2017 Venice Biennale

The Story of Giacometti’s Flora

A work from the Swiss Pavilion.ARTNEWS

A work from the Swiss Pavilion.


Sculptor Carol Bove may have taken an abstract approach to “Women of Venice” in the Swiss Pavilion—a show dedicated to the absence of Alberto Giacometti in the Swiss pavilion—but the filmmaking team of Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler have taken a decidedly documentary one. The subject of their 30-minute film is Flora, the onetime lover of Giacometti. Her story is told both through her son, who lives in California, and herself, in a voiceover of what seem to be diary entries.

Flora’s son, 81 when Hubbard and Birchler filmed him recently, tells of never having known who this Giacometti fellow was that his mother would sometimes talk about when he was young. Then he picked up James Lord’s 1985 biography, where he read a description of a photograph of his mother, when she was in her 20s, standing with Giacometti, with a sculpted portrait she made of Giacometti positioned between them. (No photos of the film were allowed, but I’ve included one of that photograph, above.) Lord describes her as looking like a kind of doomed figure.

As the story went, Flora came from a wealthy family in Denver; her father owned a department store. A wedding was a arranged to a young colleague of her father’s, she married that fellow at 19, and had a daughter. Then she divorced the man, gave up custody to her ex-husband, and, in the mid 1920s, hightailed it to Paris, where she enrolled in art school. That’s where she met Giacometti. They became friends, then lovers, and she bought one of his sculptures with the irregular allowance her parents would send her.

When Flora’s parents cut her off financially, she moved back to the U.S., first to Denver, then to California. Her family lost their fortune during the depression, and she supported her son, whom she had in 1935, by working as a custodian—”cleaning toilets,” as her son describes it. She went back to Paris in the 1950s, but everything had changed. She returned to California, and ended her life living in an apartment building in Los Angeles called The Versailles, an ironic twist.

Flora’s story, as told by Hubbard and Birchler’s film—which intersperses footage of Flora’s son with shots of art handlers packing up a Giacometti sculpture of her for display in Zurich—could easily slide into maudlin territory, but does not, despite the fact that its penultimate shot has the son looking at that sculpture and saying, “It’s my mom. It’s my mother.”

Lord’s biography describes Flora ending her life poor and “demented.” Her son tells Hubbard and Birchler he resents that description. He sees her as having been a strong woman.

As for that sculpture of Giacometti’s that Flora bought all those years ago? She gave it back to him before she left Paris. Think about that story when you’re remembering that Giacometti Pointing Man sculpture that sold at auction for $141.2 million two years ago.

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