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Squabbles Settled, Foundation Moves to Re-Create Giacometti’s Paris Atelier

A visitor takes images of the"Walking Man I", 1960 by Alberto Giacometti  at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, France in March.
A visitor takes images of the"Walking Man I", 1960 by Alberto Giacometti at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, France in March. AP

PARIS - For much of his life, Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) lived and worked out of a cramped and cluttered atelier in the 14th Arrondissement of Paris where paint-stained surfaces were covered with busts and figurines and walls were sketched and scrawled over. The artist toiled day and night in this spartan setting, pausing for meals with plaster still stuck in his hair.

That 270-square-foot studio will be recreated exactly as he left it as part of the new Institut Giacometti, a research center and exhibition space that will open to the public late next year in the same arrondissement, or district, according to Catherine Grenier, director of the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti. The space will be an outpost of the foundation, which manages most of the estate and owns the world’s largest collection of the artist’s works.

After its creation in 2003, the foundation became mired in disputes with rival bodies and Giacometti family members over the right to represent the artist and make posthumous casts of his sculptures - some of the originals have fetched more than $100 million at auction. Now Grenier, a former deputy director of the Pompidou Center, aims to open the foundation to the world and start a more peaceful chapter. “When I got here a year ago,” she said in an interview, “this foundation was not at all well known, for one essential reason: It was closed to the public. My priority is to make its activities and its extraordinary collection accessible.”

The foundation has other ambitions as well. It is publishing Giacometti’s first catalogue raisonné and lending more extensively to exhibitions around the world from its collection of about 250 sculptures, more than 90 paintings and thousands of drawings and photographs. The largest will be a retrospective at Tate Modern in London in 2017, Grenier said. (Tate confirmed the exhibition but not the year.)

The past few decades have been tumultuous for the estate. Individuals and institutions representing it have clashed in and out of court, costing the estate money and frustrating research on the artist’s works even as their prices soared. Considered among the great sculptures of the 20th century, “Chariot” (1950) sold in November for $101 million at Sotheby’s in New York, and “Walking Man I” (1960) brought $104.3 million in 2010, then a record for any artwork sold at auction. Challenging that, Christie’s said last week that it would auction the 1947 bronze sculpture “L'Homme au Doigt (Man Pointing)” in May for an estimated $130 million.

Giacometti’s death at 64 with no will or succession plans set his widow, Annette, on a crusade to safeguard his legacy. Sabine Weiss, a photographer friend of the couple, said that when he died, his widow asked her to photograph “everything.” “I took pictures of whatever we could find, in the atelier, at the homes of Paris collectors,” Weiss said, adding that she also photographed works by Giacometti in museums and collections in Switzerland and Spain.

Annette Giacometti decided to bequeath the material she owned to a foundation for which she bought stately Left Bank headquarters near the Odéon Theater in 1986, while awaiting government authorization. “Things dragged on and on, so Annette said let’s set up an association in the meantime,” said Weiss, who was later its president but is no longer involved in its affairs. (Art foundations were harder to set up than associations, requiring approval from the Culture and Interior ministries.)

When the Fondation Giacometti was finally born in 2003 - a decade after Annette Giacometti’s death - it refused to acknowledge the association, run by Annette Giacometti’s former secretary, Mary Lisa Palmer, a Giacometti expert. The two entities operated in parallel and wrangled in court. In 2013, the foundation’s director at the time, Véronique Wiesinger, lost a separate lawsuit she had filed to compel the other representatives of the estate - Swiss family members and the Alberto Giacometti Stiftung in Zurich - to allow her to cast new bronzes without their prior consent.

Today the foundation is changing direction, thanks to Grenier and a new president of the board, Olivier Le Grand, who was appointed in 2011. The association has been dissolved, allowing the foundation to move into its Left Bank premises, and most lawsuits (except those involving Giacometti fakes) have been abandoned.

In addition to the Tate exhibition, a show of Giacometti portraits is planned for the National Portrait Gallery in London this year. There are plans next year, the 50th anniversary of Giacometti’s death, for a Picasso-Giacometti show at the Musée Picasso here and for an exhibition at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, founded by billionaire collector Budi Tek, that will consist exclusively of foundation loans.

The new 3,770-square-foot institute in the 14th Arrondissement, with the artist’s studio at its heart, is the foundation’s flagship project. Giacometti moved to 46 rue Hippolyte Maindron in Paris in 1926, when he was 25. He lived there for four decades, except for the three years he spent in his native Switzerland during World War II. Peeking over the gates today, you can still see an atelier with a mezzanine and a large bay window overlooking an old courtyard.

Visitors will see (through a protective glass pane) the mythical studio as it was at the artist’s death in January 1966: a bed, surrounded by bronzes, plasters and abandoned fragments; his desk, covered with paintbrushes and dozens of little turpentine bottles; his easel and sculpture stands; and the works that death interrupted - tiny clay and plaster portraits, mainly of surrealist photographer Eli Lotar and of the sculptor’s brother Diego.

“We don’t have the money to open a museum,” Grenier said. “We’d like to show the public what we hold in our reserves: absolutely everything that was in the atelier at the time of Giacometti’s death.”

She said that financing the foundation was a challenge, because its undisclosed endowment is not big enough to cover costs. Philanthropists are starting to step up: Tek is backing the institute’s research program, and French construction company Emerige is sponsoring the opening of the institute itself. Grenier is hoping to attract a strong U.S. component, given that the Museum of Modern Art and a few collectors in New York were among Giacometti’s earliest buyers.

The foundation arranges one or two sales a year - via the Gagosian Gallery and the Galerie Kamel Mennour in Paris - of posthumous bronze casts commissioned by Annette Giacometti (with other estate representatives’ consent) to ensure the works’ longevity, Grenier said, adding that few such bronzes were left and no additional ones were planned. She said proceeds from such sales should help pay for original works to add to the collection - like the 1929 bronze “Homme (Apollon),” purchased for around $1.19 million from Christie’s London in February. It was the first such purchase by Grenier.

The foundation’s Paris dealer, Mennour, said Grenier was highly reluctant to part with artworks and described her as “a kind of guardian of the temple.”

To avoid the mudslinging that bedeviled Giacometti’s succession, Grenier said she hoped other artists would learn from it and do more planning. “If we want artists and their works to be preserved in perpetuity, their succession has to be organized, preferably before their death,” she said. “They are the only ones who can do it.”

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