20th Century Design

Inside the Artist’s Studio: Life with Diego Giacometti

By Sotheby's

Ahead of the Diego Giacometti sale in Paris on 17 May, take a look at some fascinating images of the artist’s studio and read this extract from Françoise Francisci’s book Diego Giacometti where Claude Delay recalls his experiences of the artist.

I will always see you, Diego, behind the broken window of the studio, a cigarette dangling from your lips, at the shabby workbench in your solitary lair, in Rue Hippolyte-Maindron, surrounded by yoghurt pots filled with water or plaster. Only a cat purred there in the faint light of the stove, fleeing to the ceiling as soon as a stranger pushed open the squeaky door. The old man would stand, incorruptible, continuing to trace out his world with derisory means. He now worked all day long. In the famous studio, in an atmosphere fermented by poverty, Alberto had begotten his “meteoric, charred heads, shaped by the fire of a vertiginous fall towards endless voids”, making the viewer recoil. The bold-lettered newspaper France Soir lay next to a telephone number and the overflowing ashtray. Spider threads hung from the walls in an undefined web. Diego’s hands – those strong, calloused hands, swollen from handling the tools hung from the workbench – kneaded the plaster; blacksmith’s hands, with their jutting metacarpal bones and knobby protuberances. But what mysteries arose from those delicate fingers… One day I saw the birth of a tiny, infirm owl. Diego pulled some hemp from a skein, added a bit of wire, dipped it in plaster and gave it feet… Straight from the wicked fairy’s kingdom, the inexpressible, acknowledged fragility of a leaf stood firm, a dwarf palm tree: the return to paradise. Diego’s component, like a bud, took its place on the stem.


“I need to dress it”, he would say of his latest table with cords of bronze, cords of solitude. His armchair with its Etruscan cruelty bore two lion’s heads on the elbow rests. He placed Samothrace Victories on the front of a bronze showcase – sentinels of the past and of his future – or the owls of Athena. But his guardian angels never impinged upon the implacable austerity of his sculptures with their uncompromising sobriety. Diego’s populations arose from the unspoken. A horse without a caress, a walk with friends beneath a palm tree where a dog lifts its leg, torch-bearing tortoises, a lanky ostrich, a mysterious cat: his realm was the animal kingdom. People unfamiliar with animals cannot understand this instinct for silence so intrinsic to Diego’s character. Alberto appropriated the spoken word; Diego the secret. Alberto chose humanity; Diego chose nature.

He would feed birds, and even mice. An American friend once gave him an enormous loaf of Poilâne bread. He ate a little of it, then saw that it had been attacked, and was disappearing fast… The mice left only the crust. I was afraid that my dog Zelda would swallow rat poison in his kitchen. “I don’t kill a single rat – I feed them!”, he exclaimed. He would place his rodents in the curve of a leaf, or on the leg of one of his tables. His minxes, little winged women with witches’ faces, clawed his pedestal tables, and his frogs always had tadpoles with them: “There must be two of them…”


After the war, a friend who had been deported returned from Auschwitz with a vixen. He kept her chained up on a lead. “You can’t do that: you were a prisoner yourself”, said Diego, and took her in. He called her Miss Rose. She filled the house with her stink and made dens everywhere. “She would play dead and I would say “Oh Miss Rose, poor Miss Rose… It really smelt of the circus and the zoo.” To no avail: Miss Rose lived with him for months. And then one day, Alberto left the studio door open. “It was in the countryside then, the Porte de Châtillon.” Diego shook his head. He was never satisfied. He still fought with every second, right through to the end. His princely consoles covered with plastic sheets in the courtyard, his lamps, his chandeliers and low tables found their final identity under the sparks of the forge and cast iron. No shock could harm them further after the final patina. They were untouchable. No leprosy could infect them; Diego’s furniture was indestructible.

I never saw him discouraged. He would just start again… When he was commissioned for the work in the Musée Picasso, in the Hôtel Salé, I saw him working on his chandelier for months on end. His silence was inhabited: the silence of metamorphosis. I was amazed at each visit: “Oh, do you think that’s all right? No, no…” And the next time, he had started yet again from scratch. His wild black stray cat had set up home in the studio and detested the other cat, Pita, the grey female, lovingly curled up in the little creeper-covered house in Moulin-Vert a few metres away. Two wives; two twin mysteries. His cats were as intransigent, tense and uncompromising as their master. The emergence of his inspiration and little-known, recognised, explicit genius lifted the gravediggers’ earth from the buried years. The Giacometti was the other, great, universal one: Alberto. He just signed his work Diego.


The Van Gogh brothers could not have been closer than those two. They loved each other. Their career started in Paris, in 1925, with their first commissions from interior designer Jean-Michel Frank. At that time, Montparnasse was a village and Rue Delambre full of bistrots where you could eat for a few francs. Alberto would come back at three or four in the morning after wandering the empty streets. Though still reeling, he would wake Diego, and draw his next day’s plans on the dusty table: “Right, I’ll do that… work on that for me.” Alberto would go to bed; Diego would get up and start work. When he was young, he had visited Egypt: an unforgettable experience. “The Sphinx was covered in sand,” he would always remember. In the dusty studio rose another immobile sphinx: his oeuvre. Living on the edge of Alberto’s chasm of angst was his daily lot. He would try to stop all the wrecking, but in vain: Alberto wanted to destroy. Alberto was haunted by the obsession of reducing everything until it fit into a matchbox. The furnace versus petrification. The two brothers were truly inseparable, except during the war, when Alberto had to return to Switzerland. In Geneva, he met his wife, Annette – Annette, echoing the name of the Giacomettis’ much-venerated, omnipresent mother, Annetta. When Diego left home, she gave him orders: “You will look after Alberto, my son.” Bruno, the architect, and Ottilia, who died in childbirth, were the two other children of the Giacometti parents. Diego was 63 when Alberto died. He always kept his photo with him. Now he was the one gnawed by doubt. “Everything is tarnished and becoming scrap, everything is precarious, about to collapse, dissolving and drifting”, as Genet wrote about the studio. And then the sap of a genuine youthfulness began to pulse through Diego’s work. He fumed about holidays, and railed against the mirror-maker and founder. “They have all gone…” The summer exodus left him distraught.


I had met Diego many years ago at the home of the stage director and producer Raoul Lévy, a staunch friend to Diego. They would eat at the Gare de Lyon buffet together, and Diego would lunch at Raoul’s on Sundays, at the big dining table of his Orsay house with its red checked tablecloth. He loved the cinema; Raoul had a private screening room for his friends. He was one of the very first to see the genius beneath Diego’s diffidence, and commissioned a staircase, door handles, seats and stools from him. As did Aimé Maeght (whom Diego called Guiguitte) at the Foundation. Diego would meet with them at Saint-Paul. I never knew him make any other trip, other than to his native region. His life consisted of the studio, except in the evenings, when he would eat in town. The hard worker became a dandy, the epitome of elegance. With his broad shirt collars, loosely knotted Italian ties, crumpled silk handkerchief in the pocket of his blue suit and polished black shoes, he was unrecognisable yet the same as ever.

Diego’s beauty was truly that of Alberto’s portrait of him at Stampa when he was young, with a floppy silk necktie. The frugal daytime worker (his refrigerator contained nothing more than lights for the cats and yoghurts for himself) was hungry and thirsty. His whisky neat, on the rocks, his red wine, his silence that never missed the tiniest detail, his rough, tender laugh all disappeared down his throat alike. When he lit his Gitanes, and later his filtered Gauloises, melancholy was mingled with joy. Farewell, Diego.

This is an extract written by Claude Delay for Diego Giacometti by Françoise Francisci.

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