The other Gi­a­cometti

Esquire (Singapore) - - Contents -

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).

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