The Library of Alberto Giacometti

Fondation Giacometti -  The Library of Alberto Giacometti

Patricia Matisse, Room in the Studio of Alberto Giacometti, n.d.

As a young child, Giacometti learned to draw by copying old masterpieces from the many art books and magazines in his father’s library. When living in Paris, he rarely left his studio, except for his regular return journeys to Switzerland. His real travelling was done in books, where he discovered the great European artists but also ancient and non-European civilisations. Egyptian art, in particular, had a decisive influence. Giacometti did not collect art but throughout his life he regularly purchased exhibition catalogues, monographs and essays on art, and from these he often copied images. He thus built up a library of some 1,500 books, and around 1,200 of these are kept at the Fondation Giacometti.
As well as being a source of inspiration and a support for drawings, books were everywhere in his small, cramped studio. Apart from a handful of shelves on the wall in his bedroom, the artist showed little interest in looking after ‘all these books piled up on the sofa’. He made several drawings and prints of them, including two lithographs from Paris without End (Paris sans fin) 1969 Similarly, as Giorgio Soavi reported, he would often use a volume he was keeping in his pocket as a notebook: ‘From time to time he leafed through it as if the numbers of his life were written down there ... There are annotations, numbers, drawings and projects. Everything is written and noted in the middle of free spaces, on white pages or even on the ones after that.’
Although certainly no bibliophile, Giacometti was a great lover of poetry and literature. On his shelves the greatest writers and poets – Jean Cocteau, René Crevel, Robert Desnos, René Char, Isidore Isou, Michel Leiris, Francis Ponge, Elsa Triolet, Jean-Paul Sartre, etc. – jostle with less well-known authors. A friend of poets and artists, throughout his career he was asked to contribute prints and drawings to prestigious limited editions and, thanks to the agreements made with the publishers, his collection of books was enriched by these handsome, rare volumes. He also supported Olivier Larronde and Léna Leclercq, two poets of the ‘new generation’ that emerged in the 1950s, by illustrating their publications, as he did for André du Bouchet and Jacques Dupin. He kept these books by his friends, many of them bearing signed dedications. Salvador Dalí declared his ‘friendship and admiration’ in the copy of his book on L’Amour et la mémoire, published by the Éditions Surréalistes. On the flyleaf of Qu’est-ce que le surréalisme? (1934) André Breton wrote these lines: ‘It is Alberto Giacometti’s struggle with the angel of the Invisible who has arranged to meet him amidst blossoming apple trees.’ Giacometti admired the ability of his writer friends to formulate their ideas, which he himself found extremely difficult. Though strongly drawn to the world of literature and, above all, poetry, in these surrealist years and beyond, his relation to writing in French was uncomfortable, since it was not his mother tongue. Breton helped him overcome this unease and several of his pieces were published in surrealist journals. Giacometti continued to write sporadically throughout his life. In his late years, the publisher Tériade encouraged him to write for Paris without End. This is the only book featuring one of his texts, and writing it was something of an ordeal: ‘Once again today ... I tried to write this text that has been almost my exclusive occupation over the last week, but every day there is the difficulty of finding the words, of constructing sentences that are flimsy, crude and don’t say what I want them to say.’

A common love of literature was a particularly important part of his relationship with his wife and model Annette. On several occasions they gave each other books: Annette shared his enjoyment of poetry and offered him the works of Stéphane Mallarmé and an anthology of sixteenth-century verse. In 1955 Giacometti gave her Goethe et Tolstoï by Thomas Mann and she responded with the gift of Littérature et révolution by Leon Trotsky and Le 18 brumaire de Louis Bonaparte by Karl Marx. As well as literary and political works, Giacometti was also an assiduous reader of current periodicals. They constituted an important part of his collection with some 490 volumes being included in his library. For example, he acquired the first issues of Cahiers d’art, the review founded by art critic and publisher Christian Zervos in 1926, as well as several issues of Documents, founded in 1929 by Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille, in addition to surrealist publications such as Breton’s Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution and Minotaure, published by Albert Skira. During the war he took part in the meetings with the latter that resulted in the birth of Labyrinthe in 1945. After the war he regularly read La Nouvelle revue française, although he kept copies of the review dating from 1929, and Les Temps modernes, created by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in 1945, as well as Critique, founded by Bataille in 1946. He made drawings on them, underlined words and annotated passages. Though they were torn and dog-eared, Giacometti kept these journals in his exiguous workshop all his life, which shows how important they were to him.
Giacometti was also a great reader of detective novels, especially the ones published in Gallimard’s famous ‘Série noire’ collection created in 1945: over sixty of these were found in the studio after his death.

Thierry Pautot

To search for a work, consult the Alberto Giacometti Database