The supreme art is the art of living. – François-Xavier Lalanne
The concealed beauty of true art hides not only in the eye of the beholder but in the living spirit within the piece itself. To truly feel as one with nature and to gaze upon its beauty unclouded by the limitations of existence is a gift rarely possessed by any person, giving those with it an ability to create unbound by the rules of reality. The compositions produced by Les Lalanne carry that exact energy of something regular yet pleasing to the eye, pieces that feel so close that one can touch and feel their texture yet just captivating enough to make the air of one’s chest slowly leave in awe.
The Chance Meeting That Started It All
This story starts when François-Xavier Lalanne moved to Paris at 18 and studied sculpture and painting at Académie Julian. He rented a studio in an artists’ enclave in Montparnasse in the Impasse Ronsin. One of his neighbors was Constantin Brancusi, who introduced Lalanne to Surrealism and the artists in the circle of Surrealists, which all had a significant impact on the young artist’s future work. Another notable influence on his work was that the first job François-Xavier got when he moved to Paris was a guard at the Louvre. He used this time to explore and study collections of Egyptian art and ancient artifacts, which is later very evident as a defining influence in his sculptural work.
His first gallery exhibition opened when he was 25, in 1952, and one of those present was no other than Claude Lalanne, his future wife, who studied architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts. This chance meeting marked the end of his solo painting career as they started working together, sculpting uniquely inventive pieces the likes of which weren’t seen before.
Their first joint exhibition, Zoophites, was held in Jeanine Restany’s Galerie J in Paris in 1964. One of the most notable artworks displayed 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. Zoophites was also their first exhibition to draw international attention. One of the people who noticed their work was Alexander Iolas, a Greek collector and art dealer who played a hand in shaping their international fame. This led to them exhibiting their work in Iolas’s Paris gallery in 1966, which was also the first time they used the shared moniker, Les Lalanne.
Surrealist Fuse of Flora and Fauna
While their creations differed in style — Claude was inspired by the flora and François-Xavier by the fauna of the world — they shared the love for the surreal and historic French craftsmanship. With this in mind, it is natural that they were co-creating rather than collaborating in their art making. The themes explored by the two collectively in the 1960s — Francois-Xavier’s sculpted animals and Claude’s preferred vegetation — went fully against the then current trend of Abstract art. Nevertheless, during their long and flourishing career, their idiosyncratic style became highly appreciated by the collectors in the art and design world in the following decades.
In fact, a pivotal turn for their ascending fame started with François-Xavier’s first private commission for the home of the famous fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. After that, they continued having fruitful relationships with many celebrities of the design world, such as Marc Jacobs, Reed Krakoff, and Hubert de Givenchy.
After all, the sculptural bar made for Yves Saint Laurent’s house was offered in the legendary auction of the couple’s collection at Christie’s in 2009 and sold for €2,753,000, which was more than 15 times their low estimate at that time.
Legacy of Les Lalanne
The oeuvre of Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne defies any categorization. From sculptures, l’art pour l’art, to the functional objects — often inasmuch as stunning furniture — Les Lalannes’ designs are a masterful vision of how surrealism and the culture of French craftsmanship can intertwine to create art that is out of this world. Moreover, the art one produces doesn’t just leave a trace in its pure physical form; true imprints produced by a piece are left in the minds and souls of those touched by it. That initial contact is when the onlooker feels the forceful impact work like this may leave. That feeling, called inspiration, is the greatest gift one artist can receive from another — and Les Lalannes have succeeded in effortlessly sharing it with the world.
Although both François-Xavier and Claude have now passed away, François in 2008 and Claude in 2019, their inventive hybrid art and objects live on and are popularly shown at locations, galleries, or permanent collections. Some pieces stand plain to see in places they’ve been commissioned, such as the gardens in Les Halles in the center of Paris, while some are shown in gallery exhibits worldwide.
In 2010, a major retrospective of Les Lalanne was held at Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs, curated by the architect Peter Marino, followed by an exhibition at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Florida, USA. This year, from May 8th to October 31st, 2021, the exhibition Claude & François-Xavier Lalanne: Nature Transformed can be seen in The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Current pieces on exhibition are Le Cabinet papillons by Claude Lalanne (c.1964), Grand Rhinocéros V by François-Xavier Lalanne (1988/1991), and Choupatte by Claude Lalanne (2017), among others.
This exhibition aims to provide a new perspective on Les Lalannes’ work and it is the first American art museum in 40 years with an exhibition dedicated to them. The opening of Nature Transformed was accompanied by an online lecture that provided an overview of the exhibition, held by Kathleen Morris, Sylvia and Leonard Marx, Director of Exhibitions and Curator of Decorative Arts.
Ever-Renewing Lifespan of Art
The Lalannes have seen their art grow as they saw each other grow throughout their successful career. While they co-created many pieces, they also built a lifetime of creation and passion for art, giving birth to not just works of beauty but objet d’art that can stand the test of time and leaves imprints for years after. What was left behind by the duo is enough to awe future generations and to mark moments in the lives of many directing their poetic zeal towards inspiring and bearing fruit to entirely new generations of audiences.
The legacy of Les Lalanne’s surreal sculptures and exquisite decorative arts is exactly that: the birth of a new era of artists, those who feel the same drive as the couple did, one towards creation and manifestation, a transformation of idea to reality. Building dreams and shaping thoughts through curious minds and outlandish ideas onto a journey of discovery — of enchanting nature that is the beginning of all things magical.