Coldstream and Giacometti in London.

Author:Laughton, Bruce
Position:Alberto Giacometti, William Coldstream - Essay


'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.'

(James Lord, Giacometti, 1983, p506).

[Coldstream] shared with Giacometti the oppressive conviction that what he was trying to do was impossible and yet I think he was not too displeased with the painting itself [after 96 sittings on Wilson's portrait].

(Colin St John Wilson, The Artist at Work, 1999, p16).

Coldstream admired Giacometti greatly, though the surrealist element brought out a dry smile. Giacometti was interested in Coldstream, admired the matter-of-fact intensity, found the space ordinaire.

(Andrew Forge, Observation: Notation, New York Studio School, 2000).

At first sight the methodological differences, not to mention a temperamental difference, between the two artists seems extreme. Yet each was obsessed with a similar problem--one which had long ago obsessed Cezanne--namely, how to grasp, through a sea of doubt, the visual essence of a subject long perceived and felt. When they first met during Giacometti's first visit to London in 1955 they got on surprisingly well. This visit had been instigated by the art critic and writer David Sylvester, who had met Giacometti in Paris in 1949 and regularly visited his studio since that date. During the same period Sylvester had also been getting to know Coldstream, who had invited him to give regular lectures and seminars at the Slade School, where the latter had recently been appointed Professor of Fine Art. Sylvester organised the Giacometti exhibition at the Arts Council Galleries in 1955 and, after it opened, stage-managed the artist's extended trip to England. During this trip a visit to the Slade was naturally included. What Sylvester was really looking for at that era was a new kind of representational art which would involve the observer's direct psychological response, as found, for example, in London in the work of Francis Bacon (rather than the work of Coldstream or even Lucian Freud). But he may also have sensed that the kinds of visual connection made with the object observed by Coldstream and Giacometti respectively--something more than mere representation--could have certain aspects in common. Surprisingly, however, he never discussed both artists in the same article. One person who did try to understand this visual connection, although he did not publish anything about it until years later, was the artist and critic Andrew Forge. Forge had been a pupil of Coldstream's at Camberwell School of Art immediately after the war, and then taken on as a young teacher at the Slade. The 1955 Giacometti exhibition came as a revelation to him, and he reviewed it enthusiastically in The Times when it opened. (1) Ten years later he reviewed Sylvester's second Giacometti exhibition--a full retrospective--held at the Tate Gallery, for the New Statesman. Although he was well aware of the rapport between Coldstream and Giacometti by now, he cautiously wrote, 'It is no help to look at Giacometti as though he were some sort of left bank Euston Roader, although the paintings do sometimes tempt us to do so.' (2) Again he found the exhibition awe-inspiring, but more in terms of Giacometti's sculpture than his painting. A few years later he wrote an extended article on Giacometti for Art Forum, in which he bravely tried to extract the artist's real importance from the myth which was now surrounding him, and in the course of this he drew attention to what he now regarded as the artist's 'most mysterious feature, namely the transition itself between painting and sculpture, and the paths of thought and feeling that link the two'. (3) He concluded that the key to Giacometti's manner of observation lies in his drawings, voyages of discovery, both confident and self-questioning, and that the works that come out of them are 'endless alternations of doubt and certainty'. How this might be compared to Coldstream's way of seeing raises interesting questions, to which we shall return, but first the circumstances of their meeting should be recalled.



In 1949 Coldstream had been appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art at University College London. This appointment effectively stopped him painting for some three years, because he found he had to re-organize the School, but in 1952 he commenced painting a nude model, commissioned by Adrian Stokes, which turned out to be the beginning of a series. Also in 1949 John Rothenstein, then Director of the Tate Gallery in London, visited Giacometti's Paris studio, and he persuaded his Trustees to buy two paintings--Interior of his Studio and Seated Man (Diego)--and a cast of the sculpture, Man Pointing, at that time. (4) Coldstream, who was appointed a Trustee of the Tare in February 1949, would certainly have known these. Giacometti's first major post-war exhibition in Paris was then held at Aime Maeght's gallery in June 1951. Thereafter he began to be represented in many avant-garde exhibitions held in Paris, Basel, London and elsewhere in Europe. By the time of his second one-man show at Maeght's in 1954, Giacometti's reputation was well established, as a painter as well as a sculptor.


Coldstream received an invitation to the private view of Giacometti's first London exhibition, which opened at the Tare Gallery on 3 June 1955. There is every reason to believe that he went, particularly since his young colleague David Sylvester was shortly due to lecture on this artist at the Slade. Then Sylvester arranged a personal meeting between them on June 16. (5) He brought Giacometti to the Slade School in the evening, where they were met by Coldstream and William Townsend. The visitor was given a tour of the school prior to going out to dinner. He remarked on the 'landscape' of easels, donkeys, etc in the Men's Life Room, which reminded him with pleasure of his own student days at Bourdelle's atelier at La Grande Chaumiere. He expressed interest in the drawings of a recent student, Martin Froy, (6) and waxed enthusiastic about the Antique Room with its groupings of Greek casts, a skeleton, green plants and plaster busts (which had been arranged by Coldstream). He also visited the sculpture studios, where Townsend particularly noted his enthusiasm about some photographs on display of the 12th-century...

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