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Diego Giacometti: On His Own Terms

Few artists or designers were as reticent as Diego Giacometti, the younger brother of the great 20th-century sculptor Alberto, a man who was gregarious and brilliantly entertaining in company. By contrast, Diego went about things quietly. His most visible role in Alberto’s work was as his model – his insistent gaze appears again and again in portrait busts and paintings – and he also acted as Alberto’s assistant in the studio. And although Alberto exhibited all over Europe, Diego showed publicly only once, in Paris in 1962, consistently turning down requests for additional exhibitions thereafter.

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DIEGO GIACOMETTI, PHOTOGRAPHED IN MAY 1962 BY CECIL BEATON. THE CECIL BEATON STUDIO ARCHIVE AT SOTHEBY’S.

Yet Diego Giacometti’s creations attracted the most discerning and appreciative of clients, as evidenced by Jean Cocteau’s note after he commissioned two chairs: “Tell me what I owe you, although the elegance of these chairs has no price,” the French poet, playwright and filmmaker wrote to Diego. “If I stop at two, it’s that I find them so beautiful that it seems to me I should treat them not as mere furniture, but as works of art.”

During Diego’s lifetime, many great artists, collectors and thinkers shared Cocteau’s feelings – among them the Noailles family, relentless commissioners of great Modern art; the couturier Hubert de Givenchy; and the photographer Cecil Beaton. All treasured his tables, chairs, lampshades and other objects. So did Dominique Bozo, the former director of the Musée Picasso in Paris, who asked him to create furniture to set off the powerful works that would be displayed in the grand and historic Hôtel Salé, where the museum would open in 1985.

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DIEGO GIACOMETTI’S BIBLIOTHÈQUE ($2,000,000–3,000,000), CIRCA 1966–69, WILL BE OFFERED ON 16 MAY AT SOTHEBY’S NEW YORK. COMMISSIONED BY FRENCH PUBLISHER MARC BARBEZAT, THE GOLD-PATINATED BRONZE STRUCTURE IS ADORNED WITH THE ARTIST’S FAMILIAR BIRDS AND TREES, DETAILED AT LEFT. © GALERIE JACQUES LACOSTE - HERVE LEWANDOWSKI.

“I did not want a clinical, antiseptic, modern museum. I wanted something warm, elegant,” Bozo told The New York Times in 1984. “I also had to find a link between the decor of the 17th and 18th centuries and Picasso. For a commission like that, I needed someone who [was] really an artist, who was capable of taking charge of the project and making the link.” That person was Diego Giacometti, who died in July 1985, shortly after the pieces were cast, and was thus unable to see his creations in place.

Three decades after his magnum opus at the Musée Picasso, collectors are rediscovering Diego Giacometti’s artistry, falling under the spell of works that always marry the singular presence of true art with the sort of elegance that defines the best design. As a result, Diego Giacometti has come into his own on the market. 

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TABLE CARCASSE À LA CHAUVE-SOURIS, CIRCA 1970 (€200,000–300,000), IN PATINATED BRONZE AND GLASS, IS AMONG THE WORKS IN A DEDICATED GIACOMETTI SALE AT SOTHEBY’S PARIS ON 17 MAY.    

His production is highlighted at two Sotheby’s locations this season: an ambitious library Giacometti executed circa 1966–69 appears in the 16 May Impressionist & Modern Art Evening auction in New York and a dedicated auction of his designs is taking place in Paris on 17 May. With such diminutive and poetic works as the horse and tree in La Promenade des amis, the Paris sale offers a broad view of Giacometti’s career and the opportunity to marvel at his ability to combine delicacy and self-assuredness.

These qualities are embodied in his chairs and tables, where the plaster animals and figures that were later cast in bronze and patinated come across as pure sculpture. And yet, thanks to the underlying simplicity and usability of his forms, Giacometti leaves no doubt that these sculptural pieces are also functional objects.

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DIEGO GIACOMETTI’S BIBLIOTHÈQUE (DETAIL)  ($2,000,000–3,000,000), CIRCA 1966–69, WILL BE OFFERED ON 16 MAY AT SOTHEBY’S NEW YORK. COMMISSIONED BY FRENCH PUBLISHER MARC BARBEZAT, THE GOLD-PATINATED BRONZE STRUCTURE IS ADORNED WITH THE ARTIST’S FAMILIAR BIRDS AND TREES, DETAILED AT LEFT. © GALERIE JACQUES LACOSTE - HERVE LEWANDOWSKI.

Certainly, these same qualities were paramount in his brother’s studio: Diego provided crucial structure and elaborate finish for Alberto’s sculptures. In the 1930s, when Alberto was connected to the Surrealists but made no money from his art, the older brother earned a living designing furniture, mainly lamps, for the interior designer Jean-Michel Frank – and it was Diego who made them. Later, it was Diego who provided the armature for Alberto’s impossibly thin sculptures in plaster and clay, thus helping his brother’s work achieve solidity despite its extreme reduction. Diego would also cast the pieces in bronze and help attain their patination. 

His exquisite sense of surface is evident in the library he created for Marc Barbezat, the founder of Editions de l’Arbalète. This was an uncommon commission for an uncommon man, who early in his career published some of the 20th-century’s most acclaimed authors. Typically for Giacometti, the library’s metal and oak structure is robust and straightforward. Many of the shelves are open and glazed, yet the overall frame and several cupboards and drawers are clad in undulating, gold-patinated bronze – a clear marker of Giacometti’s touch, which lends the piece the intimacy befitting Barbezat’s desire for this to be a bedroom of books. 

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DIEGO GIACOMETTI’S BIBLIOTHÈQUE (DETAIL) ($2,000,000–3,000,000), CIRCA 1966–69, WILL BE OFFERED ON 16 MAY AT SOTHEBY’S NEW YORK. COMMISSIONED BY FRENCH PUBLISHER MARC BARBEZAT, THE GOLD-PATINATED BRONZE STRUCTURE IS ADORNED WITH THE ARTIST’S FAMILIAR BIRDS AND TREES, DETAILED AT LEFT. © GALERIE JACQUES LACOSTE - HERVE LEWANDOWSKI.

Enhancing the warmth that Dominique Bozo identified in his work are Diego’s familiar trees and birds, which stand atop the library like sentinels. As Sotheby’s Paris director of contemporary design Florent Jeanniard puts it, these elements inject “poetry, humour and nature” into his creations. Derived partly from a profound love of nature and his native Swiss countryside, these and other bronze wildlife – stags, lions, cats, wolves – appear in several other pieces offered in the upcoming  sale in Paris. The late British sculptor Raymond Mason once suggested that an affinity with these creatures reflected Giacometti’s own personality: “By his very nature, he’s a wild man,” said Mason. “All his simplicity is linked up with a savage individuality.” With this, Diego Giacometti’s reluctance to exhibit his work is no longer surprising. Unlike Alberto, Diego did not care for the trappings of the art world. For him it was all about realising a distinctive personal vision, following his own path. 
 

Ben Luke is art critic at the London Evening Standard and features editor of The Art Newspaper.
 

Diego Giacometti’s Monumental Library

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