of 1945, in my opinion are never really about portraiture, at least in the conventional sense of being a "likeness" or in any other way directly about the person he painted or sculpted.  His work after 1945 seldom describes the outer appearance of his sitter, nor does Giacometti ever consciously strive to characterize or interpret the sitter's personality.  Rather, his work is about something much more subtle, mysterious, ineffable.  Many writers have talked about Giacometti's portraits in terms of presence, and more specifically, human presence.  Giacometti said his work was about "copying what he saw."  There are other ways to understand his work.

For me, Giacometti's revelation of presence is never limited to human presence.  I say this because the presence I feel in his portraits is no different then the presence I experience in the best of his landscape paintings, his still lifes, and his images of place.  Truly speaking, his art in general is about his subjective-intuitive-visionary perceptual experiences.  He painted what he "saw" within himself as he perceived his sitters, his objects, places and landscapes.  There is a tremendous amount of abstract visual energy in his paintings and drawings.  For me, the images in general represent his unified vision of a world that was as much interior as exterior.  In that regard, perhaps it is possible to speak of his art as revelatory of a transcendent mode of being, a Unitary Reality product of theophanic vision.   I will clarify what I mean by this as we proceed through the written texts in this last section of my Introductory chapter, and in my continuing commentaries in the forthcoming chapters of this project.

The 1945 Paris Epiphany
Giacometti lived in Paris--for most of his adult life--in small, cave-like, dusty studios.  He left Paris during the Nazi occupation in December, 1941, and over three years later, in 1944, he moved back after it was liberated by the Allies.  He was changed somehow by his experiences of the war and the time he spent in Geneva making increasingly diminishing sculptural figures only two or three inches high.  One evening, in 1945 he experienced in Paris a life-transforming epiphany that radically changed the way he saw the things of the world, his creative process, and the paintings and sculptures he would make in the last twenty years of his life.

As he was watching a movie in a theatre house named Actualities on Montparnasse, he began having what I would call a visionary experience.  He began to see the images on the screen as flat, abstract blobs; and he saw the people in the theatre, who were watching the movie, in a shockingly different way.  The experience continued after the movie ended as he walked out of the theatre into the Parisian night and Montparnasse.  He saw everything around him in an entirely new way; indeed he said it was "the day I began to see."  ~  In an important interview with Pierre Schneider, in 1961, Giacometti stated:

Before . . . reality had been something familiar, banal, or lets say stable.  This came to a complete stop in 1945. . .   My view of the world [had been] a photographic view, as I think almost everyone's is . . .  And then all of a sudden there was a break. . .  I no longer knew what I was seeing on the [movie] screen; instead of its being figures, it was becoming black and white blobs, that's to say they were losing all meaning, and instead of looking at the screen I kept looking at my neighbors, who were becoming something altogether unknown.  It was the reality all around me that was the unknown, not what was happening on the screen.  Going out on to the boulevard I had the feeling of being faced with something I had never seen before, with a complete change in reality--the unseen, the altogether unknown, marvelous.  The Boulevard Montparnasse took on the beauty of the Arabian Nights, fantastic, altogether unknown.  And at the same time, the silence, an unbelievable sort of silence.  And then this grew.  Every morning when I woke up in my room, there was the chair with the towel on it, and that affected me and made me almost feel a chill down my spine, because everything had an air of absolute stillness.  A sort of inertness, of loss of weight: the towel on the chair was weightless, had no relation to the chair, the chair on the floor didn't weigh on the floor . . .  This was a beginning.  Then the way everything looked became transformed, as if movement was no more than a series of points of stillness. . . moments of stillness which, after all, could go on for an eternity, broken and followed by another stillness.  (This interview, published in English, also from Albert Giacometti : Works / Writings / Interviews authored and edited by Angel Gonzales.)

I'm fascinated particularly by the phrase in which Giacometti's said: I had the feeling of being faced with something I had never seen before, with a complete change in reality--the unseen, the altogether unknown, marvelous.  Indeed, that is what Giacometti's art, and particularly his portraits, is really about for me.  It is what I aspire to in my own work: giving visual form to the unseen, the unknown, the marvelous.

Theophanic Vision
In any case, after the 1945 epiphany Alberto became obsessed with trying to record, or "copy" the reality that he was seeing, a reality that was nothing less than a face-to-face encounter with that unknown world which exists between the two opposing realities: life and death.  Henry Corbin and his Andalusian 12th century Sufi mystic, Ibn 'Arabi defined theophanic vision as a mode of being in which one enters the Intermediate Imaginal World, a world that exists between the physical realm and the spiritual realm, a world that emerges from the center of one's own Self, the human heart.  Indeed, theophanic vision, according to Ibn 'Arabi, is "vision of the heart;" the organ of theophanic vision, he wrote, is the "eye of the heart."

Interestingly, in this regard, Giacometti used the phrase "between being and not being" in a 1962 interview with Andre Parinaud:

We may imagine that Realism consists of copying . . . a vase just as it appears on the table.  In fact, one only ever copies the vision that remains of it at each instant, the image that becomes conscious. .  . .  You never copy the glass on the table; you copy the residue of a vision. . . .  When I contemplate the glass, with its color, its shape, its light, what I attain with each glance is something very small . . .  Each time I look at the glass, it has an air of re-making itself, that is, its reality becomes doubtful because its projection in my brain is doubtful, or partial.  I see it as if it disappeared . . . reappeared . . .  disappeared  . . . reappeared. . .  In other words, it really always is between being and not being.  And this is what we want to copy . . .  All trajectory of modern artists lies in this will to capture, to possess something which is constantly fleeing.  They want to possess the sensation they have of reality, rather than reality itself.  In any even, we cannot possess everything . . . All we are able to possess is an appearance.  All that remains of reality is an appearance.  (My emphasis; from interview published in Giacometti : Works / Writings / Interviews, authored and edited by Angel Gonzales)

After 1945 Giacometti's best portrait paintings became a living record of his process of seeing, of giving visual form to his "sensations" of a perceptually transforming living presence which he confronted in long periods of what was essentially a silent dialogue between his own consciousness and the essential nature of his subject matter, his sitters who posed, unmoving, for him and for many hours at a time.  Giacometti's best work unveils the ineffable presence which Ibn 'Arabi says exists in the Intermediate Imaginal World, a subtle world in which the physical becomes spiritualized, and the spiritual becomes embodied.  (See my recent project Alone.) 

It's clear from James Lord's biography that Giacometti's life as a whole was unusually rich in strange and wonderful experiences, many of which I would call visionary epiphanies; but after his epiphany of 1945 it seemed he lived in a more sustained and highly concentrated mode of being--a psycho-spiritual reality--which allowed him to see and feel the world in ways that were unique not only to himself but, in the forms they took as visual images unique in the history of art as well.  By the time he died in 1966 he had been Internationally recognized--with major retrospective exhibitions--as one of the most important artists working at the time.

Nonetheless Giacometti was never satisfied with his creations.  He struggled everyday to get his transcendent vision of the world accurately articulated, but he always felt he had failed.  He would often leave pieces unfinished in hopes that he would return to them and improve them over time; and he is well known for impulsively destroying many works which frustrated him in their failure.  On the other hand Giacometti saw his failures as an opportunity, as an important part of his creative process.  It made him look forward to the work he would do the next day.  His failures inspired him to work even harder and with even more enthusiasm toward a goal that was always possible, to him, and probably unattainable.

Exactly what Giacometti saw was impossible for him to recreate in his paintings and sculptures precisely because his perceptions by-passed the ordinary human mode of sense perception.  He saw the creation and dissolution of the world recurring in every instant.  He saw a realm of meaning beyond human language.  Indeed, in Sufic and yogic terms, Giacometti was seeing not with the ordinary eye of the senses, but rather with the "eye of the heart."  Such a vision cannot be described, it can only be given an equivalent or symbolic visual form.
The Process of Seeing: "Working for the Sensation"
Though Giacometti believed that he failed at "copying" what he saw, it seems clear however that his paintings and drawings finally succeeded in giving visual form to his process of seeing.  Indeed Giacometti was most fulfilled as an artist when he was actively engaged with the creation of his paintings and sculptures.  He would sit for hours on end in his studio, in front of his model, and paint, revise, destroy, and then begin all over again . . . often over vast periods of time: days, weeks, months, working and re-working a single painting or sculpture.  He always proceeded with the understanding that his process was but a beginning which allowed him to look forward to the making of progress toward his goal.   ~   In the 1962 interview with Andre Parinaud, Giacometti also said:

I do not work to create beautiful paintings or sculpture.  Art is only a means of seeing.  No matter what I look at, it all surprises and eludes me, and I'm not too sure of what I see.  It is too complex.  So, we must try to copy simply in order to begin to realize what we are seeing.  It's as if reality were continually behind curtains that one tears away. . . but there is always another . . . always one more.  But I have the feeling, or the hope, that I am making progress each day.  That is what makes me work, compelled to understand the core of life.  And to carry on, knowing that the closer one gets to the goal, the further it retreats.  The distance between the model and myself tends to increase continually; the closer I get, the further away it moves.  It's an endless search.  Every time I work I am prepared to undo without the slightest hesitation the work done the day before, as each day I feel I am seeing further.  Basically I now only work for the sensation I get during the process.  And if I am then able to see better, if as I leave I see reality slightly differently, deep down, even if the picture doesn't make much sense or is ruined, in any event I have won.  I have won a new sensation, a sensation I had never experienced before.  (Albert Giacometti : Works / Writings / Interviews authored and edited by Angel Gonzales.)

Giacometti's paintings and sculptures could never be truly completed because what they were about was the perception of a constantly changing and recurring process of creation in which life would emerge and then dissolve, appear and then disappear, over and over again as he worked.  What he perceived was numinous, unknown, and even "unseen" in terms of ordinary sense perception.  Finally, instead of copying what he saw, he would come to some degree of resolution with his visionary creative process by allowing himself to make images that functioned as visual symbols or equivalents for how he saw.  

Giacometti  "Portrait of Nelda"  1964  oil painting

Giacometti  "Head of a Man"  (Diego)  1965  oil painting

Face-to-Face with the Unknown
Giacometti was possessed with a great fear and at the same time a tremendous desire or compulsion to have a face-to-face dialogue with the Unknown through his creative process regardless of his subject matter.  However the human face, and the human head was for Giacometti the most fascinating, challenging, mysterious thing he would ever try to paint.  He once stated:

Why do I feel the need, yes the need, to paint faces?  Why am I . . .  how could I put it . . . almost astonished by people's faces, and why have I always been?  Like an unknown sign, as if there were something to see which at first glance is invisible?  Why?

James Lord, in his biography quotes Giacometti:

I began to see heads in the void, in the space which surrounds them.  When for the first time I clearly perceived how a head I was looking at could become fixed, immobilize definitively in time, I trembled with terror as never before in my life. . . .  It was no longer a living head but an object I was looking at, like any other object, but no, differently, not like any other object, but like something simultaneously living and dead.  I gave a cry in terror, as if I had just crossed a threshold, as if I was entering a world never seen before. . . and that vision was often repeated, in the subway, in the street, in a restaurant, in front of my friends. . .  And not only people but objects at the same time underwent a transformation: tables, chairs, cloths, the street, even the trees and the landscapes." 

Giacometti, terrified and determined, worked with great persistence to come face-to face with that which was most awesome: the constantly transforming apparitions of his perceptual world which existed in some unknown space between the physical world and what he termed "not being" but what I would argue, was the deepest unknown territory of his own Self .  Through his creative process he entered the Intermediate Imaginal World, a world unlike one ever seen before; the mystery of mysteries that existed between "being" and "not being," between "life" and "death."

Giacometti  "The Artist's Mother" (Annetta)  1950 oil painting

Giacometti  "Diego in a Red Shirt"  1954 oil painting

The Undifferentiated Face, Space, Place
Giacometti made some fascinating "portraits" in which place, or the space surrounding the sitter, becomes united, continuous with, or a transparent extension of his sitter.  The primary subject--which for Giacometti was located in the head or face of the sitter--is usually placed at or near the center of the picture's frame (or a frame that he painted into his compositions).  But in many of his best paintings I sense that the presence I experience emerges not from the sitter's head, but rather from the center of the space of the image as a whole.  Its as if presence has become no-more or no-less than the visual unitary reality of the entire pictorial space of the painting.  In other words, the visual field of the painting energetically does not distinguish between human and non-human, sitter and place.  Although it is true that the face was always the most difficult thing for Giacometti to paint, in certain fascinating "portraits" its the image as a whole which exudes a vital living presence.

There are also paintings in which the face, having been worked over and over again on the canvas--often created and destroyed and revised a seemingly infinite number of times--would become so thick with paint that it would appear as if a sculptural relief on the surface of the painting.  In such cases the face sometimes projects out of the pictorial space of the painting both physically and imaginatively toward the viewer and thus become the most dynamic visual presence in the painting, and therefore the center of attention, the place of concentrated visual power in the painting.

Often the face (or head) is rendered in Giacometti's paintings and drawings as a complex configuration, web or mesh of moving lines.  This place of visual nexus of interwoven lines sometimes becomes enormously energized and layered, often creating a sense of spatial transparency within the head (or face).  This transparency allows the surrounding spaces, and the space within the head or face, to interact with each other and oftentimes merge as if becoming undifferentiated.  Face and place would become a visual point of unity for the painting as a whole.   In other words the face then appears to become the point of origin. the seat of creative energy of the entire pictorial space.  This auratic energy could expand and radiate outward and then surround the face, or head, or figure.  Yves Bonnefoy, in his important and wonderfully illustrated book Giacometti, termed this phenomena of the face or head the nodal point of the painting's being.

Yves Bonnefoy's transcendent reading of Giacometti's life and art
I like Bonnefoy's psychological-symbolic reading of Giacometti's life, his creative process and the art he produced--though at times, even for me, he goes too far in his psychologizing.  But seldom have I found an author willing to go out on a limb and speak of the transcendental aspects of an image, which of course in my opinion is most appropriate in the case of Giacometti's late works.  

For example, Bonnefoy writes about the space in objects which Giacometti unveiled in his drawings and paintings through the continuous movement of lines, ". . . sometimes cross-hatchings, sometimes concentric circles, sometimes rays spreading in all directions--around the eyes or mouth or chin. . .  [lines which] seems to be everywhere at once . . . [as if] looking for something the eye discerns in the object . . . and then moving away as soon as it finds it, as if to remain there were too intense, but quickly returning to it, perhaps at a higher level in its understanding of the model . . ."

In his contemplations of Giacometti's work Bonnefoy often enters into a discussion of being.  He writes about meaning in terms that transcend or go beyond pictorial space.  This kind of meaning is "of the heart," just as Giacometti's vision is of "the eye of the heart."  Thus Bonnefoy shows great compassion for the kind of transcendence Giacometti achieves in his painting.  Here, for example, he writes about the "release from space" into "all existence":

 ". . . the impression made [of all those lines and their movements] . . . is increasingly the suggestion of a Unity, asserted amid a multiplicity surrounding it on all sides on the sheet of paper, the canvas or in the lump of clay or plaster.  And therein, thereby, space is transcended at the heart of the very object Giacometti encounters in it.  To see, actually and really to see a part of this object would mean being released from space; and, obviously, it would be helpful for a further grasp of the being which is out there, beyond space like all existence."

Giacometti  "Gray Figure" 1957 oil painting

Stillness, Silence & Gray Apparitions  
Giacometti often used the word apparition in relation to both his perceptual-visionary experiences and the paintings he made.  Apparition, in terms we have already discussed here regarding the writings of Ibn 'Arabi and Henry Corbin, could refer to that presence, energy, or Consciousness which exists in the "Imaginal World," that "unknown, invisible place" which exists between "being" and "non-being," the "Intermediate" realm between what had appeared to Giacometti and then in the next moment disappeared.  

I'm fascinated by the way Giacometti spoke of a perceived movement as a series of points of stillness.  He said, in regards to his 1945 Epiphany:  the way everything looked became transformed, as if movement was no more than a series of points of stillness. . . moments of stillness which, after all, could go on for an eternity, broken and followed by another stillness.

And he spoke enthusiastically about his experience of silence: The Boulevard Montparnasse took on the beauty of the Arabian Nightsfantastic, altogether unknown.  And at the same time, the silence, an unbelievable sort of silence.  

Gray in Giacometti's painting is the color of the "still point;" it's the Intermediary color, between black and white; it's the "color of silence."   Gray dominates much of Giacometti's work including the portrait paintings.  The presence of an auratic mist of gray in his paintings often symbolizes (for me) presence.  I have read that he loved color, and he would often begin his paintings with colors, even bright colors, but as written in Lord's biography, Giacometti said he would have to eliminate one color after another until at last only gray remained.  Perhaps gray was the inevitable color of his process of re-vision: all the re-workings, destructions and beginnings over and over again.  The colors he began with became transformed as they merged into each other creating an abundance of varying tinted gray tonalities.

Gray was the ghost-like color of presence that radiated from Giacometti's painted heads; the color of transformation in which figure and surrounding space merged into each other.  For example, see the "Gray Figure" painting above, in which the head emerges from--or dissolve into--the enveloping  cloud of gray surrounding the head.

Giacometti  "Head and Nude"  1965  oil painting

I began to see heads in the void, in the space which surrounds them.  
When for the first time I clearly perceived how a head 
I was looking at could become fixed, 
immobilize definitively in time, 
I trembled with terror . . . 

In one of Giacometti's most famous paintings (above) the head or face of a woman becomes disassociated from her full length nude figure; it is suspended in an atmosphere of gray space, the space of being, of living presence.  Giacometti once said:

I have often felt, in front of living beings . . . the sense of a space-atmosphere which immediately surrounds these beings, penetrates them, is already the being itself . . .  Quoted in David Sylvester 'The Residue of a vision' Alberto Giacometti : Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings 1913-1965 catalogue cited in Paul Moorhouse, Giacometti : Pure Presence 2015.

I personally have had epiphanic experiences in which time became suspended.  In those extraordinary "timeless" moments there has often been a palpable presence of silence.  When I contemplate my photographs--those which function for me as symbols--I often enter a"space of silence" which is, I believe, the space of grace, the space of the divine energy known as Shakti, the presence of meaning which pervades true symbolic images.  Grace stills my mind; and this stillness--which seems simultaneously an experience of silence--opens the door at the center of my being, that is to say, my heart.  It is only when my heart is open that I can then become receptive to what the image has to "say" to me in what is essentially a "silent dialogue."

My practices of Siddha Yoga Meditation have been crucial in regards to my process of contemplating photographs.  The practices have transformed not only the way I experience my photographs, but my entire life as well.  The yogic scriptures say that stillness and silence are the true nature of the divine Self.  When we come into an intimate, open-hearted relationship with the things and spaces of the world, we are then able to embrace and merge with the the grace or Shakti which pervades everything.  (See my recent project Alone and my project Photography and Yoga.)

The Unity of Being & Visual Equivalence 
If we were to invoke the traditional teachings of the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi, I believe Henry Corbin would say that the presence we experience in Giacometti's portrait paintings could be the sitter's Celestial Companion, or Angelic Twin.  (see my Angels project)   In any case,  the conscious, palpable experience of presence is for me, and Yves Bonnefoy, an experience of transcendence, the "crossing over" into the realm of the Intermediary Imaginal World, which is the realm of the symbol, the realm of the Unity  of being.

Giacometti  "Yanaihara III"  1956  oil painting

In the late 1950's, as Giacometti repeatedly tried to paint his friend Isaku Yanaihara, he finally found after many frustrating failures a way to transcend his obsessive need to objectively copy what he saw by instead creating a highly subjective visual image, that is to say a visual equivalent for his perceptual experience.  This was a liberating moment in Giacometti's creative process; finally, now, he was free to create images about his personal, perceptual experiences.

In some of the best paintings in the series, Yanaihara is represented as if an apparition, centered, alonein a spatial "void" as so many writers have liked to refer.  This idea of a "void" comes out of the existentialist conventions popular during the time in which Giacometti worked, led by people who had befriended him such as Sartre and Samuel Beckett.  However, if the word "void" means "completely empty," I must assert that, for me, the spaces enveloping the sitter in Giacometti's paintings is anything but empty.  Rather, Giacometti's spaces are vitally, energetically alive with moving, transforming energy, energy radiant with living presence, and an ineffable kind of interior light that emerges as if projected out from within the sitter.  This numinous, auratic space surrounding his figures interact directly with the figures in a continual exchange of visual energy that, for me, is a metaphor for Unitary Reality.  In other words, the pictorial space is alive with pulsating Consciousness, the presence of Being, the presence of the divine Self.

Self Portraits
Paul Morrhouse, in his summarization of the ideas associated with Giacometti's work in his book Giacometti : Pure Presence, says although it is tempting to see Giacometti's art works in light of existentialism, in the final analysis it would be an over simplification.  Giacometti was obsessed with the primacy of his own deeply personal vision of the world.  His art was a means of better perceiving his own transcendent reality.

I agree with this, and would add that Giacometti's paintings, drawings and sculptures are "portraits" of his own transcendent Self, as opposed to the the sitter's personality or the artist's personal self.  The idea of Pure Presence should in my opinion be associated with the divine Absolute Self.  This way of understanding one's perceptual experience of the world, the transcendent primacy of one's own personal reality, allows for the embrace of and union with the Unknown which Giacometti often talked and wrote about.

I define the word symbol as the best formulation (visually or in any other expressive form) of that which is presently unknown.  The word transcendence means that which is unknown, ineffable, beyond intellectual knowledge.  The transcendent aspect of human Being is the most important and wonder-full aspects of being human.  Giacometti's best work is truly filled with numinosity, mystery, the radiance of presence.   Though by all accounts he might appear to us to have been a strange character who lived an extraordinary life, at the same time Giacometti lived life fully, dynamically, even as he quietly, persistently made his portraits and all the other works.  People were attracted to him as a person, and he engaged them with the depth of his being.  In the last years of his life Giacometti's creative process transcended his own personal foibles.  His one-pointed sustained engagement with his art making gave him direct entry into the Intermediary Imaginal World, a transcendent Reality in the most graceful, essential and mysterious sense of the word.  He confronted the unknown in an intuitive, though conscious, face-to-face silent dialogue which he says, won him a sensation he had never before experienced:

Basically I now only work for the sensation I get during the process.  And if I am then able to see better, if as I leave I see reality slightly differently, deep down, even if the picture doesn't make much sense or is ruined, in any event I have won.  I have won a new sensation, a sensation I had never experienced before.  (Albert Giacometti : Works / Writings / Interviews authored and edited by Angel Gonzales.)

Alberto Giacometti,  "Self Portrait"  1954  pencil

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This project was posted on my Welcome Page 
July 12, 2017

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