One of the most dynamic husband-and-wife duos of the 20th century, François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne’s surreal sculptures and decorative arts are coveted by collectors
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 and Claude Lalanne.
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, based on naturalistic forms, ensures their pieces are still highly sought-after by contemporary collectors.
Perhaps most famous for his parade of woolly sheep, which have appeared everywhere from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris to a gas station in Manhattan, François-Xavier died in 2008. Claude, now in her nineties, remains a fixture on the design circuit, making electroplated jewellery.
François-Xavier Lalanne (1927-2008) moved to Paris at the age of 18 and rented a studio next door to Constantin Brancusi, whom Lalanne often visited bearing vodka and cigarettes. The great sculptor introduced him to the circle of Surrealists — including Max Ernst and Man Ray — who proved highly influential on the young artist’s work.
Now known as the Moutons de Laine, François-Xavier’s infamous sheep sculptures (above) 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 sold in the legendary auction of the couple’s collection at Christie’s in 2009 for €2,753,000, more than 15 times its low estimate. The couturier also worked with Claude Lalanne, whose gilt metal castings from the body of supermodel Verushka were incorporated into his Empreintes collection of 1969.
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.
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 preferred to create pieces inspired by the animal kingdom while Claude favoured the botanical. They were, however, united in their love for the surreal and in their use of humour throughout their work, a mixture of fine and decorative art that has seduced collectors for almost half a century.
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. In June 2016, Christie’s in Paris offered a unique marble rhinoceros by François-Xavier Lalanne from The Collection of Zeineb and Jean-Pierre Marcie-Rivière, which sold for $453,000.
Both François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne believed art should be part of the everyday, an idea that is obvious from their sculptural and yet functional works. 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.’
In 2013 a collector Michael Shvo brought 25 of the iconic sheep to a former Getty gas station on the corner of West 24th Street and 10th Avenue in Chelsea. With its grassy knolls and white picket fence, Sheep Station attracted crowds of people amused by the surrealist nature of the work. Yves Saint Laurent used to lounge on his Lalanne sheep in his garden.
Today Claude Lalanne makes jewellery in her inimitable style at her home in Ury, just south of Paris. Natural forms such as a leaf or a flower are bathed in copper sulphate with a current running through it. The copper clings to the organic material to create a perfect replica, challenging the boundaries between art and design in the process. In June 2016, the unique organic-form chandelier Claude Lalanne produced for Zeineb and Jean-Pierre Marcie-Riviere in 1996 sold for more than $2 million at Christie’s Paris.
When they first showed their work, Les Lalanne were judged harshly by the art world for their functional pieces. ‘The critics 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. Now, with the 1970s firmly back in vogue, Lalanne’s organic printed motifs look fabulously new.