In the summer of 1949, a 22-year-old graduate student from the University of Chicago arrived in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship to study at the Sorbonne. His name was Herbert Lust, a self-described “farm boy from Indiana” who had been orphaned at the age of nine. “I was at that time among the top scholars from the University of Chicago,” Mr. Lust writes, “the youngest ever to receive the prestigious M.A. in mathematics and philosophy.” In his luggage, Mr. Lust also carried the manuscript of an unpublished novel.
Today, in the memoir quoted above, which was written for the catalogue of the current Alberto Giacometti exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine-an exhibition largely based on Mr. Lust’s collection-he describes himself as “a 73-year-old investment banker who still joyously works 40 hours a week but spends his evenings and weekends studying art and literature.” Mr. Lust’s memoir is devoted to the story of his friendship with Giacometti, whom he met soon after his arrival in Paris.
At the Sorbonne, Mr. Lust was promptly invited to attend the weekly salon of Jean Wahl, his philosophy professor, and it was there, he writes, that he “met many famous people, but also relative unknowns like John Russell, who, far more involved in literature than art then, was to become a famous writer and art critic.” At what he describes as “a regal luncheon” given by Russell, the young Herbert Lust was seated next to Giacometti, who was, he writes, “completely unknown to me.”
This is his account of his first impression of the artist, who, because of the tenor of his conversation that day, Mr. Lust assumed was a writer: “Alberto was arguing with someone about André Breton. His opponent was claiming that the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was wrong in attacking Breton for being either a fool or dishonest. I knew how much Sartre owed to the Surrealists, but just through literature. Here I was hearing about it on the actual battlefield. Alberto began defending Sartre. He pointed out that until Breton was drafted in World War II, he was a pacifist who saw little, if any, difference between Hitler and the democracies since both were capitalists. All this excited me, a young American hick at last listening to literary talk in the real world. I believed that Alberto must be an important literary critic, and I was anxious to know him.”
When the artist finally turned to Mr. Lust and asked about his background, the “young American hick” made up a story. “At that time,” he writes, “all my emotions and actions were governed by great writers or heroes in novels. Determined to conquer Paris, I had decided on a strategy to emulate Julien Sorel, the hero of The Red and the Black by Stendhal. In the novel, Sorel had to choose between being a nobody and being honest, or being somebody and a hypocrite. He chose the latter, and in doing so, became a romantic tragic hero.”
In keeping with this role, Mr. Lust poured out to Giacometti what he describes as “my sad story about how I was a Romanian Jew who had survived the war with my family, just to end up being at odds with the Communists who then murdered my father. This fabricated story continued with a harrowing escape walking across the Carpathian mountains barefoot. I spun a tale of piercing weeks where my body was a hunted animal living on insects and drinking from streams, and finally my indescribable joy one day when I caught a fish and devoured it raw. This yarn took about 15 minutes. Alberto was transfixed.”
When the luncheon ended, Giacometti gave Mr. Lust his studio address and invited him to drop by any afternoon. That was how he discovered that Giacometti was an artist. “After he left,” he writes, “I asked John Russell about him. He told me that Alberto was famous.… The existentialists had heralded him as our time’s most significant artist. Sartre had even written a long article on him.”
So began their friendship and Mr. Lust’s adventures in the art world. The next afternoon, he called upon Giacometti in his ramshackle studio on the Rue Hippolyte-Maindron-the studio to which I was myself taken to spend an afternoon with Giacometti some eight years later. Like everyone else who visited that studio for the first time, Mr. Lust was startled by its sheer shabbiness. “Here was a famous man in a hovel,” he writes. “It made no sense. The place wasn’t even clean. Shabbiness reigned.”
The conversation was anything but shabby, however. The talk was of Breton and Surrealism and Nietzsche and of their own life experiences. Mr. Lust admitted that his tale of woe as a Romanian refugee was a complete fiction, and Giacometti was more amused than disturbed. It was now Mr. Lust’s turn to be transfixed. He had acquired a friend in this illustrious artist, and over time he became a connoisseur and collector of Giacometti’s work. In 1970, he produced Giacometti: The Complete Graphics , and is now at work on a more extensive account of his friendship with the artist. At their last meeting in September 1961-the artist died in 1966 at the age of 65-Giacometti gave Mr. Lust some sage advice about his personal problems, and then made him a gift of two portraits he had drawn of him, one in pencil and the other with a ball-point pen. Both drawings are included in the Portland exhibition, along with other Giacometti works from the Lust collection, over 50 in all. It is a very affecting exhibition, and made all the more so by Mr. Lust’s beautiful memoir, which leaves one keen to read the fuller version he is now writing.
Alberto Giacometti remains on exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art through Sept. 10.