An interesting thing happened during the Sydney Film Festival today.
So, it’s a screening of Final Portrait, a bio-pic of Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti, starring Geoffrey rush. It’s a glorious film set in 1960s Paris, in monochromatic artist dwellings the same clay hues as the raw material worked by Giacometti himself. Directed by Stanley Tucci, it’s full of pathos, comedy and artistic self-doubt. There’s a moment when the artist, during the long process of painting what will be his final portrait, of American critic James Lord, makes a comment – quite offhand – about a recurring fantasy he’s had since he was young. He has nightly fantasies about killing women, one or two, each night. And raping them first. The comment is in the context of a philosophical toing-and-froing between two men, artist and subject. No action is taken, or even suggested as having taken place. An avant-garde psychoanalytical musing, intended to provoke, unless you’re of a petty, bourgeois persuasion.
In the theatre, Sydney’s beautiful heritage-listed State Theatre, there is the sparse laughter of men and women in the darkness. There is, I think, a sudden discomfort that has settled among us. If we continue to enjoy this film, are we conceding that this comment is fine and dandy? Was it some kind of too-clever directorial reference that’s missed the mark? Or is it a continuation of the avowal of these attitudes in the permissiveness we give to ‘great white male geniuses’? It happens often enough. There are many names that could be listed here.
I’d studied the work of Giacometti before, but it was only after watching the film, that I discovered a work by the artist I hadn’t seen before: Woman with Her Throat Cut (Femme égorgée). It’s a sculpture, not explicit, from a particularly surrealist period of Giacometti’s practice. It was in the same period of time that Giacometti published a text in a notable surrealist journal by artist Andre Breton (Wilson p.155). In it, he details a range of
expressly hostile and autobiographical fantasies, relating of the rape and murder of a father, mother, and sister… fantasies as a necessary nightly prelude to falling asleep during his childhood.
The decision to include this reference in the film was deliberate. I was left wondering – this was part of the artist’s character, but why are we making films about these kinds of men? And not only making them, but subsequently inuring ourselves to these references?
This is not a new phenomenon in the art world. Women are particularly referential in old-school art as objects, stand-ins and symbols rather than as human beings. This was already swirling around in my brain. Just a day earlier, during my day job, I had the strange fortune to encounter a damaged item due for discard. It was The Beginner’s Guide to Drawing People – a begin-from-the-basics book which covers “figure drawing, human anatomy and the female nude”. Only women will be nude. Again, I wonder, in my time, I’ve enjoyed drawing naked ladies. The painting in the header is one of mine from a few years ago. Am I a hypocrite for having done so? Was it part of larger pattern I’ve been drawn into?
Just thoughts. Thanks for reading.
Quote from Wilson, Laurie. Alberto Giacometti’s Woman with Her Throat Cut: Multiple Meanings and Methodology (1999). Annual of Psychoanalysis, 26:143-172.