When Beckett Commissioned Giacometti

On the chilly evening of January 5, 1953, in the Théâtre de Babylone, a converted shop against a cobblestone courtyard in Saint Germain-des-Préz, five capable if undistinguished actors premiered a play penned by an expatriate Irish writer. The small audience, a mix of Parisians attracted to dramatic experiment, was puzzled. There was hearty laughter at points, and genial applause at the end, although a disturbing number of people had left at the intermission, and the rest, who were mostly invitees, were polite but bewildered when asked their opinion of the drama afterward. It was a strange play, they felt, quite funny and also sad, then again not really comedy, not really tragedy.

This peculiar drama was taken up with a banal rambling conversation between two tramps. These buffoons resembled in their manner the American comics Laurel and Hardy, although basically they were latter-day versions of clowning zanni from traditional Italian theatre. Zanni characters were hard-up males fixated with their own comfort, who, by being assigned a serving role which they abused with disastrous results, carried along much of the comic element in the commedia dell’arte and related forms of Italian opera (the English word zany is derived from zanni). Recognising the allusion, the progressive dramatist Jean Anouilh, who enthusiastically reviewed the performance for Arts-Spectacle, went so far as to describe the new play as “a great music hall sketch of Pascal’s Pensées as played by the Fratellini clowns”.[1]

The décor was negligible: chalk marks to suggest a road, a mound, a skinny near-dead tree. As the first act unfolded, it became apparent that there was meant to be little make-believe. The set was near featureless and bare because the fictional landscape was monotonous and bare. Into this scene are inserted two characters, “Didi” (Vladimir) and “Gogo” (Estragon), who proceed to talk, gossip and fritter time away pointlessly. They stay at this spot, we learn, because they are waiting for someone. The play bumbles along without customary story-telling or plot construction.

Two other people arrive, a bully and his victim, both in their way also zanni (the latter one, a mute visibly suffering from traumatic shock who is treated as a virtual packhorse, is paradoxically named “Lucky”). They argue and fool around, then the new zanni depart. After another long period of time-wasting, a boy walks in who tells the original tramps that the important person they are waiting for has postponed his arrival. The moon rises, and the act, which was rather long, ends. Following an intermission, we watch another lengthy act which is more or less structurally the same, right down to a re-encounter with the second pair of zanni and the reappearance of the boy with the same message of delay from a man who may not exist. “Nothing happens,” as one of the characters remarks; although this nothingness seems pregnant with meaning.

Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot—in English, Waiting for Godot—proved to be a hinge on which twentieth-century drama swung. Besides challenging the conventions of theatre, it stimulated a debate on creative meaning. Some thought the play boring and pointless; others were not so dismissive. They had questions they would soon voice. Was this a disguised morality play with a theistic message? Was it a reflection on human folly in a world without purpose? Or was it even a black comedy about the aftermath of an atomic cataclysm? Here, it seemed, not only was language stripped bare and a gallows-like humour: the mood encapsulated postwar uncertainty, the experience of life driven into nothingness. Writing the play’s first review, the critic Sylvain Zegel insisted:

These two tramps, who represent all humanity, utter remarks that any one of us may utter. These two men are feeble and energetic, cowardly and courageous; they bicker, amuse themselves, are bored, speak to each other without understanding. They do this all to keep busy. To pass time. To live, or to give themselves the illusion of living.[2]

But the interpretations and critical disputes were to emerge over the following months. In the meantime there was the experience of a dramatic experiment. Sitting in the audience was the sculptor Alberto Giacometti, a friend of the author. The artist was intrigued. He found the play intellectually stimulating. However, the design was awful. The director, Roger Blin, had made the tree from wire coat hangers twisted together then wrapped in tissue paper. It was anchored with a piece of foam rubber and painted brown, with bits of green paper pinned on at the interval to suggest leaves. Fabric was stretched over a box for the mound, and the moon suggested by shining a blue spotlight behind the tatty backdrop made from three used sheets sewn together.[3]

What Giacometti said to the writer we don’t know. In any case, at some point afterwards it entered Beckett’s mind that he would like his friend to make a set, should there be a chance for another local production.

Beckett and Giacometti had been friendly for nearly twenty years. They met during the Depression, getting into a conversation in a Latin Quarter café. Aged in their mid-thirties, they were expatriates (Beckett was Irish, Giacometti an Italian-Swiss) eking out a living in the French capital as best they could. Alberto was lanky in his rumpled clothes, with coffee-coloured eyes and curly hair held within a nimbus of cigarette smoke. Slightly taller yet appearing compact, Sam sat in his chair and quietly gazed at the world through blue-grey eyes, fixing upon people with a gentle look.

Both were there through circumstance. They lived in rented rooms that were dreary and impossible to heat adequately; so they went to cafés at night to socialise, eat, read newspapers, and also to get warm. Neither was looking for friendship, but they got to talking. It was an encounter of sympathetic personalities. What Beckett and Giacometti found in each other was someone who shared a conviction that art is a hopeless undertaking. And on the Left Bank, with its excess of inflated creative egos, this was unusual.

Soon they were seeing each other often. They mostly met by chance, late at night in Montparnasse, when each had ceased creative activity for the day. It was a private friendship, and they had their customs. If they conversed using the familiar tu, they always called each other “Beckett” and “Giacometti”. So the pair would wander about for hours, hopping between cafés and bars, avoiding the intelligentsia, often just roaming darkened streets together, talking. And it was Giacometti who reputedly did much of the talking, indefatigably describing the anguish he was experiencing in the studio.[4]

The artist was temperamentally a creature of the Parisian gallery scene of the late twenties and early thirties, when Matisse and Picasso were familiar faces, and some of the greats of early modernism were living there in exile.[5] Yet the magic had worn thin, because Giacometti had been through a messy falling out with the surrealists. At the time he felt unable to work from the unconscious, using creative play or games as a source for his sculpture. So Giacometti tried other things, going back to drawing and sculpting from life. But André Breton, the self-styled leader of the movement, was outraged and called a surrealist meeting to sit in judgment.

Giacometti was taken unawares. Following a meal in a café with Breton at which he had explained his position, they stopped by a friend’s flat where other surrealists were already waiting. He found himself required to justify his conduct before a hostile tribunal. Breton issued an ultimatum: the artist must stop working from the figure. Giacometti pleaded he could not. He no longer believed in what he had been doing, and, getting more upset as he defended his changing views, called surrealist work “masturbation”. Breton said the group had to sort things out. “Don’t bother, I’m going,” Giacometti replied and left.[6] Thus the sculptor became persona non grata in advanced artistic circles.

The man Beckett got to know during those pre-war days was a fascinating, if troubled soul. Giacometti would sit in stony silence for a long time, chain smoking, drinking endless cups of coffee, sometimes picking at a couple of hard-boiled eggs or cold ham with a little bread. Then, without warning, he would become maniacally garrulous. He was a man of culture, a cosmopolitan sophisticate with ideas worth hearing. He was, as the American critic Jed Perl has observed, art-obsessed in an eccentric, self-involved, ironic way so that what he said came out as an effusive volley of clever and highly lucid prose.[7] (On YouTube he can be seen, late in life, running rings around a television interviewer.)

Giacometti was uneasy about how one apprehends things, especially how we apprehend other people. He was dissatisfied with the customary means of assessing drawings, paintings and sculpture from life. It was missing the point to consider whether one had achieved a visual likeness, or handled materials in an appealing manner. For Giacometti, the figure was more and more a puzzle, a disturbing enigma, because the life study traded in the appearance of parts of a body, and that wasn’t enough. What he was baffled by, what he wanted to represent, was connected more with sensation, how he felt with the physical presence of this person, this figure, posing before him.

“He was not obsessed but possessed,” Beckett explained to James Lord, the artist’s biographer:

I suggested that it might be more fruitful to concentrate on the problem itself rather than struggle constantly to achieve a solution. That is, by accepting the impossibility of what he was struggling to achieve and by developing the inner nature and exploiting the natural resources of that very impossibility, he might achieve a result of greater complexity and richness than by continuing over and over to struggle to do what he knew was impossible: the creation of an illusion as real as reality. But Giacometti was determined to continue with his struggle, trying to progress even if it was only by so much as an inch, or a centimetre, or a millimetre.[8]

He would spend hour upon hour in his studio, day upon day, fretting over works, trying to clarify how to create—as Beckett puts it—“an illusion as real as reality”. There were numerous linear drawings, mostly details of his studio, some tense oil paintings of an apple on a bench, and several blocky portrait busts of friends. He wasn’t satisfied with them. It got so bad that Giacometti stopped work altogether for weeks at a time.

His sinking spirits were probably not helped by his circumstances. He was renting a shabby two-roomed atelier-workshop at 26 Rue Hippolyte-Maindron in Montparnasse, one of several sheds compressed into the former yard of a decrepit house. The studio’s roof leaked profusely in rain, the walls were dirty and flaking, there was no electricity, nowhere to cook, just a pot-bellied stove which toiled unsuccessfully against the cold. The toilet was outside together with a single cold tap, both shared with several neighbours. By any sane measure it was a slum. His bedroom had no floor: it was bare dirt. In sub-zero weather Giacometti went around the corner to Rue d’Alésia and slept in the cheap Hôtel Primavera, its name at least promising sunny warmth.

Then came the war. The two friends lost touch during the mayhem of German Occupation. Beckett and his partner Suzanne retreated to rural France where they became involved in the Resistance. Due to visa problems, Giacometti was marooned in Geneva for nearly four years, living in a small neat room over a café, within a city he felt much too tidy and close, alongside a capricious group of fashion-conscious exiles he didn’t always get along with. There is a telling story of someone in a club mistaking him for Jean Cocteau, and being most displeased he was not the stylish celebrity.

Paris was waiting for a new vision of Man in 1945. Giacometti and Beckett offered it—or so the weight of later critical opinion would argue. Back at work in the city, and seeing each other regularly, through literary and artistic means the pair were each representing human beings as frail, pained, impermanent, burdened with their own mortality. This was life as the experience of utter solitude, of being out of touch with anyone.[9]

Then again, the lonely vulnerable figure was in the air. The experiences of occupation and collaboration had scarred lives, and there was an unspoken rivalry among the ambitious to deliver writing and art encapsulating the ethos of the war years. That unsettling introverted narratives by an outsider like Samuel Beckett might later be felt to approach this goal would have astonished Parisian intellectuals at the time. It did not then fit what they saw as the experience of Occupation. Besides, surely the laurels should go to a Left Bank notable?[10]

Take Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Blood of Others, which was an instant success in 1945. Describing the experiences of a young couple working in the Resistance, it used a complex narrative structure to shift between characters and moments in recent history, highlighting the sacrifices endured by those fighting for the French community.[11] A commendable novel, and skilfully written, too: although, nowadays we see that de Beauvoir built it all around a doomed love story recalling the sentimental romances of patriotic war films.

Then in 1947 it looked as if a contender for the profound statement had emerged from another scribe in the same Left Bank milieu. Albert Camus’s The Plague, a tale of townspeople in an Algerian city coping with a virulent epidemic, handled the process of French resistance to the Germans through allegory. His novel garnered instant praise, and a distinguished critics’ award. But it was rather abstract and indirect, a virtuous masculine monument (inexplicably there are no women characters, or Arabs).

Paris in the late 1940s was still dealing with the ordeal of the otages (or “hostages”). These were men and women who the Germans had plucked off the streets at random, and executed in retaliation for acts of sabotage. Nazi propaganda asserted that moral responsibility for the otages lay entirely with the Resistance: in continuing to make trouble, it was forcing executions. Even if members of the underground saw through this twisted rhetoric, many wrestled with feelings of guilt and remorse. By the fall of Paris, over 1200 citizens had been put to death under this gruesome Occupation lottery. (The question of responsibility affected French responses to the Nuremberg Trials, and the flimsy defence of some Nazis that they followed orders and were blameless of war crimes.)

These pressing moral terms set a critical climate in which serious artistic and literary works were interpreted: the confronting title of The Blood of Others points to expected reprisals against otages if Jean Blomart, the main character, goes ahead with planned sabotage. Yet in fixing upon the experience of Resistance heroes, the Parisian intelligentsia was surely taking a narrow view of creative work dealing with the Occupation. What of ordinary people crushed by circumstances?

In hindsight, the contemporaneous Dirty Snow by the mainstream writer Georges Simenon was a stronger, more direct Occupation novel which ticked disquieting boxes.[12] Simenon is an unusual case, for he penned serious fiction and popular entertainment. His money-spinning Inspector Maigret detective stories were a concession to commercial reality, and have since eclipsed his other writing, although his romans vers or “hard novels” represented a genuine contribution to French literature.[13] They were then highly regarded. André Gide extolled their merits, calling Simenon “our greatest novelist today, a true novelist”.[14] They were also imitated by cub writers—Camus’s best-selling first novel The Outsider pastiched the form.

Simenon’s romans vers were gritty tales of sordid and ungiving common life. They centre on a sea-change event in one of three potential male characters: it might be a figure from the criminal underworld (like the hoodlum in the novel Home Town), an unremarkable bourgeois (the drunken lawyer in Strangers in the House), or a figure in the seamy side of politics (the anarchist in The Green Thermos). This pathetic little man leading a drab life finds himself manoeuvred into an impasse where he must take a difficult moral decision about his actions.

Bleak, nasty and fatalistic, Dirty Snow is set in a provincial French city under German rule. It follows the nineteen-year-old Frank Friedmaier, a character without a single virtue. Friedmaier isn’t brutal or a bully, rather he is a narcissist with a stunted personality. The reader follows Friedmaier as he commits his first murder, undertakes the despicable robbery of an elderly woman who helped raise him, then plans and sets in motion the rape by a friend of an adolescent girl with a crush on him. Throughout the story this implicitly existentialist emblem experiences no emotions, let alone empathy for anyone else. Friedmaier is also involved in the black market and prostitution (he lives in a brothel run by his mother, Lotte). Friedmaier’s growing criminal career is nurtured by the Occupation, for policing is fluid. The Germans are in charge and the French police are turning a blind eye to some crime, because the Resistance and the criminal underworld overlap. Which is probably why a detective drops by the brothel for long talks with Lotte—her customers are mostly German officers, and may reveal secrets.

This leads to the developing complications of the book. Might Friedmaier’s murder of a German officer for kicks be excused by some as an act of resistance? When Friedmaier really gets into trouble it is because he is suspected of being a patriot, not, as the reader can plainly see, a self-serving small-time criminal. Do the Gestapo interrogators, who over several months take him through every stage of questioning, ever get his true measure?

Dirty Snow would never be ranked as highly as Camus’s The Plague. Yet it delivered a more convincing, implicitly existentialist view of France under Occupation, conveying a pervasive atmosphere of isolation, alienation and annihilation. The world is tainted and meaningless. Motives are compromised. Those at the bottom are ground underfoot. There is nothing heroic in human action. And the novel delves into questions of moral responsibility that could not be put to rest.

Likewise with Beckett’s and Giacometti’s recent works. If they did not aggrandise the fight against the German occupiers, their writing and visual art exuded the grim mood of the times. It was vulnerable, worried, pained, coming to grips with “les Autres”, with ordinary individuals who suffered. These were the people who had things done to them, not those who assertively acted.

Giacometti was now wrestling with the anonymous figure shown in isolation. His plaster sculptures convey a disconcerting air of loneliness, a sense of humanity closing in on itself, waiting and desolate, always the watched, never the watcher. The skinny men silently pace, going nowhere, connecting with no one; while the thin women stand stock still and upright in a rigid pose, facing forward, arms pinned against their sides, like the condemned before a firing squad. And they are so small, too, some barely taller than a coffee cup.

The implicit despairing ambience of these forms is supported by a textured and abrasive finish. There is no sly cleverness to Giacometti’s coarse surfaces, no studied beauty that the seasoned eye may savour. This is not the bravura roughness of the contemporaneous New York School. Instead, it acts as an ugly sign of abuse, as if the sculpted figures have been ravaged. They look battered, raw and sore. So it is understandable why viewers made immediate connections between these images and corpses, especially the desiccated remains of those executed by Nazi death squads. The writer Jean Genet, a confidant of Giacometti, suggested that these figures were about everyday people who had uncomplainingly endured and survived. What their surfaces disclosed was the secret wound an individual may bear within, a private emotional scar that Giacometti in his empathy noticed.[15]

The day after one of their nocturnal tours of Montparnasse, drinking with street toughs and labourers, Beckett made a similar remark in a letter to a friend: “Giacometti, subtle in his granite-like way, all stunning perceptions, very well-behaved underneath it all, wanting to render what he sees, which is perhaps not so well behaved as all that, when one has the ability to see as he does.”[16] It seems apt that Simone de Beauvoir had used the sculptor—noticing how he stoically persevered in his labours despite being racked by doubt—as a partial model for the agonised saboteur in The Blood of Others.[17]

A colourful myth prevails about Paris’s postwar Latin Quarter. It portrays a compact bohemian scene where artists and intellectuals brushed shoulders daily, sitting around a couple of tables at two cafés in Saint Germain-des-Préz.  According to this view Samuel Beckett and Alberto Giacometti were members of an elite circle of Existentialists who gathered in the sprawling Café de Flore, just along from Jean-Paul Sartre’s flat—a delightful image redolent of an entertaining opera.

History was not so neat and organised.

Never a joiner or a follower, Beckett kept a guarded distance from the fashionable hub. If sociable, he protected his privacy. Besides, Beckett preferred the pre-war writer’s haunts up along the Boulevard Montmartre, close to his apartment on Rue des Favorites in the 14th arrondissement.

Giacometti roamed about. His was a familiar face at countless cafés and bars from Montparnasse across to the Seine, especially on his midnight rambles, when he liked to pass the time drinking whisky or Ricard with prostitutes. If he had a favourite, it was probably a bar at the corner the Rue d’Alésia and Rue Didot where he “breakfasted” in early afternoon, and stopped by for snacks at any time. The barman called him by first name.

Still, Giacometti was part of an influential milieu which frequented the Café de Flore, the café Les Deux Magots, the Hôtel Pont-Royal, Le Tabou jazz cellar and La Coupole brasserie. To the one side it numbered Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Jacques Prévert, Nathalie Sarraute and Raymond Aron. This was the famed “Existentialist family” which broadcast its views through the agenda-setting journal Les Temps Modernes. To the other side it comprised Michel and Zette Leiris, Boris and Michelle Vian, Michel Tapié, Francis Ponge, Dora Maar, Maria Casarès, Jean Genet, Réne Char and Jean Paulhan, whose views filtered out less forcefully through galleries and several cultural magazines, including Cahiers de la Pléiade.

The question raised by Giacometti’s involvement with this tight-knit milieu—especially the “family”—is his role in discussions, for one could be neither apolitical nor silent in such company. You had to contribute. De Beauvoir’s diaries testify to this. She preferred to sit with Giacometti: he was articulate on communist excesses; he gave an elegant analysis of Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon; and he surely had input into Sartre’s stinging polemic against André Breton.[18] Giacometti and Sartre liked to spar verbally, behaving like intense rivals, although it was only Giacometti that de Beauvoir and Sartre continued to see with pleasure as the Cold War set in, Giacometti rising above the bickering and petty manoeuvring.[19] Nevertheless he was later a key benefactor behind the embattled radical magazine Le 14 Juillet, supporting its moral stand on Algeria and Hungary.[20] But history disregards the artist’s political voice. Biographies of Camus and Koestler do not even acknowledge his continuing presence at the table.

It was this Left Bank circle in the years after the war that shaped what has been a lasting view of Giacometti: as Jed Perl points out, “Giacometti’s studio became a sort of sanctuary to which many authors came, notebook in hand. The artist’s work, seen in quantity, was the raw material for provocative contemporary meditations.”[21] Jean-Paul Sartre wrote two much-read articles on him. Michel Leiris and Francis Ponge each composed ruminative essays. Jean Genet penned a long piece, part affectionate portrait and part descriptive discussion (as well, he stole a drawing of Matisse from the studio). And besides The Blood of Others, Simone de Beauvoir made use of the artist for The Mandarins, her 1954 roman à clef, where the character Henri, who lurches between café arguments and sexual trysts to all-night creative sessions, is Albert Camus endowed with elements of Giacometti and Sartre.[22]

The interpretive value of these pieces needs to be questioned. The writers are most comfortable portraying the artist, his personality and behaviour, but falter when examining the studio work. In this they will over-emphasise the figurative aspects of his art, and appear at sea when tackling its abstract qualities.

The obvious strain in Sartre’s writing, for instance, confirms that words and theories were his metier.[23] Using an academic prose style and flaunting his cleverness, he makes most sense when referring to philosophy, not when analysing sculpture. He didn’t have a clue about modern art. And Sartre wrote with a clear agenda, casting the artist as an existential loner, describing Giacometti in his studio as re-enacting a drama of primitive man, even claiming the works were “always mediating between nothingness and being”.[24] Later still, in his autobiography Les Mots, Sartre put words into Giacometti’s mouth by having him say, “I wasn’t born to be a sculptor, or even to live: I was born for nothing!” [25] Giacometti was upset by this misrepresentation.

One writer did break the pattern. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sartre’s co-editor at Les Temps Modernes, penned a remarkable essay that cast a long shadow—to this day criticism is indebted to it. He had an eye attuned to visual art, and he appears to have listened attentively to artists around him. Entitled “Cézanne’s Doubt”, his probing meditation on the creative process is plainly about the dilemmas his friend Giacometti was daily wrestling with in the studio. Besides, Paul Cézanne was the enduring influence on Giacometti at the time.[26]

Merleau-Ponty presented an analysis of artistic endeavour in several stages. He began by emphasising that Cézanne was troubled by qualms about his vocation for his entire life: 

Painting was his world and his mode of existence. He worked alone, without students, without admiration from his family, without encouragement from the critics. He painted on the afternoon his mother died. In 1870 he was painting at L’Estaque while the police were after him for dodging the draft. And still he had moments of doubt about his vocation.[27]

The philosopher suggested this uncertainty was so strong it drove the artist to a nagging doubt about how to paint. This is where Merleau-Ponty introduced a second strand to the argument. He claimed that Cézanne’s paintings are covered with the traces of hesitation, the art representing a sort of inverse expressionism. The brushwork is not like van Gogh’s heightened emotional release or Monet’s calligraphic mark-making. Instead, Cézanne was trying to eliminate personal touch. The strokes are fretted over and anxious, a quality confirmed in his writing, where he often complained of inertia and delay.

This led to a claim that Cézanne wished to challenge a conventional dichotomy dividing art into two competing pursuits: painting-as-seeing versus painting-as-thinking. The artist “did not think he had to choose between sensation and thought”, Merleau-Ponty suggests, Cézanne being uncomfortable with views of art that set the senses against the intellect, nature against composition, impression against a traditional approach.[28]

Merleau-Ponty then went through his paces, the phenomenologist deducing that in this the artist was pursuing perceptual veracity. Cézanne’s landscapes and still lifes did not use geometric perspective to plot all out, nor did they observe photographic scanning. Instead, he was attempting the show things as they are perceived. The canvases therefore do not represent, so much as express the experience of the world as apprehended: “Expressing what exists [sic] is an endless task.”[29] This explains why Cézanne’s work is so troubled and fretted over: “the world is a mass without gaps, an organism of colours across which the receding perspective, the contours, the angles, and the curves are set up as lines of force …”[30] The artist was struggling to get down perceptual truth, not prettiness, his niggling uncertainty affecting every hesitant mark, and resulting in the inordinate time he took to complete his works.

The final stage of Merleau-Ponty’s article repeated those same postures of others in the Existentialist circle. In making it up as he went, and not following rules, the solitary loner Cézanne was an artist whose every creative move was a resolute act of freedom: “It is still in the world, upon a canvas, with colours, that he has to realise his freedom,” it concluded.[31]

If it was outwardly analysing Cézanne, Merleau-Ponty’s critique is at moments a word-for-word repetition of Giacometti’s utterances about his difficulties. There are several sources that may be cited here, including the artist’s statements, although the best record of this toil is James Lord’s absorbing book A Giacometti Portrait, in which Lord details sitting for the artist.

Lord didn’t realise what he was committing to when he agreed to being painted by his friend. Work went on for session upon session over several months. Each sitting saw the artist gradually paint out what he had done at the previous sitting and effectively start a section again. When would it conclude? Throughout Lord listened to repeated sighs, long periods of tense silence, sometimes anguished groans, and constant mutterings from Giacometti that he had “lost it”. Describing art as a pointless activity, the painter kept saying he was trying to “see a way”. At one point he gasped in frustration and stamped his foot:

“Your head’s going away!” he exclaimed. “It’s going away completely.”

“It will come back,” I said.

Giacometti shook his head. “Not necessarily. Maybe the canvas will become completely empty. And then what will become of me?”[32]

In another session, scorning the evolving canvas, Giacometti blamed himself for failing. “This is what I deserve for thirty-five years of dishonesty,” he complained. “All these years I’ve exhibited things that weren’t finished and never should have been started. But on the other hand, if I hadn’t exhibited at all, it would have seemed cowardly, as though I didn’t dare to show that I’d done.”[33] If only once he could represent what he perceived, he added, he would never need to enter the studio again. In some sessions Giacometti put aside his brush in frustration and took his sitter out for coffee.

Giacometti was avoiding adroit brushwork, and trying to keep himself out of the work. He would look piercingly at his friend, then try to set down a line that was purged, that was not a Giacometti line in the way that we will speak of a Picasso line or a Matisse line. His lines were not to be signature marks. Yet it was never clear what he wanted to achieve with the portrait, what he felt was eluding him as he looked. Giacometti insisted that his efforts to render reality, and portray what stood before him, were going from bad to worse.

James Lord was baffled. He couldn’t see a deficiency in many versions that were painted out. Later he chatted with Beckett about their friend’s agitation. “Often I felt that Giacometti’s artistic effort was like a child’s game of trying to catch with one hand a finger of the other, which is determined not to be caught,” Beckett replied.[34]

Displaced persons, gypsies, tramps, alien deserters, Eastern Jews, beggars, prison camp survivors, homeless foreigners—France was awash with them after war’s end. In Paris the heaviest concentration of drifting poor was in the dingy streets of Montparnasse and Saint Germain-des-Préz. You stepped out the door and there they were, hanging outside bars, hawking bits of junk, offering repairs, begging, rag picking, giving puppet shows or flea circuses or scrawny dog acts, running card games, fighting, giving cheek, stealing, fencing stolen goods, flirting, selling health, selling curses, offering sex for a meal, scrounging, gathering cigarette butts to roll a migou, coming and going from slummy buildings, being a nuisance.

They were a mixed bunch, too. Some were dislocated rural poor; some educated people who were stateless; some just average men or women who had lost families, maybe entire villages. Some spoke refined French with foreign accents. Some got by on argot, gutter slang. Some were shattered loners. Some had relatives with them. Some clustered in tough little gangs. “Les Autres” were always around, young or old, fit-to-work or hobbling-and-crippled, on the streets, underfoot. In winter when it snowed this human flotsam even went into churches for shelter.

And it wasn’t just Paris. Where ever you went in the countryside they were there, visible, on the move, trying to avoid the uniforms. This was when Waiting for Godot was gestating in Samuel Beckett’s mind, those months when he wrote out his bizarre drama. Are we surprised? Lucky behaves like a traumatised concentration camp survivor. Vladimir and Estragon have names suggesting Eastern European origins. Pozzo is a typical flea marketeer. No wonder the first Parisian audiences were rattled. They recognised these characters, and it unsettled them.

Several years later, when the play had become a runaway success—to the consternation of its author—Giacometti received a letter. It was dated March 3, 1961, and asked a favour. “We would all be very happy,” Samuel Beckett began.[35] Jean-Louis Barrault was arranging a new production of Godot at the Théâtre de l’Odéon, a national theatre no less, a high honour. Would Giacometti design and make the set?

By this time writer and artist were not seeing much of each other. Whenever his London publisher visited Paris, Beckett assembled the artists Bram van Velde, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Joan Mitchell and Giacometti for a roaring night on the town. However, the writer was avoiding the sculptor at La Coupole, commenting to a mutual friend that Giacometti now had one monologue and was tiresome.[36] So the commission to design Godot was unexpected. The two met over a meal at the Dôme to discuss the play and what was required.

Waiting for Godot is theatre with the simplest of means. The scene is meant to be a desolate rural blank where nothing happens. This is the reason for minimal props. Early in the first act Estragon even walks around the stage and halts to look into the distance at all four points of the compass, squinting to try to see something—the represented space that surrounds the actors is a void.

It might well have been significant that Samuel Beckett wanted an artist to realise this strange setting. In his pre-war letters he often mused upon the meaning of landscapes in paintings he had seen in museums. He noted that sometimes landscape will be given a character or logic which is foreign to human beings, a quality he admired. He described a painting by Cézanne as “landscape with personality à la rigueur, but personality on its own terms.”[37] For Beckett:

Cézanne seems to have been the first to see landscape & state it as material of a strictly peculiar order, incommensurable with all humans whatsoever … there is no entrance anymore nor any commerce with the forest, its dimensions are its secret & it has no communications to make.[38]

This recast landscape as “something by definition unapproachably alien …”[39] With other artists who deployed figures in the picture, such as Antoine Watteau, it led to a sort of mismatch: the figure and the landscape have different “personalities”.[40] The difference here is psychological, not formal, and affects whether figures appear at ease with the world—a condition later suggested in the alien settings Beckett envisaged for his plays.

There may also be firm reasons beyond friendship for wanting Giacometti to sculpt a tree. On one of their midnight rambles Beckett is reputed to have stopped beneath a pollarded plane tree, leafless and mutilated, and burst out, “I can’t look at trees any longer,” at which Giacometti responded, “That’s because you love them too much.”[41] On another occasion Giacometti pointed at a slender acacia on Rue d’Alésia, saying, “The pleasure of an outing to the forest has completely disappeared for me, because one tree on a Paris pavement is already enough. One tree is enough!”[42] These were not arbitrary comments when set against the artist’s touching designs for cemetery memorials to friends. Giacometti had sculpted a miniature bronze tree, with two fragile reaching branches and a few spare leaves, for the grave of the painter Francis Gruber.[43] And he sculpted for Marguerite and Aimé Maeght, his art dealers, a tableau to rest over the grave of their eleven-year-old son. This poignant bronze consisted of a delicate crucifix positioned between two spindly miniature trees, each with three frail branches twisting up like vines, and bearing a few sprouting leaves.[44] The design reconfigured a traditional image of three crosses—representing Christ crucified between two thieves—by substituting slender trees for the flanking cruciforms.

Beckett was sympathetic with Giacometti’s sculpture and knew what to expect. He had attended the artist’s exhibitions and visited the studio, even wanting his work reproduced on book jackets.[45] Beckett knew Gruber and the Maeghts, and was seeing the sculptor often when the memorials were made. The potential links between the Maeght composition and motifs in the first act of Godot, with its references to the crucified thieves, the grave, and death by hanging from a tree, would surely have occurred to him.

Giacometti telephoned Beckett in late April, inviting him to visit and see the work. The artist was still using the small drab atelier he had leased in 1927, thirty-four years before. His wife Annette had made him get electricity, plumbing and a telephone installed, and red tiles laid on the bedroom floor, but otherwise it was still a dilapidated shed. Giacometti had finished sculpting a tree, and was about to do a plaster moon. Beckett said the tree was unsuitable. It needed revising, immediately, because the deadline was imminent. So then and there the pair set to reworking the piece together.

The tree was not adequate as a prop. The sculptor had fretted over aesthetic matters, making a work of art. Putting on his twisted and mended glasses, he pointed to how it looked up close; but Beckett asked about its appearance to a theatre audience in their seats. Giacometti and Beckett increased the height, taking it right up, then cutting some off. They moved the branches, making them longer, increasing the number, then shortening them again, and taking branches off. “We spent the whole night in the studio with that plaster tree,” Giacometti said, “trying to make it sparser, smaller, the branches thinner. It never looked any good and neither he nor I liked it. And we kept saying to each other: perhaps like this …”[46] So they worked at it together, writer and artist, trying this then trying that, Sam and Alberto, smoking and drinking coffee and talking, talking, talking, somewhat like Didi and Gogo. Beckett had assumed the work would be straightforward. It wasn’t. Besides his concern for sculptural values, Giacometti was ensuring the tree was structurally stable. And he kept gauging it against his studio door and the narrow passageway outside, checking he could manoeuvre it through to the street.

They had it ready the next day. The tree was a schematic abbreviation, being roughly finished in white plaster. Two metres tall, it had four branches arching out from the top like spokes of an umbrella, one dividing in two further out. The trunk itself was gaunt and spindly, barely thicker than a common drainpipe. This and the ashen colour gave the tree a starved look, so that it appeared quite dead in the first act. Several white plaster leaves were hooked on to branches for the second act, suggesting a bare flicker of life animating the form, and recalling the cemetery bronzes.

Beckett was pleased with it, and Giacometti was satisfied. The crumbling pale shape conveyed much. Their tree was a symbol, worn out by adversity, tired and lean, clinging on. It looked good on stage when they got it into the theatre, and the artist was given an ovation on the opening night. But he felt it was incomplete, for he had not sculpted a matching plaster moon.

Did the writer and artist see their work as presenting a similar vision? Beckett himself thought not.

“It has been often suggested,” James Lord put to him after the artist’s death, “that there are parallels between your work and Giacometti’s, that they both illuminate the solitude, alienation, and despair which characterise the world today.”

Beckett took off his glasses, paused, sipped his coffee then cautiously replied: “I’ve never felt that painting or sculpture can express the same things as literature. I don’t see any parallel between the two arts.”[47] Then Beckett switched the conversation to something else.

And what happened to that tree the artist and writer had made together? The staff at the Théâtre de l’Odéon recognised its potential artistic value, and put the piece into storage when the production of Waiting for Godot ended in July. It was safe there for seven years. Then, during the Paris riots of May 1968, students occupied the theatre and vandalised the interior. Which is how, along with the historic décor for many dramatic productions, Giacometti and Beckett’s tree was destroyed.[48]

[1] Quoted in Anthony Cronin, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, Harper Collins, London, 1996, p.391.

[2] Cronin, Beckett: The Last Modernist, op. cit., p.421.

[3] David Bradby, Beckett: Waiting for Godot, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001, p.55.

[4] James Lord, Some Remarkable Men: Further Memoirs, Farrar Strauss Giroux, New York, 1996, p.289; James Lord, Giacometti: A Biography, Faber & Faber, London, 1986, p.190.

[5] Jed Perl, Paris Without End, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1988, p.91.

[6] Lord, Giacometti: A Biography, op. cit., pp.154-5.

[7] Perl, Paris Without End, op. cit., p.96; cf. Deirdre Bair, Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography, Vintage, London, 1991, pp.314.

[8] Lord, Some Remarkable Men, op. cit., p.289.

[9] Lord, Giacometti: A Biography, op. cit., p.190.

[10] Pierre Assouline remarks that writers who were former Résistance members held sway immediately after the war – Simenon: A Biography, Knopf, New York, 1997, p.221.

[11] For a detailed analysis, see Elizabeth Fallaize, The Novels of Simone de Beauvoir, Routledge, London, 1988, ch.3.

[12] Over the years the book has appeared in English under the titles Dirty Snow, The Snow Was Black and The Stain on the Snow.

[13] Simenon ceased to write Maigret novels in 1933, penning only serious work. Financial hardships in the war years lead him to reactivate the detective series, which irreparably damaged his literary standing. See Patrick Marnham, The Man Who Wasn’t Maiget: A Portrait of Georges Simenon, Bloomsbury, London, 1992, p273; also Stanley Eskin, Simenon: A Critical Biography, McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 1987, chs 9-11.

[14] Gide wrote of Simenon “notre plus grand romancier aujourd’hui, vrai romancier.”

[15] Jean Genet, ‘The Studio of Giacometti’ (1958), in E.White ed., The Selected Writings of Jean Genet, Ecco Press, Hopewell, New Jersey, 1993, p.310.

[16] letter of 10 Sept. 1951, in G.Graig et al., eds, The Letters of Samuel Beckett: 1941-1956, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011, vol 2, p.294.

[17] Bair, Simone de Beauvoir, op. cit., pp.367.

[18] See Reinhold Hohl, Giacometti: A Biography with Pictures, Gerd Hatje, Ostfildern, 1998, pp.115-6; also Lord, Some Remarkable Men, op. cit., p.196.

[19] Bair, Simone de Beauvoir, op. cit., pp.314, 324, 366-7.

[20] Laure Adler, Marguerite Duras: A Life, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2000, p.212. The magazine’s title was, of course, Bastille Day.

[21] Perl, Paris Without End, op. cit., p.90.

[22] Camus was hurt by the additions, remarking “They’ve thrown all the goddamn slime on my back.” Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: A Life, Chatto & Windus, London, 1997, p.323.

[23] If it tries to prove this, Julia Kelly’s critique of Sartre does not succeed because she becomes mired in writings on Giacometti, but does not refer to the visual experience of his works. Art is kept out of her argument. See Julia Kelly, ‘Alberto Giacometti, Michel Leiris and the myths of existentialism,’ in P.Read & J.Kelly, Giacometti: Critical Essays, Ashgate, Farnham, Surrey, 2009, pp.151-69.

[24] Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘The Quest for the Absolute’ (1948) in Essays in Aesthetics, Citadel Press, New York, 1963, p.85.

[25] Jean-Paul Sartre, Words (1964), Penguin, London, 1967, p.144. Also Christian Klemm, Alberto Giacometti, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001, p.146.

[26] Klemm, Alberto Giacometti, op. cit., p.168; Felix Baumann & Poul Tøjner eds, Cézanne and Giacometti: Paths of Doubt, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2008.

[27] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’ (1945), in T.Toadvine & L.Lawlor, eds, The Merleau-Ponty Reader, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois, 2007, p.69.

[28] Merleau-Ponty, ‘Cezanne’s Doubt,’ op. cit., p.73.

[29] Merleau-Ponty, ‘Cezanne’s Doubt,’ op. cit., p.75.

[30] Merleau-Ponty, ‘Cezanne’s Doubt,’ op. cit., p.78.

[31] Merleau-Ponty, ‘Cezanne’s Doubt,’ op. cit., p.84.

[32] James Lord, A Giacometti Portrait, Doubleday, New York, 1965, p.26.

[33] Lord, A Giacometti Portrait, op. cit., pp.10-11.

[34] Lord, Some Remarkable Men, op. cit., p.289.

[35] Hohl, Giacometti: A Biography with Pictures, op. cit., p.169; Michael Peppiatt, In Giacometti’s Studio, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2010, p.168.

[36] Peppiatt, In Giacometti’s Studio, op. cit., pp.160-1.

[37] letter of 8 Sept. 1934, in M.Fehsenfeld et al., eds, The Letters of Samuel Beckett: 1929-1940, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009, vol 1, p.222.

[38] letter of 8 Sept. 1934, Fehsenfeld, Letters of Samuel Beckett, op. cit., vol 1, p.222-3.

[39] letter of 8 Sept. 1934, Fehsenfeld, Letters of Samuel Beckett, op. cit., vol 1, p.223.

[40] letter of 8 Sept. 1934, Fehsenfeld, Letters of Samuel Beckett, op. cit., vol 1, p.221-3; also see Jed Perl, Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World, Knopf, New York, 2008, pp.116-7.

[41] Peppiatt, In Giacometti’s Studio, op. cit., pp.167-8.

[42] Peppiatt, In Giacometti’s Studio, op. cit., pp.168.

[43] Casmiro Di Crescenzo, ‘Giacometti and the Kauffmann Tomb,’ in Read and Kelly, Giacometti: Critical Essays, op. cit., pp.98-100.

[44] Di Crescenzo, ‘Giacometti and the Kauffmann Tomb,’ op. cit., pp.106-111.

[45] As early as 1951 Beckett wanted Giacometti to design the jacket for Molloy, and the artist came up with three proposals, although the publishers wouldn’t agree. Beckett subsequently had reproductions of Giacometti’s work appear on paperback editions of his writing. See Graig, Letters of Samuel Beckett, op. cit., vol 2, p.246.

[46] Quoted in Hohl, Giacometti: A Biography with Pictures, op. cit., p.169

[47] Lord, Some Remarkable Men, op. cit., p.289.

[48] Peppiatt, In Giacometti’s Studio, op. cit., p.168.

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