Notably one of the most dynamic and illustrious husband-and-wife duos of the 20th century, François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne’s surrealist sculptures have become globally celebrated and highly sought after by contemporary collectors. After the monochromatic and minimalist style of the 1960s, artists such as Robert Smithson and Walter de Marie reintroduced an interest and focus on the organic and natural world. François and Claude similarly drew inspiration for their works from nature; their subjects consisting of a coterie of animals and the botanical.
François-Xavier Lalanne was born in 1927 in Agen, France. At 18 he moved to Paris and attended the l’Académie Julian and studied Egyptian artifacts while working as a guard at the Louvre. He rented a studio in Montparnasse next door to friend and artist Constantin Brancusi. In 1952 François left painting when he met his future wife, Claude. Born in 1925, Claude studied at the School of Decorative Arts in Paris. Their joint work begins in 1956. Since then, Les Lalanne, as they became known collectively, have cast flora and fauna, and animal forms in iron and bronze, amongst other mediums. However, their success and academic recognition is not solely centered on participation in the “land art” movement of the 1970s, but also on their ability to touch on the traditions of antiquity, their revival of the Renaissance practice of casting forms from life, and their employment of contemporary electro-plating techniques. Lalanne’s stylized sculptures are oftentimes married with functionality, giving them a distinctive fusion of fine and decorative arts.
Among the most celebrated of these sculptures are François’ playful sheep. Now known as the Moutons de Laine, the sculptures were originally presented with the title Pour Polytheme, a reference to a passage in Homer’s Odyssey. The ancient Greek story describes Ulysses and his cohorts blinding Polyphemus and escaping from his cave by hiding underneath giant sheep that were let out to graze. Lalanne’s sheep first gained prominence in 1965 when they were exhibited at the Salon de la Jeune Peinture of Paris. The “flock” of twenty-four sheep was displayed at the entrance to the exhibition and guests were photographed sitting atop. Two years later, the photographs of wooly sheep doubling as functional furniture were published in Life magazine.
François kept several of his sheep in his Paris apartment, and exhibited others at the Palais de Tokyo, where his Moutons made their impressive debut as “art furniture.” Les Lalanne’s sculptures, which have achieved an unparalleled elegance, have realized extraordinary success within the art market. The French duo was championed by influential surrealist gallerist and collector Alexander Iolas, and vastly collected by fashion luminaries such as Coco Chanel, Valentino, John Galliano and perhaps most notably Yves Saint Laurent. Prestigious collectors such as the Rothschilds and the Noailles also discovered their talent early and remain some of Lalanne’s biggest enthusiasts.
This exhibition highlights two series of sheep, both the wool and bronze, revealing their whimsical allure amid a variety of other animal sculptures such as the bronze Wapiti, the Singe aux Nenuphars as well as Claude’s intricate and elusive furniture that are as functional as they are dreamlike.
In recent years, the works of Les Lalanne have been exhibited at Les Arts Decoratifs in Paris, on New York’s Park Avenue, and in the important sale of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent at Christie’s, which generated a renewed interest in their work from a younger generation. Lalanne artwork resides 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.