Brothers by design: Diego and Alberto Giacometti

Diego and Alberto were devoted to one another, yet also very 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 brilliantly imaginative bronze furniture for which he became famous. Illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s

Diego (centre) with Alberto and his wife Annette Giacometti outside the brothers' studio in Paris, 1958

Diego (centre) with Alberto and his wife Annette Giacometti outside the brothers’ studio in Paris, 1958. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger © 2023 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 there are conflicting accounts of the Giacometti brothers’ relationship. Yet all suggest that Diego had reason to be frustrated.

He was a talented sculptor in his own right, and became 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.

Diego Giacometti (1902-1985), Paire d’arbres de vie ou arbres à l’oiseau et à l’escargot, circa 1968. Patinated bronze. Height: 82 cm (32¼ in). Sold for €2,706,500 on 6 March 2017 at Christie’s in Paris. Artwork: © Succession Alberto Giacometti / DACS 2023

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. 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.’

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.

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Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), ‘Figure’ floor lamp (Téte de Femme), 1933-34. Patinated bronze, paper shade. Height: 71 in (180.3 cm). Sold for $189,000 on 9 December 2022 at Christie’s New York. Artwork: © Succession Alberto Giacometti / DACS 2023

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Diego Giacometti (1902-1985), Lanterne, circa 1983. Plaster. Height: 130 cm (51⅛ in). Sold for €2,258,500 on 6 March 2017 at Christie’s in Paris. Artwork: © Succession Alberto Giacometti / DACS 2023

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: towards the end of his life, he too preferred the peripatetic company of alcoholics to that of collectors.

The brothers collaborated on a profitable sideline making household objects for the designer Jean-Michel Frank, which gave the elder Giacometti the 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.

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 ‘Oiseau et Coupelle’ console, from the couturier’s Masterpieces collection, sold for €1,662,000 in June 2022 at Christie’s in Paris. In the same sale, Femme qui marche [I] (1932-36), a delicate bronze figure made by his brother, reached €27,169,500.

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 trees and perching owls, or chairs seemingly wreathed in branches.

Diego Giacometti (1902-1985), La console ‘Hommage à Böcklin’, conceived circa 1978. Bronze and iron with green and grey patina and copper. Height: 35⅜ in (90 cm). Sold for £5,122,000 on 13 October 2023 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Succession Alberto Giacometti / DACS 2023

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 (1951), which evokes, with humorous affection, the ever-present cats that wandered among the paintbrushes and plaster dust.

Alberto’s Oiseau (circa 1937), from the collection of Hubert de Givency, sold for €4,242,000 at Christie’s in Paris in 2022. Diego’s bronze animals are also highly prized.

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

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

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