‘Re-enchanting the familiar and the functional’ — Les Lalanne
A guide to one of the most dynamic husband-and-wife duos of the 20th century, François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne, whose surreal sculptures and exquisite decorative arts are now more coveted than ever
After the space-age monochrome modernism of the 1960s, the 1970s ushered in a renewed interest in nature and the organic — exemplified by the works of François-Xavier (1927-2008) and Claude Lalanne (1924-2019).
Les Lalanne, as they became known collectively, were one of the most dynamic art couples of the 20th century. Courted by Surrealists and celebrities alike, their distinctive blend of fine and decorative arts, which was based on naturalistic forms, has made their work highly prized by contemporary collectors.
When Claude passed away in April 2019 at the age of 93, French president Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, released a statement of condolences, speaking of how the couple kneaded together ‘imagination, humour and poetry’ to create works that ‘re-enchant the familiar and the functional’.
François-Xavier Lalanne moved to Paris at the age of 18 and rented a studio in the Impasse Ronsin, an artists’ enclave in Montparnasse. His neighbour was
Constantin Brancusi, whom he often visited bearing vodka and cigarettes. The great sculptor introduced Lalanne to the circle of Surrealists — including Max Ernst and Man Ray — who proved to be highly influential for the young artist.
Claude met her future husband at an exhibition of his work in 1952. They soon moved in together but did not marry until 1967.
Now known as the Moutons de Laine, François-Xavier’s celebrated sheep sculptures (below) were first presented with the title Pour Polytheme, a reference to a passage in Homer’s Odyssey. It describes how Ulysses and his comrades blind the cyclops Polyphemus, and escape from his cave by clinging to the bellies of his giant sheep.
François-Xavier’s first private commission was a sculptural bar for the home of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. It was offered in the legendary auction of the couple’s collection at Christie’s in 2009, and sold for €2,753,000, more than 15 times its low estimate. Saint Laurent particularly enjoyed lounging on his Lalanne sheep in his garden.
The couturier also worked with Claude Lalanne, whose gilt metal castings from the body of supermodel Verushka were incorporated into the designer’s Empreintes collection of 1969.
The couple’s first joint exhibition, Zoophites, opened in 1964 at Jeanine Restany’s Galerie J in Paris. Among the works on display were Claude’s Choupattes (Claw Cabbages) and François-Xavier’s La Mouche, a gigantic brass fly with Plexiglas wings under which a hand-crafted toilet hides.
In 1976 the singer Serge Gainsbourg named an album after Claude Lalanne’s sculpture L’Homme à Tête de Chou, or ‘The Man with the Head of a Cabbage’, and placed it on the front cover of the LP.
‘I had taken a mould of a cabbage and just wondered what it would look like with legs,’ explained Claude. ‘The moment I saw it, it felt right. It had emotion.’
It was Zoophites that first won the couple international praise and the attention of Alexander Iolas, a Greek art dealer and collector best known today for introducing American audiences to Surrealism, shaping the career of Les Lalanne and mounting Andy Warhol’s first gallery exhibition.
In October 1966, Iolas exhibited the couple’s works in his Paris gallery, where they first used the shared moniker ‘Les Lalanne’. The following year, Iolas’s New York gallery presented works from their first American show at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1970, Les Lalanne returned to Iolas in Paris for a show that included the magnificent Hippopotame I bathtub.
Over the course of their long marriage Les Lalanne often worked together, but in very different styles. They rarely collaborated on individual pieces; François-Xavier’s creations were more often inspired by the animal kingdom while Claude favoured the botanical. They were, however, united in their love for historic French craftsmanship, the surreal and the humour they brought to their fine and decorative art.
When he first moved to Paris François-Xavier got a job as a guard at the Louvre, where he spent hours studying the collection of Egyptian artefacts. From baboons and cats, to rhinoceroses and hippopotami, the influence of this time is evident throughout his sculptural work.
A brilliant example is the Hippopotame I bathtub, below, a life-size representation — almost three metres long — of the African ‘river-horse’ in brass and copper that opens up to reveal a sink and vanity folded into its cavernous mouth, and a full bathtub stowed in its body.
Both François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne believed art should be part of the everyday, an idea that shines through in their sculptural yet functional creations. Even the sheep are intended to be used as furniture.
‘I thought that it would be funny to invade that big living room with a flock of sheep,’ François-Xavier once explained. ‘It is, after all, easier to have a sculpture in an apartment than to have a real sheep. And, it’s even better if you can sit on it.’
During their long and successful career, Les Lalanne became darlings of the fashion world. In addition to working with Saint Laurent, Claude was commissioned by Hubert de Givenchy, Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, John Galliano and Reed Krakoff, among others.
After her husband’s death in 2008, Claude continued to work from the house in Ury, just south of Paris, that they had shared for over five decades. She would often take natural forms, such as leaves or flowers, and bath them in copper sulphate with a current running through it (making the copper cling to the organic material), to create perfect replicas.
When they first showed their work, Les Lalanne were judged harshly by the critics. ‘[They] completely ignored us; for them, making sculptures which had a use was a complete nonsense,’ said Claude Lalanne in 2013. Yet Les Lalanne refused to conform, and soon their work was everywhere, from photoshoots in magazines to Paris’s most fashionable galleries.
In recent years, Les Lalanne have been the subject of a major retrospective at Les Arts Decoratifs in Paris and an extensive public exhibition at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Florida. Their work appears in major collections including the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York, the Museé Nationale d’Art Moderne/Centre Georges Pompidou, and the Museé d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.
Their legacy continues to resonate in the fashion world, with pieces being installed in Chanel, Dior and Tom Ford flagship stores. Collectors include the decorator Peter Marino, who used François-Xavier’s sculptures in his designs for Chanel’s fine jewellery shops, and Reed Krakoff, the creative director of Coach.