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. Ahead of Alberto and Diego Giacometti: Masters of Design in New York, Jessica Lack unpicks their complex relationship
‘What are Alberto’s sculptures, those spindly skeletal blobs
of bronze?’ declared
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 the technical assistant to his sibling, the prodigious
The waters of fraternal rivalry run deep, and as a result there
are conflicting accounts of the Giacometti brothers’ relationship.
Yet all suggest Diego had a relatively good reason to be
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. Understandably, 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 because so skilled did Diego become, that the Surrealist artist
Joan Miró once challenged him to cast a plum tart, which
he did — perfectly.
In November, the Alberto & Diego Giacometti: Masters of Design sale at Christie’s in New York will feature sculptures and furniture
from The Collection of Brad Alan Grey, the Estate of Jacquelyn
Miller Matisse, The Collection of A. Jerrold Perenchio, The Collection of Dorian H.J. Niederhauser, and other notable private collections. The works offered
at auction will reveal that both brothers 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.
Born just a year apart, Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) and his brother Diego were the sons of an Impressionist Swiss 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 emotionally highly strung child, revealed a precocious artistic talent, his father became his tireless supporter. The affectionate relationship between them can be seen in the above sculpture Tête de Père, Ronde II (1963), made by Alberto 30 years after his father’s death.
While Diego may not have had the frenetic energy, fevered imagination and philosophical rigour of his brother, he was unquestionably talented. And yet in later life he rejected any suggestion 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 combat 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 and the company of itinerant drinkers in the all-night tabac.
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It was Diego’s penchant for the seedier elements of society that caused 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, Alberto 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.
The brothers also 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. The Flambeau Lamp, Petit Modèle pictured above is a good example of this. Conceived by Alberto circa 1934, this example was cast at a later date by Diego; it is stamped ‘A. Giacometti’ and inscribed with the initials ‘DG’.
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 really began in earnest after the Second World War. Alberto was famous by this time, creating works such as the primordial Femme assise (1949-50), below, 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 himself
a loyal clientele. Visitors to the 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 was sold last year
at Christie’s for €2,650,500.
An identifiable aspect of Diego’s work is his interest in nature.
A country boy at heart, his designs reflected the southerly Alpine valleys of the brothers’ childhood, and can be seen
in objects such as the Arbre au Hibou table, which features an owl perched on a table leg, and his X-Form Stool, below, the
base of which echoes the twisted branches of a tree.
The 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 (below),
which encapsulates, with humorous affection, the ever-present
cats that wandered between 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 last
year for €194,500 — almost 10 times its low estimate of €20,000.
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.
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.