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Felicity's disguise

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Entries in jean paul sartre (2)


In Which We Are Filled With A Certain Longing and Nostalgia

Chain of Events

A face, he told us, is an indivisible whole, a meaningful and expressive unity; but the inert material of the artist, whether marble, bronze, or clay is, on the contrary, capable of infinite subdivision - each little separate bit contradicts and destroys the overall pattern by the fact of its isolation. Giacometti was trying to reduce matter to the further viable limits; this was how he had come to model these minuscule, almost nonexistent heads, which, he thought, conveyed the unity of the human face as it presents itself to the intelligent eye. Perhaps one day he would find some other way of counteracting the dizzyingly centrifugal effect of space; but for the time being this was all he could think up.

Simone de Beauvoir

As a youth in Rome, Giacometti had found that sexual relations were most satisfactory with prostitutes. He never altered that view. Real relations with an illusion remained irresistibly compelling for him to the end. “When I am walking in the street,” he said, “and see a whore from a distance, all dressed, I see a whore. When she is in the room and naked before me, I see a goddess.”

— James Lord

Alberto Giacometti was born in a small village in Switzerland near the Italian border in 1901. From the age of nine he was a focused artist, using members of his family as his models for sculptures and drawings. His vacillations between sculpture and paintings as the medium for his vision of the human form continued throughout his life. When it came to his artistic work, Giacometti was a tireless and prolific engine. After his expulsion from a group of surrealist artists in 1935, his influences ranged from the centrifuges of Western art to shapely Polynesian forms in which his found continual inspiration. In the following 1947 letter to the New York art dealer Pierre Matisse (the youngest son of Henri) he chronicles the beginnings of his life in art.

by richard avedon

Letter from Alberto Giacometti to Pierre Matisse

Here is the list of sculptures that I promised you, but I could not make it without including, though very briefly, a certain chain of events, without which it would make no sense.

I made my first bust from life in 1914, and continued during the following years through the whole period of my schooling. I still have a certain number of these busts and always look at the first with a certain longing and nostalgia.

At the same time, and for many years before, I was drawing a great deal and painting. In addition to drawing from nature and illustrating the books I read, I often copied paintings and sculptures from reproductions. I mention this because with only short interruptions I have continued to do the same thing up to the present.

In 1919 I went to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Geneva for three days, and then to the Ecole des Arts-et-Metiers in the same city to study sculpture. I painted watercolors in the countryside and at the lake shore, and did oil paintings at home.

In 1920-21 I lived in Italy. In Venice first, where I spent my days looking mostly at the Tintorettos, not wanting to miss a single one.

To my great regret, on the day I left Venice, Tintoretto was a little dethroned by the Giottos in Padua, and he in turn some months later by Cimabue at Assisi. I stayed nine months in Rome where I never had enough time to do all I wanted. I wanted to see everything, and at the same time I painted, figures, somewhat pointillist landscapes (I had become convinced that the sky is only blue by convention and is actually red), and compositions inspired by Sophocles and Aeschylus whom I was reading at this time (The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, The Death of Cassandra, The Sack of Troy, etc.)

I had also begun two busts, one of them small, and for the first time I could not find my way, I was lost, everything escaped me, the head of the model before me became like a cloud, vague and undefined. I ended by destroying them before I left. I spent a lot of time in museums, in churches, in ruins. I was particularly impressed by the mosaics and the Baroque. I can recall each sensation in front of the thing I saw. I filled my notebooks (a marvelous sketch by Rubens comes to mind this very moment and the mosaic in Saints Cosmas and Damian, and this is followed immediately by thousands of other things, but I must hurry).

In 1922 my father sent me to Paris to attend the academy. (I would have preferred in a way to have gone to Vienna where living was cheap. During this period my desire for pleasure was stronger than my interest in the academy.)

From 1922 to 1925 and later I was at the Academie de la Grande-Chaumiere, in Bourdelle's studio. In the mornings I did sculpture and the same difficulties I had had in Rome began again. In the afternoons I drew.

I could no longer bear sculpture without color and I often tried to paint them from life. I kept some of these for years, and then, mostly to make room, I had them taken out and thrown away.

Impossible to grasp the entire figure (we were much too close to the model, and if one began on a detail, a heel, the nose, there was no hope of ever achieving the whole). But if, on the other hand, one began by analyzing a detail, the end of the nose, for example, one was lost. You could spend a lifetime without achieving a result. The form dissolved, it was little more than granules moving over a deep black void, the distance between one wing of the nose and other is like the Sahara, without end, nothing to fix one's gaze upon, everything escapes.

Since I wanted nevertheless to realize a little of what I saw, I began as a last resort to work at home from memory. I tried to do what I could to avoid this catastrophe. This yielded, after many attempts touching on cubism, one necessarily had to touch on it (it is too long to explain now) objects which were for me the closest I could come to my vision of reality.

This gave me some part of my vision of reality, but I still lacked a sense of the whole, a structure, also a sharpness that I saw, a kind of skeleton in space. Figures were never for me a compact mass but like a transparent construction. Again, after making all kinds of attempts, I made cages with open construction inside, executed in wood by a carpenter.

There was a third element in reality that concerned me: movement.

Despite all my efforts, it was impossible for me then to endure a sculpture that gave an illusion of movement, a leg advancing, a raised arm, a head looking sideways. I could only create such movement if it was real and actual, I also wanted to give the sensation of motion that could be induced: several objects which move in relation to one another.

But all this took me away little by little from external reality. I had a tendency to become absorbed only in the construction of the objects themselves. There was something in these objects that was too precious, too clsasical; and I was disturbed by reality, which seemed to me to be different. Everything at that moment seemed a little grotesque, without value, to be thrown away.

This is being said too briefly.

Objects without pedestals and without value, to be thrown away.

It was no longer the exterior forms that interested me but what I really felt. (During all the previous years - the period of the academy - there had been for me a disagreeable contrast between life and work, one got in the way of the other, I could find no solution. The fact of wanting to copy a body at set hours and a body to which otherwise I was indifferent, seemed to me an activity that was basically false, stupid, and which made me waste many hours of my life).

It was no longer a question of reproducing a lifelike figure but of living, and of executing only what had affected me, or what I really wanted. But all this alternated, contradicted itself, and continued by contrast. There was also a need to find a solution between things that were rounded and calm, and sharp and violent. It is this which led me during those years (1932-1934 approximately) to objects going in directions which were quite different from each other, a kind of landscape — a head lying down; a woman strangled, her jugular vein cut; construction of a palace with a skeleton bird and a spinal column in a cage and a woman at the other end. A model for a large garden sculpture, I wanted people to be able to walk on the sculpture, to sit on it and lean on it. A table for a hall, and very abstract objects which then led me to figures and skull heads.

I saw anew the bodies that attracted me in reality and abstract forms which seemed to me true in sculpture, but I wanted to create the former without losing the latter, very briefly put. A last figure, a woman called 1+1=3, which I could not resolve.

And then the wish to make compositions with figures. For this, I had to make (quickly I thought; in passing), one or two studies from nature, just to understand the construction of a head, of a whole figure, and in 1935 I took a model. This study should take (I thought) two weeks, and then I could realize my compositions.

I worked with the model all day from 1935 to 1940.

Nothing was as I had imagined. A head (I quickly abandoned figures, that would have been too much) became for me an object completely unknown and without dimensions. Twice a year I began two heads, always the same ones, never completing them, and I put my studies aside (I still have the casts).

Finally, in order to accomplish at least a little, I began to work from memory, but this mainly to know what I had gotten out of all this work. (During all these years I drew and painted a little, and almost always from life.)

But wanting to create from memory what I had seen, to my terror the sculptures became smaller and smaller, they had a likeness only when they were small, yet their dimensions revolted me, and tirelessly I began again, only to end several months later at the same time point.

A large figure seemed to me false and a small one equally unbearable, and then often they became so tiny that with one touch of my knife they disappeared into dust. But head and figures seemed to me to have a bit of truth only when small.

All this changed a little in 1945 through drawing.

This led me to want to make larger figures, but then to my surprise, they achieved a likeness only when tall and slender. And this is almost where I am today, no, where I still was yesterday, and I realize right now that if I can draw ancient sculptures with ease, I could draw those I made during those last years only with difficulty; perhaps if I could draw them it would no longer be necessary to create them in space, but I am not sure about this.

And now I stop, besides they are closing. I must pay.


He disliked hair. “Hair is a lie,” he used to say. It distracted one’s attention from the essential, the head, the expression, the gaze. One day he declared he could no longer endure seeing Annette with hair. She would be obliged to shave her head. Dismissing the suggestion as absurd, she exclaimed, “Oh, Alberto!” with a mixture of girlish amusement and feminine annoyance. Just that reaction was needed to pique Giacometti’s tenacity.

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In Which We Prefer To Be Simone De Beauvoir

Paris Girl


What is an adult? A child blown up by age.

Young Simone de Beauvoir shared her room with the maid. Outside her family's Paris apartment was the Boulevard Raspail and the Boulevard du Montparnesse. At the age of three she threw her first conscious temper tantrum. To her credit, she stopped when she no longer required the attention.

at her usual table in the Café de Flore, 1945

Her parents spoke to her only in a reproving tone during those difficult years. Simone reserved her true conversation for her sister Hélène. They made up a language their parents would not understand, full of winks and sounds, intimate gestures that they alone could understand in the presence of their parents. Together they created a fantasy world based on the lives of the saints. Simone would play the martyr almost exclusively.

She wrote of Hélène that "she was my accomplice, my subject, my creature. It is plain that I only thought of her as being 'the same, but different', which is one way of claiming one's preeminence. Without ever formulating it in so many words, I assumed that my parents accepted this hierarchy and that I was their favourite."

the sisters aged three and five

Although Simone's father was engaged in the slow process of falling out of the upper class, he would not send his children to the public lycée, fearing contamination. One of her father's favorite remarks was, "The wife is what the husband makes of her: it's up to him to make her someone." The pressure he puts on his wife Francoise extended to his precocious young daughter, who he expected would discuss books with him. Simone de Beauvoir had a library card at the age of four.

The de Beauvoirs fled Paris in fear at the onset of the first World War, but soon returned. Georges de Beauvoir was called to the front and returned to his family after a heart attack. Back in the presence of his young daughters, they could not help but be antagonized that his moustache had gone as well. The sound of gunfire could be heard every night. The family was forced to subsist on a corporal's pay, and Simone imitated her mother's frugality.

In her 1990 biography, Deirdre Bair recalls Simone's younger sister Hélène telling her, "In our games when she liked to play the saint, I think it must have given me pleasure to martyrize her even though she was so kind. I remember one day reaching the summit of cruelty: she took the role of a young and beautiful girl whom I, as an evil ruler, was keeping prisoner in a tower. I had the inspiration my most serious punishment for her would be to tear up her prayer book."

Most of Simone and Hélène's classmates had left the city. Walking the grounds of their school was most eerie, almost like visiting a graveyard. The date was 1918. Paris had always disappointed her; it was too familiar, and she had nothing else with which to compare it. Simone de Beauvoir was ten years old.

She wrote in her memoirs that "I had made a definite metamorphosis into a good little girl. Right from the start, I had composed the personality I wished to present to the world; it had brought me so much praise and so many great satisfactions that I finished by identifying myself with the character I had built up: it was my one reality."

Her father's law practice had faltered, and a job with his charlatan father-in-law also dried up as soon as the company's military contracts vanished. The family moved into a middle class building at 71 Rue de Rennes. The fifth floor flat had no elevator, and Simone now shared a bedroom with her sister. Seeing the small room, their friends could not contain their looks of shock. Her father wanted to give the girls bicycles, but her mother, in view of the family's finances, could not allow it.

She did not understand sex, although she was determined to flirt with men, to do anything impetuous or brazen to attract their attention, not knowing what any of it meant. When she was very small she had thought her parents bought their children in a shop.

Until her adolescence began, she was her father's favorite. The entire family had listened to her stories with rapt attention. But acne interfered, and soon she was clearly the less beautiful of the senior de Beauvoir's two daughters. It was not simply her new appearance that so disgusted Georges de Beauvoir, it was that his daughter's education had not stopped in the place that his had. She was becoming an intellectual, and he hated that sort. He called her ugly.

At school she fared no better. Her classmates ignored her, bullied her, mocked her. She told Bair, "Of course it bothered me that I was not popular. But when I compared all to the satisfaction of reading and learning, everything else was unimportant. Those slights meant very little, and soon I didn't even think about it." Even as a lie, it was a good one.

The last time Deirdre Bair saw Simone de Beauvoir was on the afternoon of March 7, 1986. It is difficult to imagine her at this age, so small and frail. In the introduction to her biography, Bair describes the last tiny embrace Simone gave her, hugging her lower body. Bair towered over Simone by several feet.

with sartre and others in 1951

Her first attempt at writing was titled, "The Misfortunes of Marguerite." She abandoned it when she realized, after consulting an atlas, that the crossing of the Rhine where she had set the story did not in fact exist. Her parents had a low opinion of cinema; they regarded Charlie Chaplin as completely silly, even for their young daughters.

When she found that despite her Catholic education, she was both willing and eager to discard God, Little Women entered her life. Of course she was Jo. She fantasized about her own death, imagining her funeral, the weeping mourners.

with sartre in china

Her first real friend was Elisabeth Le Coin, an emaciated little girl with a dark scar on her left leg, suffered at her own hand. Elisabeth replaced Hélène in Simone's life, much to the younger de Beauvoir's chagrin. The two became inseparable. Simone's mother would tell her nothing of becoming a woman, so Elisabeth and Simone were forced to figure out the particulars together.

Sexuality scared her more than anything. Once a young clerk in an antiques shop exposed himself to her, and she had no idea what to make of it.

with Richard and Ellen Wright on her first trip to New York City, 1947

Her prettier sister had no such conflicts with men. They both had heard their parents engaging in rowdy sex through the thin wall in the tiny apartment, but Hélène alone was normalized by relationships with her peers. Although she was at the top of her class, her parents' only wish was that she meet a man and get married.

Simone found an article in a magazine about a woman who had become a philosopher and was now teaching the subject. Her mother was completely disappointed by Simone's lack of interest in her Catholic faith. To hide from her mother's frequent invasions of privacy, she wrote in handwriting so small it could not be detected by any eyes other than her own.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. She last wrote in these pages about the life of Elvis Presley. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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