February 24, 2023The married French artists Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne worked together for nearly 50 years, making whimsical furniture and classically inspired sculptures. But they became best known toward the end of the past century — when both were in their 70s — for their menagerie of animal forms, and particularly their signature sheep figures.
The whimsical wonderment that fueled the couple’s works may have led some in the art establishment to pass over them too quickly. A new book, Lalanne: A World of Poetry — authored by their longtime Paris dealer and friend, Jean-Gabriel Mitterrand, and just published by Assouline — aims to right that wrong. It locates the pair in a French fine-art tradition and argues that they were highly evolved creators who deserve a place among the greats.
The text references great Gallic forebears like Jean Siméon Chardin and Nicolas Poussin — who wrote that “the purpose of art is delectation” — while also noting that the fanciful, Surrealist-influenced Lalanne creations mark them as “the children of Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Salvador Dalí.”
Claude (1927–2019) and François-Xavier (1925–2008) met in the 1950s and shortly after that joined forces both personally and professionally. An early studio neighbor of theirs in the Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris, Constantin Brancusi became a huge influence on them as they embarked on a career in sculpture. Soon, they were hanging out with René Magritte and being collected by the de Menils.
The art world was often “skeptical” of Les Lalanne, we learn in the book. But the artists received some vindication with the 2009 auctions of the collections of Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent, where their work sold for many times the reserve prices.
The artists had other triumphs, both before and after those auctions. Their New York dealer, Paul Kasmin, organized an influential 2009 outdoor exhibition of their work along New York’s Park Avenue, and the Clark Art Institute, in Massachusetts’ Berkshires, put on a large Lalanne show in 2021. This exposure undoubtedly boosted the Lalannes’ standing, as did having tastemakers like Reed Krakoff and Peter Marino become great champions of their work.
Throughout its pages, the book lays out how the creative couple played the long game. Not only were they never swayed by the fashion of the moment, but their dual creative and romantic partnership allowed them to merge their art and their lives so that one fed the other in a harmonious loop. They certainly never apologized for having the audacity to enjoy life, which they most certainly did, hosting grand dinner parties at their home, in Ury, France. These were thoughtful, not tortured, artists, and the book’s 200 illustrations show the couple and their creations to good advantage.
Les Lalanne were unquestionably sui generis. For evidence, the reader need only look to a double-page spread that shows a glass table being held up by gilded tree branches, under which roam a herd of gilded elephants. One of a kind, indeed.