Issue 18, Spring 1958
In the fall of 1957 Giacometti was asked by the editors of the French magazine Arts to visit the great auto show which is held annually at Paris’s Grand Palais and to comment afterwards on the relation of the car to sculpture. Could the “beauty” of a car be compared, he was asked, to that of a statue? His essay in reply follows.
The other day I went over to the Salon de l’Automobile. I was at once caught up in the mixture of commercial rivalries, publicity-seeking display, money, class-consciousness, strife, luxury, and fashion. In all that surrounding frenzy, one is never quite sure what one is looking at. I was struck one minute by the head of a man peering in front of me; then by the peculiar walk of a woman. Spots of bright color danced before my eyes: red, green, yellow—ugly on the whole. Then I noticed the flowers strewn in front of the cars and a moment later found myself facing a huge, black, shiny monster, edged in silver. It made me think of a vast safe and raised visions of bank buildings, villas on the Cote d’Azur with old men sunk inside them, and the massive hoard of money behind all that.
One car reminded me of a drive through Paris in a car very much like it several years back. It had been a special drive in the company of a special person and all the sights and sounds attached to the event now suddenly returned to mind. Another car recalled a certain walk in the country, also quite awhile ago. Then, all at once, in that enormous hall I found myself gazing at the ceiling and thinking of the Gare de l’Est, of the Tour Eiffel, of the year 1900, and of Emile Zola.
It is always difficult to see a car as a whole. The eye is usually attracted to one aspect or another, caught now by a headlight—that great mechanical eye with the look of an optical instrument, a giant microscope. A car nearby looked like dribbling marmalade.
I stopped before a running motor, fascinated as I always am by any machine in motion—as I was, before the war, by a certain calculating machine in a shop window on the Blvd. Malesherbes. I could never pass by there, on my way back from the Galleries on the rue La Boétie, without staring at it for long minutes at a time. It was a marvelous machine, much more extraordinary than the motor at the auto show.
Not for a second in all that long afternoon at the exhibit did I have any thought of sculpture. Yes..., I did once, at sight of a figure on the hood of an engine which was a small imitation of the Victory of Samothrace. As I came out—it was already half past eight in the evening and quite dark—I couldn’t find a taxi to take me home. By some strange coincidence there was nothing in the street but an old- fashioned carriage. I hailed the driver and set off. Stepping down a little while later at my door, I turned back to take a careful look at the carriage, the horse, and the driver, admiring the harmony between the three elements, the clarity and precision of the entire structure, each part contributing visibly to the flowing symmetry of the whole. I felt like drawing it there and then.
It does happen sometimes that I stop in the street to look at a car which reminds me of a toad, a bull, or a grasshopper; in the same way, perhaps, as I will gaze at a cloud, watching it ruffle into the shape of a head; or again, at a tree trunk, seeing there a tiger ready to spring.
A car, like every other machine, is a recent discovery. It descends not only from the carriage but from the horse and carriage combined. The resulting product is certainly strange: a complete mechanical organism, having eyes, a mouth, a heart, and intestines; it will eat and drink and go on working until it breaks—what an odd parody of a living being.
But it is a mistake to suppose that a car has anything to do with sculpture; no machine has, nor has any tool used before machines existed. Every tool, every machine must be a finished product in order to serve its purpose. The more finished, the more perfect it is; the better it serves its purpose, the more beautiful it is judged to be. Thus if a new machine works more efficiently, it at once displaces the old.
Returning now to sculpture, this is not the case. No statue can ever take the place of another because a statue is not a simple product. It is many things besides: it is both a mystery and a solution, a question and a reply. A statue can be neither finished nor perfect. Such considerations are irrelevant. When Michelangelo fashioned his last statue, the Pietà Rondanini, it was a new beginning. Had he worked on a thousand years longer making Pietà after Pietà he would never have repeated himself, never fallen backwards, never finished anything, but always swept further ahead. And the same might be said of Rodin.
A wrecked car, or any broken machine, is useless; it becomes scrap-iron. Yet if a Chaldean statue were broken into four pieces there would be no such loss of value. In the place of the first, four distinct works of art would emerge. And each separate part would be worth the original whole; each would retain, as would the whole, its power and its meaning.
A maimed Egyptian sculpture, a faded Rembrandt, scarred, and grown dark with time, these never lose their beauty. Unlike those objects which refer to nothing but themselves, a work of sculpture, or a painting, always lays claim to something beyond its own limits. But here another fact—of recent origin, like the machine—must be accounted for: the fact of “abstract” sculpture. This new mode of expression is not figurative but concrete. It creates and seeks to create a self-contained object, as self-contained and as finished as a machine, without reference to anything beyond itself. Now the question arises how to define this new kind of creation; how to place it with respect to the art discussed above.
One wonders what might become of abstract sculpture and abstract painting. How would a statue of Brancusi look if it were chipped or broken; or a painting of Mondrian if it were torn or turned dark with age? One wonders whether they belong to the same world as Chaldean sculpture, as Rembrandt and Rodin; or whether they form a world apart, closer to that of machines. I would go further and ask to what extent may they still be defined as sculpture, as painting; how much have they lost of the meaning in these words?
—Translated by Elizabeth Faure