Review: Giacometti and Beckett: Between Failure and Theatricality

by Maureen Winter (Paris, France)

The Giacometti Foundation’s current exhibition, “Giacometti/Beckett – Rater encore. Rater mieux” (January 9th-June 8th, 2021), pairs the celebrated sculptor’s post-surrealist works with those of the Franco-Irish writer Samuel Beckett. Against the limits imposed by its virtual form, the exhibition successfully elucidates the duo’s shared philosophical concerns, demonstrating how these take shape materially in their respective works. Giacometti and Beckett met in the fall of 1937 and sustained a long friendship nurtured by infrequent, chance encounters—run-ins not so aleatory given the fact that the two ran in the same surrealist and, later, existentialist circles in Paris. The exhibition’s main themes of failure, constraint, solitude, and disintegration echo the terseness of their artistic friendship. These themes constitute the affinities between the two artists who crafted works in drastically different mediums—painting and sculpture in contrast to poetry, prose, and theater—and yet shared strikingly similar concerns about the limits of representation and art’s inherent failure to create transcendent meaning.

While it is difficult to reintegrate the virtual fragments of Paul Follot’s Art Deco-styled hôtel particulier into an account of the exhibition’s layout, it’s clear from the beginning that the “main attraction” of “Giacometti/Beckett” is the plaster tree designed by Giacometti for Beckett’s 1961 restaging of Waiting for Godot. The tree, a replica made by the artist Gerard Byrne nearly five decades after the original disappeared, stands in front of a life-sized reproduction of Roger Pic’s photograph of the stage at the Théâtre de l’Odéon, completely bare save for the play’s two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon. The exhibition’s focus on the tree stands to reason since it’s the only physical manifestation of an artistic collaboration between Giacometti and Beckett. It also embodies aesthetic and theoretical affinities that the two supposedly shared—what curator Hugo Daniel somewhat obscurely boils down to a “fragility of human existence.”

Installed in the largest open space of the atelier, the lone plaster tree is indeed impressive. It is theatrical in at least three ways: as a literal piece of a theater set; as a three-dimensional object that stands out against the two-dimensionality of the photograph behind it; and as what points to the emptiness of the space around it, thus shining a light on its own being-there. This last version is perhaps most interesting for the virtual viewers since it gives us the strongest sense so far of what it might be like to experience the space and its dimensions. Other exhibition highlights include some of Giacometti’s most haunting sculptures, like the Tête sur tige (1947) and the Buste d’homme (1956), paired with video of Beckett’s plays that explore strikingly similar themes—that is, by experimenting with different forms of bodily constraint. The floating heads in the short film Comédie (1966), based on Beckett’s piece “Imagination Dead Imagine,” are compared to Giacometti’s busts without bodies, figures without arms or legs, or heads without faces. Bodies, for both artists, are no longer a guarantee of a certain consistency of subjective experience but are instead just as unstable—either excessive or lacking, either too much or too little—as consciousness itself.

The curator draws equal attention to Giacometti’s repeated use of plinths and cages—as in Trois hommes qui marchent (1948) and La cage (1950), respectively—to re-think the status of bodies in space. Beckett is also preoccupied with these questions, and the plinth and the cage are both compared to the stage as a frame of representation—a frame that doesn’t disappear in the representation but rather stands out from it, drawing attention to the limits of that representation. This point is particularly interesting because it can be read as a specific commentary on Giacometti and Beckett as post-existentialist artists. For them the possibility of existential freedom, or a subject who freely chooses to make meaning in a meaningless world, is gone. Faced with this impossibility of making meaning, a viable alternative is play—the staging of meaning that uses materiality itself to draw attention to its own performance. The stage, like the plinth, is the ground for this performative meaning-making that feeds on repetition.

Beckett’s 1965 Film is read as a link to Giacometti’s obsession with faithfully rendering the visible world through his sculptures and drawings. The anonymous character in Beckett’s short film is shown only from the back and walks hurriedly down the street before holing up in an empty room and shuttering all the windows (the character is played by the not-so-anonymous Buster Keaton). Although unable to capture the man head-on, and thus render him identifiable or readable to the viewer, the camera nevertheless pursues him relentlessly. The guide compares this to Giacometti’s “troubled” vision—the fact that he consistently interpreted his own efforts to re-present human figures as failed attempts that didn’t even come close to reproducing in the material what he was actually seeing. Giacometti’s manic, repetitive gestures that are literally inscribed into the material as pockmarks, holes, and indentations are thus doubly significant since they point to the artist’s failure to represent despite his incessant attempts. Beckett too riffed frequently on failure, and one of the exhibition’s most important bylines could be the quote that Daniel (in his introductory text) and the guide both mention: “to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail.” In both Beckett and Giacometti’s works, the preoccupation with failure leads to an increased intensity of theatricality—that is, it provokes a greater emphasis on materiality as such. This leads Beckett to consider with ever greater attentiveness the sensations of language, the rhythm of words and syntax, both in excess of and “below” their signification.

Tickets for “Giacometti/Beckett” (which one can now also visit in person) must be booked in advance via the Foundation’s website. Organized as a live tour (in French), the exhibition is mediated through images, videos, and texts accompanied by a guided commentary. In many ways, the formal set-up of the virtual guided tour puts the viewer in the same position as one of Beckett’s immobilized characters; one becomes a disembodied head floating in space, unable to move and allowed to see only what is presented directly in front of them. This constrained viewing situation registers as a deprivation of movement and, subsequently, of the freedom of looking that is so crucial to engaging with artworks. Paradoxically, the attempt to restore movement to the spectator by panning across and zooming in on images only intensifies the viewer’s passivity; focusing on a detail when one’s eye doesn’t initiate it is disorienting and provokes an even more intense feeling of being “lost” in a virtual nowhere. It’s less about the impossibility of seeing clearly than it is about no longer knowing from where, exactly, one is looking.

The upside is that when vexed, the viewer can look away, but this possibility quickly turns into its failure. Unlike in a museum, where spectators can let their looks wander freely in a space dedicated to protecting all those “sacred” aspects of art, including its separation from the everyday, a virtual viewer is more likely to let their look drift toward an email, an article, or a meme. And this is not quite the collapse between art and life that modernism might have hoped for; instead of life being injected with the freedom and power of art, in the virtual context art seems to have been sullied by the banal suffering of everyday life. In other words, art turns into just another distraction, a place where you show up to look and listen and then quickly get bored and go back to work. The boredom doesn’t stem from the content itself, but rather from the form, since this form is what draws the content back into the soul-sucking work-from-home universe. In other words, the tour can’t even complete its already difficult task of bringing art into the home, since there is no more home to speak of.

We should, however, applaud the Foundation’s attempt to provide an alternative space for engaging with artworks in these pandemic times. And—let’s be honest—the more serious defects of the exhibit are ultimately due to the constraints of the virtual apparatus rather than the exhibition design itself. It would be more accurate to ascribe the viewing experience to an entirely different genre altogether. It is, after all, closer in form to a podcast with visuals or an online conference presentation with an accompanying slideshow. It can even be argued that Beckett’s work benefits from this mode of presentation since it is mostly presented in video form. Excerpts from productions of his television plays are integrated seamlessly into the viewing experience. Whereas in a museum space one always approaches video installations at random, usually arriving halfway through playback, here the virtual format lends the exhibition its powers of perfect timing.

On the other hand, Giacometti’s sculptures don’t benefit in the same way from their digitization, for one can no longer experience them as sculptures—that is, as three-dimensional works whose aesthetic qualities are discerned not only by looking at them but by approaching them in space. Luckily, the exhibition has been extended through the beginning of June so that Parisians can visit in-person after more than six months of closure. There is perhaps no better way to celebrate art’s return than with an extended reflection on everything it can’t do, and all that it attempts, nevertheless.