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The work of François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne can appear as baffling as it is extraordinary. Yet for all its eccentricity, the most surprising thing about the current Lalanne show at Ben Brown Fine Arts is that it is only the third exhibition of these husband-and-wife French sculptors to have been hosted in London. They are much more widely appreciated in the US and elsewhere – and of course in their native France, where an important exhibition at Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs was held in 2010. The first London show was at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1976; a full 31 years later, Ben Brown hosted the second.
But it was the big 2009 Yves Saint-Laurent sale that was a game-changer for perceptions – and prices – of Les Lalanne. Ben Brown’s records show that on some pieces prices have multiplied as much as sevenfold since the gallery’s 2007 sale. Traditional collectors who had never felt comfortable in this enchanted world of crocodiles transformed into benches, sheep on wheels, rhinoceros desks, monkeys climbing up shower pipes and clocks disguised as apples began to realise that although their work may have a light touch, it is entirely serious in its conception, execution and dedication.
François-Xavier Lalanne died in 2008 at the age of 81, but his widow and fellow artist Claude, now 89, still works from their studio in Ury near Fontainebleau. While they are often referred to in the plural, in reality they rarely collaborated. François-Xavier is best known for his animal sculptures such as “Le Très Grand Ours” (bronze, 2007/2010, edition of eight plus four artist’s proofs, €1.8m), which greets visitors to the exhibition, while Claude’s pieces are inspired more by fruit and plants, such as the lusciously overscaled “Pomme Rouge” (bronze, 2010, edition of eight plus four AP, €200,000).
Yet they shared a similar aesthetic – and undoubtedly the same sense of humour. For this exhibition, Ben Brown has curated historic work from the Lalanne catalogue as well as showing new pieces by Claude, including an overscaled version of the “Choupatte (Très Grand)” – a cabbage on chicken legs – in bronze and copper (edition of eight plus four AP, €850,000).
While the work of Les Lalanne links directly with that of the Surrealists (Magritte, Max Ernst and Victor Brauner, undoubted influences, were part of their youthful circle), it was their friendship with Brancusi that inspired them to follow their own artistic path of “useful” sculpture. This in turn was inspired by their admiration for primitive and classical artefacts; at the Tutankhamen exhibition of 1967 in Paris, they agreed that the finest piece was a humble cart made from wood.
But their work should not be confused with design-art. The latter is produced by designers, making unique or limited edition pieces that elevate design to the borders of art in order to experiment with radical techniques or rare materials. Les Lalanne are sculptors; their work belongs squarely in the fine art world, no matter how “useful”. In that sense they are often compared to Giacometti, who also devoted much of his life to the decorative arts.
It also touches on a whole anthology of historic periods – the flowery sensuousness of art nouveau, the inventiveness of Empire and the gentle playfulness of rococo. They never stray far beyond bronze, although they might add other materials, such as wool for the famous “Moutons de Laine” that they began creating in 1965 (wool, bronze and wood on wheels, group of three, €800,000). Every piece in the exhibition is cast in bronze, much of it in the foundry at their own studio, and is perfectly executed. Like great couture, it belies the effort of its creation. No wonder the likes of Saint-Laurent, Valentino, Hubert de Givenchy, Karl Lagerfeld and Tom Ford have been Lalanne collectors.
The world that Les Lalanne have created may not be to everyone’s taste, but you would need a heart of stone not to enjoy some of it. François-Xavier’s “Gorille de Sûreté II” (bronze, 1984/2008, edition of eight plus four AP, €950,000) doubles as a safe and does indeed convey a strong, protective presence. Claude’s bronze-and-copper “Lustre” chandelier (2013, unique, €150,000) would look at home in a chinoiserie pavilion of the 18th century.
Any gallery show of Les Lalanne has its limits, however: ideally their work would be encountered as if by chance in a garden that has started to run wild. To turn a leafy corner and find a giant apple or a bronze pear hanging from a tree, or a cabbage on legs, would be to experience the same delight a child might if a nursery rhyme suddenly sprang to life.
Until September 21