Francis Ponge and Andre Du Bouchet on Giacometti: Art Criticism as Testimony

Article excerpt


French writing inspired by Giacometti's art is not straightforwardly critical or ekphrastic. Texts by Ponge and du Bouchet considered here can be said to testify to his works, based on Ricaeur's notions of testimony. They offer subjective testimonies to their relationships with Giacometti's pieces, and readers become witnesses to the visual experience and the texts. Du Bouchet writes performatively; his texts create spatial relationships. Ponge transforms Giacometti and his sculptures into figures of myth and writing, insisting that they show the viewer what it is to be human. For both writers, witnessing is a temporal process.


What does art criticism become when it is no longer criticism? Few of the texts in French devoted to the work of Alberto Giacometti are straightforward art criticism or art history, even when the author is a respected critic. They are inspired by the man and his work, and respond to them. This article will consider ways in which they might also be said to testify to Giacometti's art.

Some of the writers who responded to Giacometti's work could be described as eyewitnesses. Alongside the sitters who appeared regularly in his drawings and paintings, his brother Diego, mother Annetta, wife Annette, and lover Caroline, were writers and friends who watched him at work in the studio; sometimes the writers became friends, and often they sat for him. Andre du Bouchet was among these, but he has not recounted the sight of the artist at work. Other writers have done so; indeed, Giacometti is an ideal subject for such an exercise, because he embodied the image of the driven artist, working obsessively at his sculptures and drawings, principally at night, in a sparse, dusty studio. Jacques Dupin, for example, evokes his repeated, violent assault on the sculpted figures, and his admiration for Giacometti the artist shines through the texts. (1) In that sense, Dupin can more readily be described as an eyewitness than can du Bouchet, because his texts are his account of what he saw.

Francis Ponge is an exact contemporary of Giacometti, and he wrote about him as the post-war development in Giacometti's art was beginning. He could see it taking shape, but he does not present an eyewitness account either; he did not watch Giacometti at work, and even claims to be interested in art only in so far as he is presented with a unique final piece.

There is a generation between Ponge and du Bouchet. They are considered together here because their texts on Giacometti are not obviously eyewitness accounts, but nevertheless do testify to his art. Despite the significant differences between their approaches, both testify to his work by transforming it and by making the reader into a witness to Giacometti and to their own responses to him.

What is testimony? First, it is not an objectively truthful account, which is why philosophy has found it so problematic. (2) By definition, a witness offers what s/he saw or heard, and does not claim to have an overall view of a situation. This is the first of Paul Ricaeur's definitions of testimony: the eyewitness account. (3) It is important to note that testifying to something is not the same as simply seeing it. When an eyewitness relates what s/he saw, it is the account that is the testimony. In giving an account, the witness makes his or her hearers or readers into witnesses to the account, and second-degree witnesses to what is recounted.

Ricaeur's third and final definition, 'ethical testimony', involves the engagement of the witness in what s/he says. It is more than a matter of witnessing 'correctly' or 'being mistaken'; one vouches for what one says. The witness might be prepared to suffer for his or her testimony (the term 'martyr' means 'witness'). The subjective nature of the account is understood and does not make it false. Indeed, rather than being untrustworthy because it is subjective, it would be untrustworthy if the witness were not subjectively engaged. …