On the trail of Alberto Giacometti in the Swiss Alps

The sculptor grew up in a remote Italian-speaking valley - and you can now visit his studio

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Tate Modern’s summer show aims to cement Alberto Giacometti’s reputation as one of the great painter-sculptors of the 20th century. The Swiss artist is best known for his spindly figures, which embodied postwar angst and fetch astonishing sums – he holds the $141 million record for the most expensive sculpture ever sold at auction.

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Yet inquire about Giacometti in the Swiss Alpine valley where he was born and you’re more likely to hear about his father Giovanni or his father’s cousin Augusto, who were both distinguished painters. The folks round here have been reluctant to lay claim to Alberto. “He was considered a strange artist,” explains Marco Giacometti, a distant relative who also grew up in the Bregaglia Valley. “His work is so difficult – it’s not beautiful landscapes.”

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Giacometti’s Man Pointing (1947) is in the Tate Modern’s exhibition

Marco is on a mission to put Alberto Giacometti on the map. His tour begins in Maloja, a village near the exclusive ski resort of  St Moritz, because Alberto’s family spent their summers up here in the Upper Engadin Valley. It’s easy to see what attracted Alberto’s father Giovanni, a post-impressionist: Maloja sits on the shore of a vast lake framed by snow-capped peaks and a cloudless blue sky. But Giovanni wasn’t the first to fall under Maloja’s spell. There’s a museum dedicated to the Italian pastoral painter Giovanni Segantini, who moved here in the 1890s, and the German philosopher Nietzsche used to summer at Lake Sils in the 1880s – he had a favourite bench where he used to daydream.

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Lake Sils

For most of the year, the Giacomettis lived at the bottom of the Bregaglia Valley, which is where Switzerland blends into Italy. The Swiss part is Italian-speaking, although Marco tells me that Italians think he is French because Swiss-Italian is rooted in a northern dialect. “But we feel absolutely Swiss, even if we have the Italian temperament – the German-speakers think I am angry when I am only passionate!”

To get to Giacometti’s village, you have to negotiate the hairpin bends of the Maloja Pass, which descends 800m in 13 kilometres, but you’re amply rewarded with equally dramatic views. Little has changed since adolescent Alberto sketched the 3,000m mountains.

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The Maloja Pass

Alberto was born in 1901 in Borgonovo, the first hamlet you reach, and buried here 65 years later, after a funeral that attracted art dealers and museum directors from around the world. In the little cemetery, it’s not his grave that stands out but a bulbous headstone with faint hieroglyphs that he carved for his father.

Half a mile down the road is another sleepy village – Stampa – where he grew up and produced his first paintings. Although he lived in Paris most of his adult life, he decamped to his late father’s studio regularly so he could see his mother. Nowadays it belongs to the eclectic museum next door, Museo Ciäsa Granda, where you’ll find his last sculpture – a brooding portrait of the Romanian photographer Eli Lotar – as well as works by Giovanni, Augusto and his brother Diego, who worked as Alberto’s unpaid assistant for decades. At first glance, the studio has been stripped bare, but his doodles still adorn the wall and the floor is pocked with burns where he discarded matches, and meticulous marks delineating the position of his stool and that of his subject.

Although Giacometti chose not to paint the Alpine paradise outside his studio window, critics have noted that his sculptures are rooted in nature: the busts resemble mountains, the figures look like trees, the heads are stones. Maybe it also was growing up in Bregaglia – in the shadow of these mighty mountains – that impressed upon young Alberto the precariousness of the human condition and inspired his fragile effigies.

Giacometti is at Tate Modern in London until 10 September.

Passions: Alberto Giacometti by Stanley Tucci is available to watch on Sky Go


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