Giacometti's final frenzy: the paintings of Caroline: for five years, from 1960 to 1965, Giacometti was obsessed with painting his final muse, a prostitute known as Caroline. Bruce Laughton explores the development of these powerful and moving portraits of a woman who described herself as the artist's 'frenzy' but showed no interest in the works.
Alberto Giacometti met Caroline at the end of 1958. He was then 57, she was 20, living in the Hotel de Sevres in Montparnasse, and working as a flourishing prostitute. (1) They struck up a close friendship and he saw her frequently, apparently from around November until late February 1960 when he left to visit his mother in Stampa, Switzerland, where he stayed until the end of March. There is no evidence to show that Caroline posed for paintings during that period, although she visited the studio fairly regularly. He doubtless drew her from time to time, bur the earliest recorded work is a drawing made in a bar inscribed A l'O.K. en 1960 (private collection). A lithograph of Caroline eating waffles and wearing the same long-sleeved loose coat, with a wide collar over her shoulders, published in Paris sans fin in 1969, may also belong to the period 1960-61. (2) The lithograph shows her in profile, with her hair piled on top of her head. She looks childlike in both images (a description that could not be applied to the paintings), although in the drawing she gives the artist a knowing look.
When Giacometti returned to Paris in April he found that Caroline had vanished--not so unusual, but this time it was because she was in a womens' prison at la Petite Roquette, charged with theft. A frantic Giacometti was able to obtain her release after six weeks with the help of Louis Clayeux, director of the Maeght Gallery, on 20 May. Having thus rescued her, he began a permanent relationship with her, although she continued to work as a prostitute. She had, however, a strong attachment to him and even certain rules, if David Sylvester's story about an evening that he spent with the pair in a night club is true. Apparently, Giacometti invited Sylvester to dance with Caroline (which the sculptor was unable to do because he had a limp), and noticing that they got on well he instructed her to 'go off in her car' with Sylvester after he had paid the bill. This turned out to be a ruse, because Caroline simply dropped Sylvester off at his hotel and then drove round to the next corner, where Giacometti was waiting for her. (3) On the other hand, Laurie Wilson claims that Caroline would regularly describe her adventures to the artist, to which he listened avidly. (4) In any case, she became the female model with which Giacometti became most obsessed, and also his regular companion m the evenings, at nightclubs and in the apartment that he eventually bought for her. Annette, his wife and model for many years, naturally hated this, her own unchanged status in both roles notwithstanding, and there were terrible scenes. (5) From an uncertain date--probably October 1960--until December 1965, Caroline posed for Giacometti virtually every evening--with a long hiatus in 1963--in his studio at the rue Hippolyte-Maindron. (6) The 28 (possibly more) paintings that he made of her during that period are the subject of this article.
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At his exhibition at the Galerie Maeght that opened on 2 June 1961, Giacometti showed six paintings called Seated Woman. 'Everybody who knew anything about them knew this was Caroline', wrote James Lord, but in fact the sixth must have been Aika Sapone, his tailor's daughter, whom he painted in the summer of 1960. (7) Christian Klemm correctly states that there were five portraits of Caroline. This constitutes the first group, stylistically (C 1-5; see pp. 54-55). They all show Caroline wearing a long-sleeved coat, pink in colour, over her red sweater--colours that she favoured and which Giacometti rendered for decorative reasons when he used colour at all. The first two of these show her seated three-quarter length in the familiar studio setting, the stove in a corner behind her, the head covered in measuring marks and the figure uncomfortably over-worked. The third image, on an unusually tall, narrow canvas, is painted in line only and is in essence an unfussed, spontaneous brush-drawing. The fourth, now in the Fondation Beyeler (Fig. 2), is the most unified image of this group, in which tone, colour and linear design all come together within the space created for them. The head, whilst set back in the pictorial space, paradoxically comes forward due to the greater degree of modelling and the intense gaze, which, as Valerie Fletcher has observed, 'seems fixed on something beyond the viewer with a disturbing intensity'. (8) The arches of her eyebrows are echoed by two upward curves across her forehead to the hairline, giving her a cat-like appearance. From now on, all the portraits of Caroline will have one or more rectangles drawn around them on the canvas (Giacometti's normal practice with oil paintings), which has the effect of distancing the subject from the viewer in spite of the confrontational nature of the image.
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Also executed in 1961 was Giacometti's only sculpture of Caroline, a bust that was subsequently cast in an edition of six (Fig. 5). This gives us, not only a simple rendition of her in extreme youth, with hair pulled back behind her ears and worn on the top of her head in a high bun, but also shows how her hair was grown thick at the back.
It also emphasises her retrousse nose. As sculpture per se, however, this bust does not have the penetrating and emotive qualities of the artist's renditions of his brother, Diego, or Annette.
After the exhibition of the first five paintings of Caroline in June, a second, larger group of about nine paintings was executed over the next 18 months. Four of these are signed and dated 1962. A nearly full-length portrait of her in the Art Institute of Chicago may be the earliest of these, because the upward-curving lines on her forehead are similar to the Beyeler portrait, and because she is still dressed for the winter, possibly even wearing a head-scarf. In all the other pictures of this group she wears a short-sleeved dress with a high neck bur no collar, without a coat. It is very difficult to put the rest of this group in any kind of convincing sequence. C 7 (Fig. 3) and C 14 (Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal), for example, are exactly similar in pose and have similar dimensions, bur one may have followed the other. The Wuppertal version is signed and dated. Both portray a relatively innocent face, although the expression is already one of remoteness. A sequence of proportional measuring marks, projected outwards from the eyes on both sides of the head in the painting shown in Figure 3 appear to be replicated in the bust C 8 (Fig. 4), which may appear summarily executed, but is in fact a carefully measured and penetrating study of her head.
This bust is repeated (rather than replicated) in a version known as Caroline I, C 9 (private collection, Switzerland), in which her blouse is now coloured red; this is signed and dated 1962. In all these versions the image appears dignified but perfectly tangible. Two further images of Caroline are among the most powerful of all: one that Giacometti exhibited at the Venice Biennale in this same year, C 10, now in a Swiss private collection, and the other, a three-quarter length Caroline II, C 13, which was acquired by the Offenliche Kunstsammlung in Basel in 1963, presumably directly from the artist (Fig. 6). The first is unusual in that the model has her arms folded squarely across her front, and she almost glares back at the viewer, like a living statue. This effect is caused by cumulative (rather than destructive) over-painting, which gives her a particularly compelling gaze. Caroline's blouse has been toned white over the ochre background, matching the final white lines superimposed on her face, which increase the sculptural look. The second portrait is also monumental in the conception of the head, which is worked up to an equal degree, although its treatment is more painterly, and the figure floats in space inside her painted frame. She is wearing a pink dress which, being only partially painted in, appears as pink and white. This second portrait may have been interrupted by the artist's illness that winter--he had stomach cancer--his operation early in 1963 and his long absence from the studio thereafter. In any event, it was acquired by the Kunstmuseum, Basel, before the end of that year. Klemm described these two portraits as 'the high point of [Giacometti's] ambition to capture the living reality of a human being'. (9)
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The question now arises, which portraits of Caroline did Giacometti work on in 1963, when he resumed painting after his long illness? It may be sensed, from her more inward-looking expression and her staring eyes, that his response to his model--or possibly a reciprocal response between artist and sitter--had changed since his severe illness that winter, which led to major surgery in February, followed by months of convalescence in Switzerland. But although there must have been some portraits begun later that year, there are none dated as such, and only one is dated by the artist to 1964. This is surprising when we are also told that he resumed painting her every day.
A painting known to me only through a photograph, C 15, could be a transitory work, possibly continued later in 1963 before being abandoned. Another undated work, more remarkable in quality (Fig. 7), was most recently exhibited in the 2005/06 'Giacometti' exhibition at Pace Wildenstein, New York, and subsequently in Dallas. (10) The sitter's youthful appearance seems to link her with the earlier groups, but her transfixed stare now shows more affinity with the later portraits. Her pinafore-type dress, which appears to be worn over a short-sleeved blouse, is beginning to be coloured a dusky pink. When Andrew Forge included this large canvas in the 2000 exhibition, he commented, 'it amused Giacometti's daemon to endow various oddities of visual experience with the disturbing force of hallucination'. (11) This slightly ambiguous statement, but it does point to the nature of Caroline's commanding gaze, which fully returns that of the artist. This too could be a transitional work of around 1963.
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The one painting signed and dated 1964 is the CarMine shown at the Gibson/Lefevre Gallery in 2004, C 16 (Fig. 10), in which, as often in the later portraits, she is wearing a red pinafore-type (robe chasuble) dress with narrow shoulder-straps. Now the hallucinatory stare directed at the viewer is more compelling than before. We might also place in this transitional group what was to have been Giacometti's most ambitious portrait of Caroline to date, which appears to have been abandoned. This is a full-length painting of her seated in the studio, wearing the same dress, with the studio stove visible some distance behind (C 18; Fondation Giacometti, Paris). Her head is rendered proportionally smaller than usual, so that it appears to recede into space in acute perspective, while her knees and calves get uncomfortably large as they approach the viewer. The lower part of the painting remains unresolved; one can only infer that he abandoned the canvas.
Thereafter, all of Giacometti's representations of Caroline have this hallucinatory stare, in a kind of tragic and hypnotic way. The artist himself would not admit to any 'success' in his last endeavours, because that would have brought an end to the struggle. (12) But each rendition of Caroline would now be complete in its own terms, at whatever point he left off painting it. (The same is true of his last renditions of Annette and Diego, in all mediums.) Sometimes her expression may seem to be more temporal than others, as in the Caroline Assis (C 19; Fig. 8), also called Caroline in Tears. (13) In this example the eyes are staring but not quite hypnotic. It is the two vertical lines downwards from the pupils of the eyes (actually signifying measurements) that give a false impression of tears. Her eye-sockets appear very large in proportion to her face, and her hands, perfunctorily indicated, with fingers pointing downwards, add to the impression of sadness.
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This and Caroline in a Red Dress (C 20; Fig. 8) probably both belong to the winter of 1964-65. The latter painting is a repeat of the studio setting of C 18, but with the proportions better arranged. Her smock dress is here coloured a full red. The stove and chest are indicated roughly by lines in the background, and there the picture is left--without 'finish' but the image complete. Whatever his frequent protestations about lack of success in any of his later paintings, Giacometti signed and dated this one 1965. Two other 'coloured' images of Caroline were produced in that year, one in the Kornfeld Collection (C 21), and another, which is virtually a repeat of it with variations (C 22; Fig. 12). In both, the subject's head is painted and repainted until she is left with a hypnotic stare. In the Kornfeld version the head is so much over-painted in black and white that it appears almost detached from her body. In the Fondation version the head is even more over-painted, but the figure sits better in space and there is greater pictorial unity. The smock is here lightly coloured pink, almost as an afterthought, but it brings her thighs down to the edge of the picture plane. Caroline now appears in a trance-like state, and continues so for her remaining portraits. This could imply some kind of private daydream, or it could reflect a condition of absorption shared between artist and model. A story that could give credence to the latter theory claims that when Caroline arrived unexpectedly in Giacometti's hotel room in London in July 1965, while his exhibition was in progress, she simply stared at him for a long time, apparently not even interested in the seven portraits of her being shown at the Tate Gallery.
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A group of three more paintings of Caroline, all in near-monochrome, which were shown in the London exhibition, and a fourth version purchased by the French State at about the same time, are among the finest portraits of her that the artist produced. (14) In all four versions the space behind the figure is indicated with the utmost economy, but nevertheless can be tangibly felt. Two of these, C 24 and C 25, were promptly purchased by the Tate as a pair. The scale is quite large in each case and, viewed at the proper distance, causes the spectator to feel in direct contact with the subject, held by her hypnotic gaze. The two Tate versions may have been painted together on alternate sittings as the artist claimed, although I suspect that T0782, in which Giacometti has shifted his chair a little further back, could be a re-run of the first. (15) Any of these portraits could be seen as a celebration of Caroline--in which case no wonder that Annette was almost uncontrollably jealous. This intensified relationship was continued in two more portraits, probably Giacometti's last, which may have been carried on after his 1965 exhibitions. (16)
Between his extensive travelling abroad during his final months, his other artistic commitments and his declining health, it is hard to see quite how Giacometti managed to fit in work on the portraits (but 'I've got to manage', he said). One of these, the version in the Fondation Giacometti (C 26) was in his London exhibition but was not sold, and returned to the studio. He could have gone on with this shortly afterwards. In that version we see even more of the whites of her eyes, as though she were in a trance, and any suggestion of particular surroundings is lost. The same expression is found in what may be the last, and possibly the most appealing, of the Caroline paintings, C 28 (Fig. 11), which surfaced at a Giacometti exhibition at Andros, Greece, in 1992. This one is slightly smaller in format than the ones in the London exhibition, and may have been done afterwards, in which case it is his last known portrait of her. (But when he found time to do it, not long before his death, is difficult to conjecture). It has the barest of external details: the ultimate reprise. Caroline still appears in a trance, but her initial youthfulness has reappeared, and the eyes are large and innocent-looking. The head is not overworked, which suggests that the Giacometti may simply may have left off work on it before he died. Its early provenance is not known, but there is no doubt of its authenticity.
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At the time of his death, in January 1966, Giacometti had known Caroline a little over six years, and painted her for perhaps five. During that time her relationship to him as a model developed from professional--although all the evidence suggests that he slept with her as well to begin with--to obsessive, until she became like an icon. His contemporary late portraits of his wife, Annette, his brother Diego, and other models for sculpture, such as Elie Lotar, are quite different in character, although he was clearly affected by those relationships too. 'I was his frenzy', Caroline is reported to have said after the artist's death. (17) It is not clear who dominated whom, however: she as model and inspiration, or he as the artist who took her over. The oddest thing about their relationship is that Caroline did not appear to be interested in Giacometti's paintings of her at all--only in the artist himself.
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Mme. Veronique Wiesinger, Director and Chief Curator of the Fondation Giacommetti in Paris, in my researches for this article, and for her comments after reading a first draft. Her essay 'On Women in Giacometti's Work [and Some Women in Particular]' appears in The Women of Giacometti, exh. cat, PaceWildenstein, New York, 2005.
(1) See James Lord, Giacometti: A Biography, London, 1983; 2nd edition 2001, pp. 403-15, et passim, and Christian Klemm, Alberto Giacometti, Zurich and New York, 2001, p. 242 ff., p. 266 notes 175, 176, and pp. 287, 288. Caroline's birth name was Yvonne Marguerite Poiraudeau. The date of their first meeting was established by Mme. Wiesinger as 1958.
(2) Giacometti began making lithographs for Paris sans fin soon after he was given the commission by Teriade in 1961 (Klemm, op. cit., p. 187).
(3) David Sylvester, Looking at Giacometti, London and New York, 1994, pp. 62-63.
(4) Laurie Wilson, Alberto Giacometti: Myth, Magic, and the Man, New Haven, 2003, pp. 70, 287-89.
(5) All this is well told by Lord, op. cit. In spite of Caroline's profession, Lord maintains that she truly cared for the artist. Wilson seems more sceptical.
(6) The gap was caused when he became very ill with stomach cancer, for which he was operated upon on February 6, 1963. He remained in hospital for two weeks after this and then convalesced, first in a Paris hotel and then at his mother's home in Switzerland from mid-March until October. Caroline cannot have posed for him there, although Lord tells us that she visited him surreptitiously from time to time. Giacometti himself, however, is quoted from a television interview dated 19 November, 1963 (revised 1966) as saying, '[Caroline] sits for me every evening from nine to midnight or one o'clock. In the past few years there haven't been more than four or five evenings when we haven't worked'. Given the other known facts of his life, this would seem to conflict with the evidence, unless--as seems likely explanation--this statement is quoted from the text revised at the end of the artist's life, by which time Caroline would indeed have sat for him every evening again for a prolonged period.
(7) Lord, op. cit., pp. 430-31.
(8) Valerie Fletcher, Giacometti, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC., 1988, p. 98.
(9) Klemm, op. cit., p. 242.
(10) 'The Women of Giacometti', New York (Pace Wildenstein) October-December, 2005 (87; reproduced in colour); and Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas, January-April, 2006.
(11) Andrew Forge, Observation: Notation, New York, 2000, exh. cat., 19.
(12) 'It seems impossible to do!', cried Giacometti as he was leaving Paris for the last time. 'What?', he was asked. 'A head, the way I see it. Between now and tomorrow, though, I've got to manage'. Quoted by Lord, op. cit., p. 506.
(13) It was exhibited with dais tide in the Giacometti retrospective at the Tate Gallery, London, 1965 (150), and in 'The Women of Giacometti' exhibition in 2005-06 (see note 10). In both these catalogues it was dated 1962, although in her catalogue essay Veronique Wiesinger points out that this portrait was not exhibited until 1965. Michael Peppiatt, who just called it Caroline in his exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia, in 2001 (99), dates it 1964-65.
(14) In the exhibition catalogue these were all listed as '[collection] the Artist' and dared 1965, inferring that they had been recently completed, The fourth version is now in the Musee d'Art Moderne, Pompidou Centre, Paris.
(15) See Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tale Gallery's Collection of Modem Art..., London, 1981, p. 284.
(16) Simultaneously with the London exhibition, another opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There were three Carolines in this, but none was painted later than 1962.
(17) Lord, op. cit., p. 440. Lord had several interviews with Caroline in 1971.
Bruce Laughton is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Queen's University, Canada.
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|Date:||Jun 1, 2009|
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