If not always reliable as a historian, Gertrude Stein did get it right in her 1940 memoir, Paris France. The reason the city she had moved to in 1903 had suddenly taken off as a hotbed of modernism thirty years earlier lay in France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. After 1871, looking backwards meant revisiting humiliation. Everything – styles of painting, writing, ways of thinking, whom you had sex with and how – lay ahead. Artists, poets and Stein herself dreamed of Paris as an antidote to conventional lives lived in conventional places.
Few places could have been more conventional than Borgonovo, the mountain village in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland where Alberto Giacometti was born two years before Stein’s arrival in France. He came to Paris himself in 1922. Like Stein, he lived with his brother and was photographed by Man Ray, though in other respects it is hard to think of two immigrés less alike: Giacometti the thin, neurotically heterosexual Swiss-Protestant country boy and Stein the hefty, gleefully lesbian, Radcliffe-educated Jewish-American heiress. Both, though, responded in their lives and art to their adopted city and in so doing played a part in shaping its culture.
Precisely what Paris meant to Giacometti (and, to an extent, vice versa) is the subject of Michael Peppiatt’s new book, Giacometti in Paris. Peppiatt himself spent several youthful years in the city, though he managed narrowly to avoid overlapping with his subject there. He arrived in 1966 with a