Brothers by design: Alberto and Diego Giacometti

Alberto and Diego were devoted to one another, and yet also different: artist and artisan, intellectual and everyman. And despite being strongly influenced and often overshadowed by his elder brother, Diego found his own means of expression in the bronze furniture for which he became famous. Illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s

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Alberto (right) and Diego Giacometti with their sister Annette in 1960. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger © 2022/23 Stiftung Ernst Scheidegger-Archiv, Zurich

‘What are Alberto’s sculptures, those spindly skeletal blobs of bronze?’ demanded Diego Giacometti (1902-1985) in a late-night, drunken rant to Alberto’s biographer James Lord. ‘They are less than nothing!’ It was a rare outburst from this devoted younger brother, who had spent the previous 40 years of his life working as technical assistant to his sibling, the prodigious Swiss artist.

The waters of fraternal rivalry run deep, and as a result there are conflicting accounts of the Giacometti brothers’ relationship. Yet all suggest that Diego had reason to be frustrated.

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Diego Giacometti (1902-1985), Pair of X Form Stools, Troisième Version, c. 1960. Patinated bronze, upholstery 19 x 18¼ x 15⅝ in (48.2 x 46.3 x 39.7 cm) each. Sold for $945,000 in Design on 8 June 2023 at Christie’s in New York

He was a talented sculptor in his own right, becoming celebrated in later years for his bronze furniture. Bizarrely, it was an early, self-inflicted injury to his right hand when operating a threshing machine that had forced him to develop a high degree of dexterity in his fingers. Apparently he had become so hypnotised by the blades, he couldn’t resist putting his hand inside. His family were horrified, and the incident gives some indication as to why Alberto spent the rest of his life trying to protect his brother.

It was Alberto who supported Diego in Paris and encouraged him to train as a caster. It was an astute move: so skilled did Diego become, the Surrealist artist Joan Miró once challenged him to cast a plum tart, which he did — perfectly.

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Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Oiseau, c. 1937. Plaster. 18⅛ x 62⅜ x 1½ in (46 x 158.5 x 4 cm). Sold for $3,196,000 in Design on 8 June 2023 at Christie’s in New York

Both Alberto and Diego Giacometti were, in their own, singular ways, masters when it came to sculpture and the decorative arts. And that the relationship between them was far more than simply that of artist and assistant.

Diego Giacometti (1902-1985), ‘Carcasse à la harpie’ Table, designed c. 1979. Patinated bronze, glass. 16¾ x 50¼ x 33½ in (42.6 x x 127.6 x 85.1 cm). Estimate: $250,000-350,000. Offered in Design on 7 June 2024 at Christie’s in New York

Born just a year apart, Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) and his brother Diego were the sons of a Swiss Impressionist painter. Giovanni Giacometti (1868-1933) emerged as an artist in the late 1880s, but was blindsided by the Modernist revolution, unable to embrace the radical experimentation of the day.

Yet Giovanni remained a hugely influential figure to his sons. When Alberto, an eager and highly strung child, revealed a precocious artistic talent, his father became his tireless supporter.

While Diego may not have had the frenetic energy, fevered imagination or philosophical rigour of his brother, he was unquestionably talented. And yet in later life he rejected any suggestion that he might be an artist. ‘I am not a sculptor,’ he said, ‘simply my brother's artisan founder.’

Diego Giacometti (1902-1985), Pair of ‘Étoile’ Andirons, c. 1977. Gilt bronze, patinated iron. 10¼ x 9⅜ x 20⅜ in (26 x 23.7 x 51.7 cm). Estimate: $200,000-300,000. Offered in Design on 7 June 2024 at Christie’s in New York

Where Alberto was able to discuss existentialism with Sartre and vie with the sinuous intellect of Samuel Beckett, Diego was an altogether more reticent individual. He would become uncomfortable when the conversation turned metaphysical, and preferred climbing mountains or consorting with itinerant drinkers in the all-night tabac.

It was Diego’s penchant for the seedier elements of society that led Alberto to employ him in his studio. According to Lord, Alberto wanted to save Diego from ‘an impending lifetime of slightly disreputable nonentity’. Perhaps Alberto recognised that Diego had been overshadowed by his precocious talent. Also, the elder brother was not entirely impervious to the demi-monde himself, and towards the end of his life, he too preferred the peripatetic company of alcoholics to that of collectors.

Diego Giacometti (1902-1985), ‘Pommeaux de canne’ armchairs, designed c. 1963. Patinated bronze, patinated iron, leather upholstery. 32¼ x 22 x 20½ in (82 x 56 x 52 cm). Estimate: $250,000-350,000. Offered in Design on 7 June 2024 at Christie’s in New York

The brothers collaborated on a profitable sideline making household objects for the designer Jean-Michel Frank, which gave the elder Giacometti financial freedom to pursue his more radical artistic agenda.

Alberto spent a lifetime trying to capture Diego, yet he admitted towards the end that he had never truly succeeded

Diego’s explorations into furniture design began in earnest after the Second World War. Alberto was famous by this time, creating works such as the primordial Femme assise (1949-50), which established him as a visionary Modernist, and it was perhaps this ennobled status that gave Diego the freedom to escape his brother’s shadow.

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Alberto Giacometti, Femme assise, conceived in 1949-50, cast in 1957. Bronze with brown green patina. Sold for $13,812,500 in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 11 November at Christie’s in New York © 2022 Alberto Giacometti Estate / Licensed by VAGA and ARS, New York

Diego began making bronze furniture and quickly established a loyal clientele. Visitors to the brothers’ studio in Montparnasse soon began asking for ‘the other Giacometti’. One of his most enthusiastic patrons was the fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy; a Grand table consol aux cerfs (circa 1968) made for the couturier’s country house sold in 2017 for €2,650,500.

An important aspect of Diego’s work was his interest in nature. He was a country boy at heart, and his designs recalled the Alpine valleys of the brothers’ childhood, as can be seen in tables that feature perching owls, and stools that evoke the twisted branches of a tree.

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Diego Giacometti (1902-1985), Tabouret de Coiffeuse à la Souris, c. 1960. Gilt bronze, velvet upholstery. 22⅞ x 12⅞ x 14½ in (58.1x 32.9 x 36. 9 cm). Sold for $201,600 in Design on 8 June 2023 at Christie’s in New York

Both brothers loved animals. Alberto once said, ‘In a burning building I would save a cat before a Rembrandt.’ Indeed, Diego’s feline companions were given the run of the studio on rue Hippolyte Maindron.

They, in turn, inspired Alberto’s sculpture, Le Chat, which encapsulates, with humorous affection, the ever-present cats that wandered among the paintbrushes and plaster dust. Diego’s bronze animals are also highly prized; his dove, Tourterelle (1975), from The Collection of Hubert de Givency, was sold at Christie’s in 2017 for €194,500 — almost 10 times its low estimate of €20,000.

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The Lambert Cat: Property from the Baroness Johanna Lambert Collection. Alberto Giacometti, Le Chat, conceived in 1951 and cast in 1955. Bronze with dark brown patina. 32⅛ in (81.5 cm). Sold for $17,187,500 in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 11 November at Christies in New York © 2023 Alberto Giacometti Estate / Licensed by VAGA and ARS, New York

But perhaps the key to understanding the brother’s symbiotic relationship fully is the knowledge that from the age of 13, the younger sibling sat regularly for his brother. Alberto spent a lifetime trying to capture Diego, as the drawing Tête (de Diego), below, testifies, yet he admitted towards the end that he had never truly succeeded.

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Property from the Estate of Jacquelyn Miller Matisse. Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Tête, drawn circa 1940-1941. Pencil on paper. 12½ x 9¾ in (31.8 x 24.8 cm). Sold for $87,500 in Alberto & Diego Giacometti: Masters of Design on 12 November at Christies in New York © 2023 Alberto Giacometti Estate / Licensed by VAGA and ARS, New York

Alberto may have been Diego’s mentor, and his tireless supporter, yet Diego, in all his taciturn, belligerent devotion, was Alberto’s muse, the stoic everyman that the erratic and destructive artist could never be.

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Diego Giacometti (1902-1985), Autruche, c. 1977. Patinated bronze, ostrich egg. 18⅞ x 6⅛ x 10¼ in (47.9 x 15.6 x 26.1 cm). Sold for $163,800 in Design on 8 June 2023 at Christie’s in New York

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