Les Lalanne : the blending of artistic skill, nature and humor

Patinated steel rhinoceros by François-Xavier Lalanne, Rhinocéros, 1981-86

Going to an auction
It happened in the Before Times. It was October 2019 BT. (I could say “BC” for Before Covid, but BC was already taken.) Anyway, my sister-in-law Kathy had a business trip to Paris, and I had arranged to meet her there for a few days. It turned out to be a brief but astonishing voyage of discovery.

Kathy was in Paris to attend a two-day Sotheby’s auction of selected works of the sculptors Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne. She was already well along in the planning of an exhibit of their work for the museum where she works, The Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and she had good reasons for being present at the auction.

The cover of the Sotheby’s catalog for the auction, showing part of another François-Xavier rhinoceros. This one is a giant writing desk; a section of the rhino drops open to reveal the writing surface. Unique Rhinocrétaire, patinated welded copper and metal, 1991.

I met Kathy at the apartment she had found, just across the street from the French Sénat building on the north edge of the Luxembourg Gardens. There was barely time to drop my suitcase and duck into the loo before we were walking at a brisk pace toward the Sotheby’s auction.

Before this trip, I knew nothing of the Lalannes; I had not heard of them and I didn’t know their art. Kathy filled me in on the details as we walked.

This was Kathy’s second trip to France that year; the first time, she met Claude Lalanne at the home and atelier that she had shared with her husband and their family for around 50 years. Claude was pleased about the exhibit that Kathy was planning, and gave her enthusiastic support for it. She died four weeks later.

Inside the Sotheby’s auction room: wall-to-wall people, plus the phone bank that was to the right (outside the photo). It’s hard to see, but sitting on the white stands in the front of the room are a monkey and an elephant, in gilded bronze.

We arrived at Sotheby’s and stepped into a world that’s familiar to Kathy and brand-new for me. Kathy wanted to connect with some of the collectors and curators in attendance, and to know who had winning bids for some pieces that she hoped to include in the exhibit. She knew many of the people in the room. Me? I looked around in naïve wonder.

The room was crowded, but we found two seats toward the back and right next to the phone bank, which ran the full length of one wall of the room. That phone bank was itself a fascinating part of the auction, watching knowledgeable people in the art world as they spoke to interested bidders, occasionally holding up a bidding paddle, and sometimes winning. There were 4,000 registered bidders from 43 countries. The auction was for 274 lots, which is an astounding number for a single auction.

Sotheby’s bidding paddles abandoned under a chair. This is what you hold up to indicate that you’d like to spend a lot of money.

While I hadn’t heard of Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne, the art world certainly had. They began their careers in the 1950s, in an enclave of cheap atelier apartments in Montparnasse. Their neighbors included Constantin Brancusi, Jean Tinguely, Max Ernst and Niki de Saint-Phalle; a long list of friends and colleagues included Yves Klein, Man Ray, Salvador Dalí and Jasper Johns; Yves Saint Laurent was an early—and frequent—patron. They developed their personal styles and made life-long friends here, and they stayed longer than many.

As they found success in their careers, they decided to move outside of Paris, relocating to a farmhouse south of the city. Over time, they acquired more land around their property, and built up a large family compound with two full ateliers, one for each of them. Throughout their lives, they referred to themselves as “Les Lalanne,” working and exhibiting together but rarely collaborating on individual pieces.

Both worked as sculptors and they were both fascinated with the natural world, drawing from the plant and animal kingdoms to create fantastical new forms. Their work showed breathtaking skill and craftsmanship; it reflected their keen observation of the natural world; there was frequently a delicious element of humor and playfulness; and everything they did was infused with pure joy.

One day, Claude applied her detailed metal technique to the leaves of a cabbage, and on a whim, she added chicken feet to the cabbage. This turned into a theme that she expanded upon throughout her life, creating her “Choupatte” in a wide range of sizes and finishes. (Choupatte is a made-up word: chou is cabbage and patte is the foot or paw of an animal.) The choupatte above dates from 2014-15, and the photograph is from Ben Brown Fine Arts.

This was the second day of the auction, and the event began at 2:30 in the afternoon. At about 6:00, we took a break to get some fresh air and find dinner. The auction ended at 10:30 pm, wow! The room had emptied somewhat, but the finish was still exciting. The Sotheby’s staff all donned white gloves to indicate that everything had been sold; there was a standing ovation, and a room full of smiles. It proved to be the largest sale ever by Sotheby’s Paris, at over 91.3 million euros. We caught a glimpse of a happy Caroline Lalanne, one of four daughters, and then left. It was an exciting and exhausting day.

Kathy holding her bidding paddle in front of a photograph of Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne. The reflection of ceiling lights on the wall looks like François-Xavier is either smoking or demonstrating his magic powers (I’m going with magic powers on this one).

A stylish lunch
We learned the next day that two of the sisters had invited Kathy to join them for lunch at their long-time favorite restaurant, Le Dôme in Montparnasse, and they extended the invitation to me as well. It was such a treat to meet Caroline and Dorothée, and to hear their different stories of growing up in the Parisian art world. They were so kind and generous, humorous and witty. Kathy learned new things for her exhibit, and I just soaked up the pleasure of meeting two delightful women who otherwise would not have crossed my path. Their stories served to enrich my view of their parents’ fascinating art, which now firmly occupies a special place in my heart.

The exhibition at The Clark was due to open in June of 2020, and I planned to attend the opening, as did the Lalanne sisters. How wonderful that would have been, but we all know what happened instead. The opening was postponed by nearly a year, and some of the pieces had to be exchanged for others due to the quirks of how art is lent for such exhibits.

That visit to the auction paid off for Kathy: three items from the sale are in her exhibition, including the rhino on the Sotheby’s cover shown above.

The rescheduled opening was a few weeks ago, and the exhibit runs through the end of October. If you’re anywhere near western Massachusetts, I encourage you to make the trip to see the fascinating work by these two talented artists.

Claude Lalanne’s splendid crocodile chair (sculpture based on a real animal), named Fauteuil Crocodile, 2016, and made of gilt patinated bronze and copper, with a crocodile skin seat cover. Photograph from Sotheby’s.

The Clark Art Institute, Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne: Nature Transformed
Sotheby’s and again Sotheby’s

2 thoughts on “Les Lalanne : the blending of artistic skill, nature and humor”

  1. Gosh Lynne, this just touched me so much. I love all your newsletters… but this one was compelling. I was able to tie the memories of my one visit to Paris .. my love of art n adventure, all into one!
    Hope you’re still very happy in France!

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Hi Nancy, how great to hear from you! I’m so happy that this was meaningful for you, and brought up good memories, too. I’m very much enjoying life here, thank you! 😘👩🏻‍🎨


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