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Giacometti: A Biography by James Lord (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $39; 608 pp. illustrated)

October 13, 1985|Meryle Secrest | Secrest is the author of "Kenneth Clark: A Biography" and is at work on a biography of Salvador Dali. and

Before World War II, almost every major artist and writer was, or had been, a Surrealist; Alberto Giacometti was no exception. Like the works of Max Ernst, Hans Arp, Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell, among others, Giacometti's astonishingly inventive constructions--sculpture seems too academic a term--managed the improbable. While being strongly abstract in mood, they were also highly evocative in visual terms and somehow deeply disquieting. Elegant, spare and imaginative, they spoke to the mood of the age in veiled and elliptical symbolism, that of the poete maudit.

Giacometti is, without question, a neglected giant, and this is the first biography to appear since his death in 1966. It appears that the artist's widow was opposed and prohibited direct quotations from his unpublished letters and journals, the kind of opposition that tends to block most biographers. It happened, however, that a young American who had been posted to Paris during World War II and settled there had sat for a portrait by Giacometti. He became a fervent admirer--he punctiliously refuses to call himself a close friend. He has worked on this study for 15 years, interviewed absolutely everyone of note in Paris and elsewhere, and obtained the support of Giacometti's younger brother, Diego.

One could posit that Giacometti had everything a potential artist needs to nurture his future development: an atmosphere conducive to art and a neurosis to hand. Like Salvador Dali's, Giacometti's Swiss Protestant family was stodgily conventional, even though his father was a painter. However, art was highly valued and its early appearance in Alberto's development praised and encouraged. Giacometti also shared the burden that beset his Spanish contemporary: a lifelong fear and hatred of women. One can see in Giacometti's case an immediate awareness of the threat presented by his mother, despite his biographer's attempt to paint her in a wholly favorable light. Men of that generation, schooled to think of their mothers, sisters and wives as saintly virgins, were bound to find prostitutes a relief, if not an absolute necessity, and Giacometti was no exception. It was all fruitful source material, sometimes barely disguised.

Of course the Surrealists all borrowed from each other, living, working and exhibiting as a united front just before World War II, with some defections. James Lord's account of this period in Giacometti's life, when he was at the peak of his form, is an absolutely invaluable piece of reporting and the best part of the book. As invariably happens, those with most to lose are often the first to spot an authentic new vision, and the support of artists like Andre Masson helped compensate Giacometti for public indifference: "For five minutes I have stared blankly at my typewriter, trying to think of something to say about the abstract sculpture by Alberto Giacometti," wrote the art critic of The New York Times in 1934. "If you want the blunt truth . . . Mr. Giacometti's objects, as sculpture, strike me as being unqualifiedly silly."

The author is also extremely enlightening on that fascinating cast of lesser lights whose names are hardly household words; for instance, the Vicomte Charles and Marie Laure de Noailles, those indefatigable patrons who designed a chateau in order to house their monstrous collection of Cubist objects. Then there was that marvelous, enigmatic being, the French communist poet Paul Eluard, whose charm and warmth survived even though his wife, Gala, left him for Dali. Or one can point to the French poet Rene Crevel, a major figure despite his early death, with a marked influence on his contemporaries. Even the lesser light, Jean Michel Frank, a French decorator- designer who committed suicide from a St. Regis hotel window, receives his due here.

It seems cavalier to quibble, but I must. The book suffers from a marked lack of editing, which would have spared the author such gaffes as "the sole fulfillment of sexuality is sexual experience," and other such gnomic statements. There are also some quaint circumlocutions which, no matter how diplomatically meant, strike the reader as being labored, when not actually coy. These reservations to one side, "Giacometti" is a careful, well-balanced and thorough description of a life that well deserves such a solid reassessment.

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