James Lord by Alberto Giacometti

“You look like a real thug. If I could paint you as I see you and a policeman saw the picture, he’d arrest you immediately.”

Alberto Giacometti, the recent darling of the auction circuits, is perhaps one of the most recognized sculptors of the 20th century. His figures are instantly recognizable for their exaggerated and disproportionate bodies, feet that become one with the pedestal, blurring the line between the work of art and its support.

Giacometti’s portraits are equally distinct: the characteristic solitary figure is typically pinned to the center of the canvas, against a diffused pool of smudged and smeared grays and a loose grid that frames the sitter. He famously worked and re-worked principal elements for weeks but was never fully satisfied with the results. “It’s impossible to paint a portrait,” Giacometti said. “Ingres could do it. He could finish a portrait. It was a substitute for a photograph and had to be done by hand…but now it has no meaning.”

La Gommeuse by Pablo Picasso

Florence Waters quotes Lord recalling: “As each sitting started Giacometti always said, ‘It’s helpless! I don’t know why I’m even trying’, or ‘It’s impossible! I can’t make portraits, no one can.’ Lord was driven almost to despair by the length of the process. He thought Giacometti was neurotic and a bit mad. But Giacometti is trying to grapple with pure sensation. He’s trying to capture something that actually precedes perception, and that takes you into a very strange place.”

In fact the only people who were able to tolerate these grueling modeling stints were this artist’s wife Annette Giacometti and his brother Diego, who, because of their patience, are now firmly instilled in the annals of art history. Annette Giacometti wrote: “[Alberto] could go on and on indefinitely. Alberto seems to find it more and more difficult to finish things… He likes work against a deadline sometimes”

James Lord recalled their first meeting: “One evening in February 1952, I wandered into the Café des Deux-Magots in Paris, looking for someone to talk to, and chanced upon a friend. He introduced me to his companion: Alberto Giacometti. Like almost everyone meeting him for the first time, I sensed at once that the man before me was profoundly different from other people, and felt a powerful attraction… Nothing was easier than to fall into the habit of visiting him in his studio… I wrote a few articles about his work… he got me to pose for drawings now and then.” Lord sat for a total of 18 sessions and Giacometti completed the portrait on 1 October 1964 in time for shipment to the 1964 Pittsburgh International Exhibition. The Portrait of James Lord was also exhibited in the large retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1965.

As loyal readers of ArtEx know, we never include extended quotes in any of our posts, but this portrait comes with the most detailed of notes and especially because the finished work may appear to some as somewhat sparse, even unfinished, we feel it’s permissible to circumvent the rules just this once, and include the sitter’s description of the two-week process in its entirety. The full text can be found here.

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