Fondazione Luigi Rovati celebrates the 120th anniversary of the birth of Diego Giacometti, one of XX century’s most important artists and designers.
From March 2023, the Fondazione will open the first exhibition ever dedicated to Diego Giacometti in Italy, curated by art historian Casimiro Di Crescenzo and organised by PLVR Zürich. His works will be hosted on the main floor of the building, where it is already possible to admire his pièce unique “Lanterne à quatre lumières”, realised for philanthropist Bunny Mellon in 1983.
Diego was the second son of the post-impressionist painter Giovanni Giacometti and Annetta Stampa, and was named after Diego Velázquez, hugely admired by his father. He was born in Borgonovo in Val Bregaglia, Switzerland, on 15 November 1902, 13 months after his older brother Alberto, with whom he later lived in Paris, sharing a deep relationship unparalleled in 20th century art. Alberto's first sculpture was a “Head of Diego”, created in 1914-1915. Contrary to his brother, who soon announced his desire to become an artist, Diego's path was longer and rougher. A listless student during the boarding school years in Schiers, where Alberto distinguished himself, in 1919 Diego enrolled in a commercial institute in Basel. In his early years he often changed city and job, moving to Basel and Chiasso, briefly staying in Marseille in 1923 revealing his existential dissatisfaction. He distinguished himself though as the elegant dresser: as a young man, he was considered the most handsome in the family but also the black sheep.
In 1925, Diego decided to move to Paris re-joining Alberto, who was attending Antoine Bourdelle's sculpture course at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière since 1922. In Paris, Diego found an accounting job in a factory in Saint-Denis, then in an office. Even his first years in Paris proved to be rather troubled. Tired of his life as a clerk, he started a small trade business with an Italian friend in France and Italy, reaching in Egypt in 1928. This phase of Diego's life ended up as a failure and, in October 1929, Alberto who had just become a famous artist and was unable to cope with his workload and the numerous commissions he was offered, asked him to work with him, an offer Diego accepted in February 1930. Since then, Diego's life tied inextricably with Alberto's.
Extremely shy and reserved by his nature, Diego happily lived in his brother's shadow, jealous of his own intimacy and indifferent to mundanity. In 1933, he established his own studio at 46 rue Hippolyte-Maindron, opposite to Alberto's.
When, much later, this first atelier was destroyed to enlarge the neighbouring garden, Diego moved to another one in the same building close to Alberto’s and rented a flat at 199 rue d'Alesia where he lived with Nelly Constantin, his partner for twenty years. In 1961, Alberto bought the house at 57 rue du Moulin Vert for Diego, where he lived until his death, and where he set up a workshop on the ground floor.
In the 1930s, Diego worked with Alberto as an assistant, producing the marble versions of the sculptures and most of the objects designed for the interior decorator Jean-Michel Frank and, above all, taking care of all the practical aspects of Alberto’s work, allowing him to focus on creation and giving him the chance to live at a more suitable pace of life. Alberto's days, always dedicated to his work, began late in the morning; he liked living at night and devoting his evenings to conversations about art, philosophy and literature in cafés around Montparnasse and Saint Germain-des-Prés, before returning to his atelier and work until dawn. Diego, on the other hand, had a much more methodical rhythm of life, starting his days early in the morning already knowing his plans for the day, and returning home in the evening. In 1935, he began to carry out commissions on his own account for Jean-Michel Frank, Elsa Schiaparelli, Lucien Lelong and Guerlain, on top of posing for his brother and assisting him in his work. In 1938, he decided to sign his works only with his own first name, concerned that someone might have thought that he wanted to take advantage of his brother's fame.
The outbreak of World War II put a tragic end to this era. In June 1940, Paris was occupied by the Nazis and Alberto, Diego and Nelly attempted to flee by bicycle to seek shelter in the south of France. Following the advance of the German troops, they were forced to abandon their plan and return to the capital. Many collectors and friends managed to flee France, even Jean-Michel Frank, who later committed suicide in New York. Alberto left Paris on 31 December 1941 to visit his mother in Geneva, convinced to be back after a few months. Diego remained in Paris not to leave their studios unattended, planning to leave for Switzerland himself upon his brother's return. Instead, in 1942, the French authorities cancelled their visas to enter and leave the country. The two brothers were thus separated: Alberto remained in Geneva until September 1945 and Diego lived through the hardest years of the occupation with the company of his few remaining artist friends, Francis Gruber, André Marchand, Claude Vénard and Jean Barluet. During this period, he worked for the decorator Jacques Adnet received commissions from Lucien Lelong and the advertising graphic artist Cassandre. He attended a sculpture course at the Ranson Academy, where Francis Gruber also taught, assisted by Jean Barluet. He found employment at the Gianini Foundry where he learned the bronze patination technique so well that Gianini himself used to call him “L’as de patines” (king of patina). He devoted himself to the production of ceramic objects and made three fantastic birds, similar to chimeras, for Georges Bernstein, the future wife of Francis Gruber. The friendship with this painter, who had been ill with tuberculosis for some time, was particularly strong: Diego remained close with him until his premature death in 1948.
With the end of the war and Alberto's return to Paris, life returned to normal. Diego was always on his brother's side, available for every need, either as a model for long hours or as his indispensable collaborator, due to his knowledge of his brother's character and creative aims. It was at this point that Diego took care of the plaster casts of Alberto's clay sculptures, and the patination of his bronzes. The success achieved by Alberto's new, filiform sculptures, sanctioned by his solo exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in January 1948, brought with it a demand for new decorative works, as well as the re-edition of some of the lamps created for Jean-Michel Frank. From 1948, Alberto created new chandeliers and Diego accepted commissions from the publisher Louis Broder and the merchant Heinz Berggruen, then creating his own furniture, at first for a small clientele, mostly of Alberto’s friends and his collectors.
His friendship with Marguerite and Aimé Maeght, whose gallery had represented Alberto in France and Europe since 1951, was of great support to Diego, who made numerous creations for them. Pierre Matisse, Alberto's dealer in New York since 1947, also guaranteed him notoriety and a new clientele on the American market. Gradually, Diego's commissions increased and with them the number of amateurs eager to own one of his works, such as film producer Raoul Levy, interior decorator Henri Samuel and art dealer Eberhard W. Kornfeld. He started receiving also public commissions: the first was the full decoration of the Maeght Foundation in Saint Paul de Vence, inaugurated in 1964, followed by the decoration of the refined Café at the Kronenhalle in Zurich opened in 1965, and the decoration of the Chagall Museum in Nice in 1972.
Alberto's unexpected death in January 1966 was a hard blow for Diego, who was deeply saddened by it. He continued his work, dividing his time between his atelier in rue Hippolyte-Maindron and his home in rue du Moulin Vert. His clientele became increasingly international and famous: Hubert de Givenchy, Bunny Mellon, Farah Diba. All of them were fascinated by the grace of his work, perfect in its proportions and in the essential, simple lines, softened by the presence of a fanciful bestiary that added a touch of fairy-tale poetry.
As he turned eighty, Diego accepted what proved to be his last commission, which he took on as a fully won challenge: the decoration for the rooms of the new Picasso Museum in Paris, then under construction. Diego had to fulfill two needs: on one hand, his works had to fit into the large spaces of the historic building, and on the other hand, they had to dialogue with Picasso's works. He therefore increased the size of his creations and, at the same time, stripped them of the superfluous, reducing them to pure geometric shapes that hover in space. Praise and admiration for his work was unanimous; unfortunately, the Picasso Museum opened in September 1985, a few weeks after Diego's death on 15 July. His ashes rest now in the San Giorgio cemetery in Borgonovo in Val Bregaglia, next to the grave of Alberto and his family.
By Casimiro Di Crescenzo
Photo credit: ©Pino Guidolotti