When visitors stroll through the Queen’s Hamlet, a picturesque corner of the Palace of Versailles as imagined by Marie Antoinette, it may take a while for them to notice what’s different this summer. The small village has gained new inhabitants, including two ducks looking at each other by the lake, a bronze donkey and two oversized doves.
They blend in so harmoniously with their bucolic environment, designed in the 1780s by Richard Mique, that it is easy to forget that they are the work of two fanciful 20th century artists: Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne, better known. under the name of “Les Lalanne”.
For half a century, the husband and wife team has carved out a place for itself at the crossroads of sculpture and decorative arts. Both took inspiration from nature for their animal and plant inspired works, and many are cheekily designed for use. The donkey grazing at Versailles is not only a statue, but opens to become an office; the backs of the doves are carved into a chair.
Although François-Xavier passed away in 2008, followed by Claude in 2019, their big production has arguably never been so popular. A large sale at Sotheby’s in Paris, shortly after Claude’s death, attracted more than 4000 bidders from 43 countries, and exceeded all expectations to raise € 91.3 million (more than four times the estimate).
The exhibition at the Palace of Versailles, west of Paris, is expected to cement their place in the pantheon of French sculptors – and infuse a bit of whimsy into tours of the venerable palace. Rather than being grouped together in a single space, the works of Lalanne are deliberately scattered around the Queen’s Hamlet, the Petit Trianon – the smallest residence offered by Louis XVI to Marie-Antoinette – and its English gardens. .
At the bend of the monument of Love, you will perhaps see a large elk, drawn by François-Xavier, near a clearing; elsewhere, wild boars stalk a deer across a small river and sheep keep a distance from a bear. “After an hour, we have the impression that the works have always been there,” says Catherine Pégard, director of the Palace of Versailles.
Still, there were no plans to bring them to Versailles until March of this year. The palace typically holds a contemporary art exhibition by a living artist every year, but after a season canceled last year due to the pandemic, Pégard has opted for caution. “We had nothing planned for 2021, firstly because of the uncertainty, and also because our financial situation is far from easy,” she said.
Jean-Gabriel Mitterrand, veteran art dealer and nephew of former French President François Mitterrand, saw an opportunity. An exhibition of Lalanne at Versailles had preoccupied him for a long time: “I had spoken to Claude about it before her death, but she was too tired,” he said. Pégard said yes – but with only three months to plan it and find sponsors.
Dior provided financial support: Claude designed jewelry there for the first collection of designer Maria Grazia Chiuri in 2017, one of the many contacts with Lalanne fashion. (Yves Saint Laurent was one of the couple’s first major supporters.) And Mitterrand, who started working with Claude and François-Xavier in 1975 and then represented them via his own Mitterrand gallery, persuaded their four daughters to lend 70% of the fifty or so works of art exhibited.
While the Lalannes often made copies of their drawings, some of the sculptures at Versailles were rarely seen. François-Xavier’s “Bar Ostriches”, with its two porcelain ostriches holding a bar counter in their beaks, was commissioned in the 1970s by President Georges Pompidou for the Elysée Palace, where it still stands. today. Only a handful circulates and the Sèvres porcelain is too fragile to open the wings of the ostriches or to pour ice in the egg which separates them. Either way, in the French pavilion at Versailles, where it echoes a golden frieze dotted with birds, it looks spectacular.
“A fundamental principle of Lalanne’s work is to make sculpture useful,” says Mitterrand. In the recently restored Cool Pavilion stands a lush Claude room, the “Singerie Bed”, with monkeys swinging on branches overlooking the bed; inside the neoclassical Belvedere, another bed, François-Xavier’s “Cocodoll” in the shape of a seagull, seems to be waiting for Marie-Antoinette to bask in it.
Even though they became famous as a duo, the Lalanne actually worked separately. According to Mitterrand, they only co-created “three or four” pieces in their lifetime. At home, their studios were separate. “They have always said: we share a room, but not a studio,” says Mitterrand. “At the end of their working day, they had a little reunion. They were talking about their work, and generally agreed.
The Lalanne’s shared surrealist influences and a love of nature, but each also had a distinctive style. “François-Xavier loved classical French painting and worked with very strict and pure lines, while Claude was more baroque,” says Mitterrand. While her husband was working from drawings, Claude revived a 19th-century process known as electrotyping, or electroplating, to reproduce his models.
“She dipped flowers and plants in a molding material, then used the mold to make bronzes. This allowed him to work as close as possible to nature, ”says Mitterrand. The only human figure in the exhibition is also by Claude: “Olympe”, a fountain installed near the Belvedere, is based on a cast of one of his granddaughters.
At home, where the couple often amused themselves, their sculptures weren’t just for show. The guests were sometimes invited to use Claude’s leaf cutlery or François-Xavier’s duck-shaped salt shaker. Yet Mitterrand insists that their designs were not “functional” per se. “When you use a piece by Lalanne, it does not serve you: you serve the work. Claude’s cutlery, for example, had to be handled with elegance. It forces you to invent a relationship with each room.
Art collectors are now lining up to buy works by Lalanne following a series of major exhibitions and sales, starting with the auction of the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé collection in 2009. The Sotheby’s 2019 sale, which served to pay legacy taxes on the Lalannes family collection, helped distribute pieces around the world, says Mitterrand. This spring and summer, the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is also hosting the first museum exhibition dedicated to Lalannes in the United States in over 40 years.
The next step could be a permanent exhibition space to house the eccentric Lalannes menagerie – perhaps in the couple’s former home near Paris, which is now owned by one of their daughters. “Maybe it could remain an artists’ house, open to visitors,” says Mitterrand. “Maybe we can still do it. “
As of October 10, chateauversailles.fr