The other Giacometti
Alberto Giacometti’s expressive, hauntingly gaunt figures are among the most iconic works of the past century. They’re also the most expensive sculptures on the planet; his Pointing Man sold for a record USD141 million in 2015 to the hedge-fund billionaire Steven Cohen. But in recent years, Alberto’s younger brother Diego has proved no slouch himself when it comes to fetching the kinds of prices that turn heads at blue-chip auction houses.
Together, the Swiss-born Giacomettis are the most celebrated brothers in all of 20th-century art. And yet Diego spent most of his adult life in Alberto’s shadow, serving his brother’s idiosyncratic genius as a loyal assistant in a cramped, dishevelled, barely heated Paris atelier. It wasn’t until after Alberto’s death, in January 1966, that Diego, then 63, fully dedicated himself to his own work. A craftsman at heart, he found his métier in furnishings and decorative objects, developing an original artistic language that echoed ancient Etruscan and Greek styles while incorporating sculptural elements drawn from nature. In what became his signature style, he embellished the arms of chairs, the legs and stretcher bars of tables, the frameworks of ceiling lanterns, and the finials of bookshelves with a captivating array of tree and leaf forms, as well as creatures including birds, stags, horses, dogs, cats and frogs. The slender forms and hand-modelled surfaces of his exquisitely crafted pieces—usually in bronze—evinced unmistakable similarities to his brother’s brooding, attenuated sculptures, but the spirit was always lighter, even whimsical. Over the last 20 years of Diego’s life, his admirers included a coterie of Parisian tastemakers and cultural luminaries. Influential decorator Henri Samuel ordered pieces for clients such as Jean Seberg and Romain Gary. Film producer Raoul Lévy ( And God Created Woman), art dealers and collectors Marguerite and Aimé Maeght, and fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy became devoted patrons. “If you were a wealthy person in Paris in the seventies and eighties, you needed to have a Diego Giacometti table in your house,” says Cécile Verdier, the former Paris-based co-head of design at Sotheby’s. “You had to—there was no question.”
That legacy continues to resonate with contemporary interior-design eminences like Jacques Grange and Juan Pablo Molyneux, who have used Diego’s pieces in their projects,
while fashion designer Marc Jacobs installed a pair of Diego stools in his Manhattan townhouse. “His work can live with any category of other furniture—in a very classic or modern interior,” says Pauline De Smedt, head of design at Christie’s in Paris. “Plus, its poetry moves people. I don’t know how to say it in English—it’s like it is coming from your dreams.”
“He created something that nobody else had done, his own vocabulary, his own universe,” says Verdier, whose department last year sold a monumental Diego bookcase with bronze birds and trees, made for book publisher Marc Barbezat, for a record USD6.3 million. “These sculptural elements add poetry and lightness, which for me is a key to his art.”
The bookcase sale is one in a string of escalating records at successful Diego Giacometti auctions, most notably the sensational USD34.5 million sale of 30 works by Diego (and one by Alberto) from Givenchy’s Loire Valley château, staged by Christie’s, in March 2017. Most pieces had been commissioned by Givenchy over a 20-year period, and thanks to avid interest from buyers across the globe, all 21 lots sold above expectations. Best in show was an octagonal table that went for USD4.4 million, five times the high estimate. It featured an oak top and a sensuously hand-moulded bronze base with slender, stylised figures— typifying the masculine elegance that is Diego’s hallmark.
Of course, even needle-moving prices like those at the Givenchy sale are well below the sums commanded by Alberto’s sculptures, which hold the top three spots for the priciest sculptures ever sold at auction—all above USD100 million. A more instructive comparison is to look at prices for Alberto’s decorative works. The current record, achieved earlier this year at Sotheby’s, is USD9.9 million, for a 1952 bronze chandelier that Alberto designed with small sculptural elements, including one of his famous walking men. “In the same category, the market basically recognises them in the same region of importance,” says De Smedt.
The lives and careers of the brothers were deeply intertwined from the time of their births, just a year apart in 1901 and 1902. They were raised in a small village in the Swiss Alps, where their father, Giovanni, a well-known painter, kept his studio door open to his children, according to Catherine Grenier, director of the Giacometti Foundation and author of a recently published biography of Alberto. “It was mostly Alberto who was making drawings, paintings, sculptures in the studio with his father,” she says, explaining that in those days Diego and his younger brother, Bruno, who later became an architect, “were not so interested.”
Alberto moved to Paris in 1922 at the encouragement of his parents to pursue a career as an artist. Driven and immensely talented, he quickly found himself at the centre of the city’s art world. His first biographer, James Lord, claimed that no one doubted the significance of Alberto’s talent. Except, at times, Alberto. Confident and charismatic, he was also prone to bouts of melancholy and self-doubt.
While Alberto was an intellectual, Diego was an earthier type who took delight in the rhythms of the natural world. After a scattered start to his career, he moved in with his brother for
In Alberto’s impossibly cluttered 250-square-foot Montparnasse studio, dealers and friends—including legendary names like Breton, Balthus, Picasso, Sartre and Beckett—would drop by.
a time in Paris, helping out in the studio. He took on that role formally in 1929 when Alberto asked him to be his assistant.
The brothers’ relationship was one of mutual support and dependence that lasted nearly four decades, with the pair spending countless hours working side by side in Alberto’s impossibly cluttered 250- square-foot studio at 46 rue Hippolyte-Maindron in Montparnasse. Among the most mythic artist studios of that era, the space has been meticulously recreated at the recently opened Giacometti Institute in Paris—complete with wall scribbles; paint-splattered tables littered with plaster models, brushes and sculpting tools; and even Alberto’s makeshift bed in the corner. Simone de Beauvoir, a close friend of Alberto’s who also modelled for him, described the studio as “submerged in plaster”.
Diego, whose role expanded over the years, assisted Alberto with bases, supports and moulds for his sculptures, oversaw patinas for his bronzes, and coordinated with foundries, framers and galleries. Most famously, he frequently sat as a model for his brother’s paintings and sculptures, such as the 1954 Grande Tête de Diego— an axe-like bronze portrait, accentuating Diego’s expansive forehead and sturdy jawline— which brought in USD50 million at Sotheby’s five years ago.
Both men were passionately committed to the work and put in long hours, often eating little. But man, did they smoke a lot. Alberto reached 80 cigarettes a day, according to a letter written by his wife, Annette. (Diego never married but had a companion named Nelly, whom he lived with for 15 years.) Dealers and friends—including legendary names like Breton, Balthus, Picasso, Sartre and Beckett—would drop by for visits. This was Paris’s heyday as the world’s art capital, with Montparnasse as the city’s avant-garde heart. Treated for stomach cancer in 1963, Alberto suffered from poor health in the final years of his life. He also grappled with increasing anxiety, perhaps fuelled by the pressure of his success, and he had trouble finishing works. Along with Annette, Diego kept him on track and saved him from destroying works he deemed failures. According to Grenier, “Diego would tell him, ‘The work is perfect. Now you must stop.’” In the early 1960s, having begun to take on some of his own commissions, Diego moved into a studio around the corner from Alberto’s. Among his most important early clients were the Maeghts, the art dealers and collectors who enlisted Diego to create stair railings, lamps, tables, chandeliers and more for multiple residences as well as for the Maeght Foundation in the south of France.
Alberto’s death hit Diego hard, but it was also a creative awakening. He soon built up a steady stream of commissions that grew into a backlog. He often worked alone—though he did share his studio with a beloved cat—and some clients waited years for pieces from the charming perfectionist, whose precise casts and patinas were nothing short of an obsession. “He was a pretty romantic person,” says Verdier. “It’s not like he was a company, making 25 tables a day. He worked when he had inspiration.”
Each piece Diego made was basically a one-off. While he would recycle elements of existing tables and chairs, he was constantly reworking his models to add a new figure. “Each time, it was a unique piece, and that’s what everybody wants now,” says Bruno Jaubert, a specialist at the French auction house Artcurial. “Plus, now we see the creations of Diego in another way—not only as furniture but as sculpture. And it has changed the market for his work.”
Diego’s highest-profile commission was also the one that’s easiest to see in person today: a 50-piece group of seating, tables and lighting for Paris’s Musée Picasso, which opened in Hôtel Salé in 1985, just a few months after Diego’s death from a heart attack while he was recovering from cataract surgery. The museum commission helped boost his reputation (and prices), but almost immediately questions arose about fakes and unauthorised casts. Though he often signed his work ‘Diego’ or stamped it with his initials—to him, Giacometti would always be his brother’s name—he kept very few records and did not number his pieces. Investigations by French and US authorities in the late 1980s and early 1990s revealed the existence of numerous fakes, including quite a few sold by major auction houses. “There is no record whatsoever of what he made, and there still isn’t any recognised authority, any committee, for Diego’s work, so it’s a totally blurred area,” says De Smedt. “The provenance is absolutely key.”
Despite the concerns over fakes, demand for Diego’s pieces is soaring—and increasingly global, thanks to growing interest from Asian buyers, according to Verdier, who notes that there was a surge of interest in Diego’s work following a major exhibition dedicated to Alberto in Shanghai in 2016. Indeed, many inexperienced buyers, unfamiliar with Diego, make the mistake of conflating the two brothers. “It was quite interesting to see, at the viewing for the Givenchy sale, a lot of people were quite unclear about the link between Diego and Alberto,” says De Smedt. “‘Were they father and son?’ ‘Who made what?’”
The latest opportunity to compare their work side by side came in late 2018, when Christie’s staged a special sale in New York of pieces by Alberto and Diego. Keeping in mind their considerable difference, De Smedt noted beforehand the undeniable links between the two: “It’s obvious in the touch, in the way that everything is so thin and elegant and the way that the material is worked. You can almost feel their fingers going through the pieces.”
Though Diego often signed or initialled his work, he kept very few records and did not number his pieces. Investigations have revealed the existence of numerous fakes.
Above: chair by Diego from the early 1980s. Facing page: Diego Giacometti in his brother’s studio in 1966—the year of his death—with Alberto’s Bust of a Man (1965).