December 1, 2023

Works by Alberto’s younger brother have become highly sought-after, and were particular favourites of the esteemed fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy

Diego Giacometti (1902-85) grew up in the small town of Stampa in the Swiss Alps surrounded by majestic scenery and culture that would leave a lasting impression on him. As well as falling in love with the wildlife and woodland surrounding his family home, Giacometti was also drawn to the region’s traditional crafts.

‘One important inspiration for Diego was the carved wooden animals he saw as a child,’ says Flavien Gaillard, Head of Design for Christie’s Europe. ‘He was fascinated by them, and their influence on the furniture and sculptures he would create for his clients is undeniable.’ This is confirmed by some of the works made by Giacometti that were owned by the fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy. They form part of the highlights of Hubert de Givenchy — Collectionneur, a live evening sale at Christie’s Paris on 14 June, day sales on 15-17 June, accompanied by an online sale from 8-23 June.

Before he began making his own work Diego started out by assisting his older brother at his studio in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. While helping Alberto to fabricate his sculptures Diego came to love working with plaster and bronze, and learned to master the lost-wax casting process, says Gaillard.

The young artist soon developed his own style, inspired by the rural crafts of his childhood as well as classical sculpture, which also played an important part in his older brother’s technique. This fascination with the ancient world can be seen in one of his most famous pieces of furniture, the Cariatides table (a plaster maquette of one from about 1983 is in the day sales). Completed versions of the table feature female figures inspired by those from the Erechtheion temple on the Acropolis in Athens.

Diego’s passion for antiquity and animals was shared by Givenchy (1927-2018), whose career was also beginning to take off in the post-war period. The pair met in the late 1950s when the textile designer and art collector Gustav Zumsteg gave Givenchy a guéridon [a small table] Giacometti had made.

Commenting on their relationship at a 2017 auction of Giacometti’s work, Givenchy said that ‘a friendship started because I was already an admirer of his amazing creations, which were made with a lot of imagination and dexterity’. Giacometti was ‘the only sculptor-designer Givenchy worked closely with’, says Gaillard. ‘He displayed Diego’s work in all of his houses, including the Hôtel d’Orrouer in Paris and the Château du Jonchet in the Loire Valley, where most of his works in this sale have come from.’

The piece that sums up the friendship between artist and client best, says Gaillard, is Trophée (circa 1978) a plaster and acrylic sculpture of the head of a deer — an animal that was symbolic for Givenchy. Giacometti also made several miniature figures of dogs for the designer that hark back to the wooden toys that fascinated him as a boy. These were commissioned by Givenchy in memory of his beloved pets and were placed on their graves in his garden beside the chapel.

The day sale features several of these affectionate portraits, including Sandy, Bucky and Lippo, made in the 1970s in bronze. ‘What is really interesting is the texture of the metal, the patina,’ says Gaillard. Givenchy was similarly impressed by Giacometti’s vivid likenesses of his companions: ‘The animal “talks”, his face is made with intelligence, infused with life. So each time it was like a beautiful story,’ he said.

Animals also found their way into more functional pieces, such as a console table Giacometti made for Givenchy that features a bird on its stretcher. It is rare to find such pieces on the market, says Gaillard. Giacometti was unusual among furniture designers because he didn’t make editions. ‘This is the work of a sculptor,’ he adds. ‘All the pieces are unique.’

As well as producing bespoke designs for Givenchy, Giacometti also found enthusiastic patrons in Aimé and Marguerite Maeght, whose foundation in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the South of France recently held a major retrospective of his work. He was also commissioned to design furniture and light fittings for the Musée Picasso in Paris, and there are further examples in the collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

Giacometti’s growing appeal to collectors of both fine art and design is unsurprising, says Gaillard. ‘His works perfectly complement collections of 20th-century art and design, and it’s very easy to mix pieces with contemporary furniture. I think any important collection of modern art and furniture should have a piece by Diego. These objects are linked to the golden age of sculptors and artists, and everybody is looking to secure a piece of history like that.’

Givenchy also believed the work of modernist designers such as Giacometti was suited to Baroque or Neoclassical interiors. He once said: ‘Fashion changes, but the 18th-century style will endure… on the condition that it is not restrained within a fully period atmosphere… that it is given a breath of fresh air by Delaunay, Arp and Giacometti, and above all that it is not weighed down by pom-poms and trimmings.’

The growing interest in Giacometti’s work in recent years has ensured he is no longer just compared with his older brother, says Gaillard. Not only were the siblings different in personality — ‘Diego was very shy, a little bit silent, an animal lover’ – their work, while sharing materials and techniques, took distinct directions. The younger artist was ‘really acting by himself, without his brother’.

The sale of Givenchy’s collection will further enhance Giacometti’s reputation. As the fashion designer said about the works he commissioned from Diego, they were ‘always much more beautiful than the thing I’d had in mind’.


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