Above: Samuel Beckett and Alberto Giacometti in 1961
Alberto Giacometti, much like his contemporaries Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, cannot be defined by one aesthetic, and Giacometti has been referred to alternatively as a Surrealist, a Freudian, and an Existentialist, among other things. As a young artist in Paris in the 1930s, Giacometti lived and worked around numerous notable characters, including the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. Despite not being French, both artists had chosen to make Paris their home, and quickly became both close friends and trusted allies, engaging one another in continuous conversations on art and representation, and together navigating the many opportunities Paris had to offer, eventually becoming essential members of the city’s vibrant Left Bank intellectual and artistic community.
One segment of that sphere was the French Surrealists, led by André Breton. Although both Beckett and Giacometti had associations with the group, neither artist fully committed himself to its precepts. Beckett gained early prominence as a writer by helping the Surrealists translate their writings into English, and managed to retain their favor for the majority of his life. Giacometti’s experience, however, was more turbulent. After spending several years working under the Surrealists’ strict abstract guidelines, Giacometti returned to working with naturalistic themes, particularly the human form, an action considered treasonous by Breton; in retaliation, he expelled Giacometti from the Surrealists in 1935.
Another member of Giacometti and Beckett’s shared circle was the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre,whose explorations of existentialism exerted a great deal of influence on both artists’ works, in particular Beckett’s best-known play, Waiting for Godot, which premiered in 1953. The play is also significant for another reason: it was the impetus for Giacometti and Beckett’s most memorable artistic collaboration.
Above: Giacometti and Beckett pictured with the tree created for the 1961 production of Waiting for Godot
Beckett was unhappy with the play’s original set design, in particular its central tree, and commissioned Giacometti to create a new version for a 1961 production. Beckett imagined the process would be a straightforward one for his friend, but Giacometti instead labored over the design. Finally, though, Giacometti created a work that not only satisfied both his and Beckett’s demanding standards, but also elevated the setting of the play itself. As such, it serves as a fitting symbol of both the power of their intellectual union and their long, fruitful personal alliance.
In recognition of their friendship, first editions of Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and Fin de Partie are on display in “Matter/Giacometti”.