‘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.
François-Xavier, who was perhaps most famous for his woolly sheep, which have appeared everywhere from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris to a gas station in Manhattan ‘ blended classicism with invention,’ said his gallerist, Jean-Gabriel Mitterrand. ‘His work had something of the Renaissance and ancient Greece and Rome. He admired Nicolas Poussin and Bach. There was a surrealistic touch in the way he transformed sculpture into everyday objects.’
Claude, who passed away in 2019 at the age of 93, was especially revered for her electroplated furniture and jewellery. ‘[She] was a bastion against poor taste and pretentiousness,’ commented Mitterand. ‘Wielding spirit and wit, she disdained mediocrity and dismissed... fleeting artistic trends. Her life’s philosophy lay in the fruit of a good day’s work.’
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 (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.
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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.
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.’
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 the surreal and in 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.
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 — more than three times its low estimate.
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 being 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 make her inimitable jewellery from the house in Ury, just south of Paris, that they had shared for over five decades. Natural forms such leaves or flowers were bathed in copper sulphate with a current running through it, making the copper cling to the organic material to create a perfect replica. Yves Saint Laurent said he was moved by Claude’s ‘ability to unite craftsmanship and poetry with equal depth’.
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 — more than seven times its low estimate — at Christie’s in Paris.
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, the Museé d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, the City of Paris, the City of Santa Monica, and the City of Jerusalem.
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.
In a recent tribute to the couple, French President Emmanuel Macron said ‘they invented a world of cabbage-headed men, hippopotamus-tubs, a rhinoceros-secretary, snail-fingers, apples-with-mouths melting into a unique alloy and kneading together the imagination, humour and poetry — so many works that re-enchant the familiar and the functional, while injecting into the substance of contemporary life a bit of fairy tales’ dreamlike madness and nature’s sublime disorder.’