BOOK REVIEW : Flickering forms on the edge of movement

Looking at GIACOMETTI David Sylvester Chatto & Windus, £25
"Everyone knows what a head is!" So Andre Breton protested when in 1935 the sculptor Giacometti abandoned surrealism in order to work once more from the model. This task, on which he intended spending two weeks, occupied him for the next five yea rs. "Nothing was like what I imagined it to be. A head ... became a completely unknown object without dimensions."

His interrogative gaze, like that of Cezanne, analysed not just external reality but also the mechanics of vision and the validity of representation in art. His doubts caused a paring away in his sculpture: during the latter part of the war, which he sp e nt in Switzerland, his work dwindled until heads and figures were little more than one inch high.

"Only when small were they like," he said. Returning to Paris in 1945, he brought the work of three years in six match-boxes. Subsequently he found that reality could also be heightened if one dimension is exaggerated - in this case height.

The resulting figures stare straight ahead, their flickering outlines animating the surrounding space. Instead of the calm monumentality that makes Henry Moore's reclining figures so memorable, Giacometti represents the human form as etiolated, momentar y and vulnerable. It was a view which, in the aftermath of Belsen and Auschwitz, gained immediate acceptance - in the late Forties and early Fifties Giacometti's significance almost equalled that of Picasso.

The critic who did most to promote him in Britain was David Sylvester. This book begins with the catalogue introduction he wrote to accompany the small retrospective he curated for the Arts Council in 1955. Four years later he had completed a monograph on the artist but retrieved it from the publisher in order to continue work on it. Two chapters in this book date from that period.

Then in 1964, when a large retrospective which Sylvester curated at the Tate was in preparation, Giacometti agreed to give two interviews for the BBC. These also appear here. After the artist's death in January 1966 Sylvester again presented a publisher with a Giacometti monograph, only to withdraw it when it was in proof. Now, after 40 years' involvement with his subject, comes the final work.

A person coming fresh to Giacometti might choose to begin at the end, with the artist's own words as found in the interviews. However, they are too discursive to provide incisive insights. The opening pages explain Giacometti's edginess. Sylvester makes us observe that the artist's figures "perpetually tremble on the edge of movement"; and this sense of the transitory is connected with a prevailing mood of loss.

The distortion, which can shift its scale even within a single figure, carries, according to Sylvester, an implied perspective, thereby enhancing the nearness or remoteness. Equally important is the rapidity of the modelling: the surfaces hint at the "nervous groping of the artist's fingers to catch up with the irresistible consuming flow into the past".

Sylvester is good at translating sensations into words. He provides many insights into Giacometti's practices and purpose and at times writes with an intensity that matches the artist's work. However, in order to focus on the art produced he cuts out much. Biographical information is kept to the minimum; the writings of other critics are largely ignored; and scant attention is given to Giacometti's associations and friendships, with the surrealists, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, for exampl e .

The evocative black-and-white period photographs, which make this such a handsome book, draw us into the artist's studio, creating the impression, which the text reinforces, that the studio is a world unto itself and nothing outside of it is of much concern.

Unorthodox, in that it eschews chronology, Looking at Giacometti is both fascinating and frustrating. Indulged brilliance does not produce the critical tombstone that fixes a reputation. But this idiosyncratic book makes ideas dance.