Next to Nature, Art
Sculptor Claude Lalanne on the whimsical, zoological works that bucked a trend
By Tobias Grey
CLAUDE LALANNE POPS a cherry in her mouth, takes the fruit's stem in her nimble fingers and idly fashions a pair of skinny legs.
There is a creative compulsiveness about what she does, and when I ask the 89-year-old French sculptor whether her art is guided by any philosophy, she cannot help but giggle. "I regret to say, but no," she says. "I just do what I want, when I feel like it."
This free-spirited approach hasn't always worked in Ms. Lalanne's favor—her reputation as an artist has suffered from the difficulty of classifying her creations. She and her husband, the late François-Xavier Lalanne, always considered themselves sculptors, but as recently as 2010 they were the subject of a major joint retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. "We never liked having our work cataloged as decorative art," Ms. Lalanne says. "Those who criticized our work said it was 'grotesque' because they felt sculpture should not serve any other purpose than to be looked at."
Is it so bad to want to look at the things? "Of course not," says Ms. Lalanne, who is dressed simply in blue slacks and a red sweatshirt, with not a hint of makeup, nor of the jewelry she designed and made for Yves Saint Laurent's catwalk models. "I agree with something my husband once said, which is that 'the supreme art is the art of living.' "
Art and life come together to astonishing effect inside Ms. Lalanne's spacious, Haussmannian apartment in the 7th arrondissement of Paris. There are sculptures everywhere: bronze elephants in the fireplace, a bench of Ms. Lalanne's emblematic ginkgo leaves in the guest bedroom, one of Mr. Lalanne's marble owls perched high upon a dresser.
Since they began working together in the 1950s, Les Lalanne, as they are known, have always exhibited together. They both sought inspiration in the natural world to create playful sculptures with a utilitarian purpose. Mr. Lalanne's large-scale animal sculptures—among them rhinos, hippopotamuses, donkeys, baboons, gorillas—often have hidden compartments that open at the press of a button to reveal safes, fireplaces or capacious cabinets. Ms. Lalanne's sculptures, meanwhile, frequently mix flora and fauna to create exotic, unsettling hybrids, like her famous "Choupatte" (a cabbage mounted on a chicken's feet).
Age hasn't sapped Ms. Lalanne's inspiration. For an exhibition at London gallery Ben Brown Fine Arts (until Sept. 21; benbrownfinearts.com), she has created three new works to show alongside older pieces by her and her husband. One of the most recent sculptures, "La Femme du Crocodile" (The Crocodile's Wife), which has a concealed bench, will be displayed alongside a framed drawing by Mr. Lalanne.
"I wanted to do a crocodile, and he drew me a fabulous picture of one," she says. "It took me a very long time. I made a mold of a crocodile which I split up into 12 pieces, each of which I filled [with molten bronze]. I actually changed its head and gave it a dorsal fin, so it's not really a crocodile but something more diabolical."
In the 1950s and '60s, the Lalannes were part of an artistic community that flourished in Montparnasse. "It was wonderful," says Ms. Lalanne. "We had an atelier in the Impasse Ronsin. There were gardens, a cherry tree and a woman who kept chickens. We were very friendly with Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle."
The legendary Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brancusi had the next-door atelier. "He used to come knocking on our door in the evening bearing vodka and Sobranie cigarettes," she recalls. "He also invited us to his atelier and explained how he did things."
Les Lalanne's misfortune was to emerge in Paris at a time when abstract art was at its zenith. "When we held our first exhibition, in 1964, our work wasn't valued at all," Ms. Lalanne says. "The critics completely ignored us; for them, us making sculptures which had a use was a complete nonsense." Despite years of financial insecurity, Les Lalanne refused to compromise their vision. "It took a very long time for us and we worked a huge amount," she says, remembering long nights spent working. "It was awful."
But the decades of dedication are paying off as their work has soared in value. At Christie's October 2009 sale of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé's collection, Ms. Lalanne's "Ensemble de Quinze Miroirs" sold for €1.857 million—double the estimate. At the same auction, Mr. Lalanne's 1965 "Bar YSL" sold for €2.75 million—a record for a Lalanne work.
To the experts, this late recognition comes as no surprise. "Among their generation they are very unique in their artistic expression and there are no other artists who have shown the same trajectory," says Sonja Ganne, European head of 20th-century decorative arts at Christie's. "François-Xavier Lalanne was willing to desacralize art and therefore gave a functional aspect to some of his sculptures, in a more human, joyful and playful purpose, carrying a real poetry. This unique character also explains their enduring success."
Neither is there any lack of demand for new pieces: Ms. Lalanne is hard at work on a sofa, chair, armchair and table in horse chestnut for architect Peter Marino's home in the Hamptons. "I think he has an example of everything François and I have ever done," says Ms. Lalanne. "He's crazy." No doubt the Lalannes' growing legion of devoted fans would heartily disagree.