Giacometti located his creative epiphany in 1945 when he emerged from a Montparnasse cinema and saw the world as if for the first time, unclouded by the veil of the real. From that moment, he felt the need to account for what he saw, knowing that all the time he would fail, but that only failure itself would lead to the truth. As he later noted, "The more you fail, the more you succeed. It is only when everything is lost and -- instead of giving up -- you go on, that you experience the momentary prospect of some slight progress. Suddenly you have the feeling -- be it an illusion or not -- that something new has opened up."
As the interview progresses Giacometti cracks open artistic inspiration as the frenzied pursuit of such illusions. Even three years before his death, when he was internationally recognized, the artist worked frenetically, as if a lifetime of grasping for, but never quite capturing, enlightenment could be reversed with just one more sculpture.
According to Dupin, interviewed extensively in Michel van Zele's What is a Head?, Giacometti was so convinced that only his newest work scraped close to truth that he would want to pack and dispatch solely sculptures, still dripping water and clay, to any exhibition. Only the interventions of his brother, his wife, and his friends filled galleries with his finished, haunting recreations of human persistence.
For Giacometti, drawing and sculpting did not represent what he saw; instead he sought, through his art, to understand what he saw. He perceived, that day in Montparnasse, a void that isolated everyone and everything, leaving all "floating in emptiness, separated by an immense distance." But isolation also held within it courage and determination. Giacometti traced the vulnerability of his figures, those slender trajectories of resistance against space, to his perception of human endeavor: "I always feel that there's a fragility in living creatures, as if at every moment they needed an incredible drive to remain standing, always at risk of collapsing." More than fragility, too, he saw imminent extinction, knowing that death inhabited the living and quickly abandoned the dead.As his fingers drew presence out of the void, he saw his work as "testing a talent to find a fact."
While Drot's film is itself rich in "fact," prowling slowly from one masterwork to the next, often accompanied by the artist's own recollections of its genesis and fruition (no small accomplishment in a television documentary), it's van Zele who focuses on one key element of the works themselves -- the representation of the human head. In so doing, he casts his net widely, drawing in close friends of Giacometti's such as Dupin, Roger Montandon, and Ernst Scheidegger, a young German soldier who met Giacometti while vacationing in a Swiss hotel.
Giacometti's fascination with the head began in the early 1930s.
In 1934, André Breton, contemptuous of Giacometti's
return to the human body as subject after his cubist and
surrealist work, scoffed that everyone knows "what a head is
now." Giacometti snapped back, "I don't," and abandoned the
surrealists forever. According to Scheidegger, who later shot
his own film about the artist, Giacometti found in the human
head "an insoluble mystery," perpetually drawing him towards
truth and into despair. Giacometti himself said, "The first time
that I saw the head I was looking at become fixed, immobilized
definitively in a moment in time, I shook with terror as never
before in my life and a cold sweat ran down my back. What I was
looking at was an object like any other, no, different, not like
any other object, but like something which was alive and dead at
the same time."
--by Lesley Smith