Paris-based Galerie Mitterrand has represented Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne, celebrated for their surreal sculptures marrying art and design, for more than three decades. I speak with the gallery founder, Jean-Gabriel Mitterrand, about the careers of one of the 20th century’s most prolific art couples.
What are your thoughts on the art market of Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne and how it has evolved over the past few years? When did you start seeing demand for their works and what is driving their growing market?
I think that the market is following the first impression I had and that many people had before me already in the 1960s and ’70s because the Lalannes were the last great art pillar. They had already very important private collectors, the best collectors from all over Europe, like the Agnelli family and the Rothschild family, and a few in New York, like de Ménil. They had also important interior designers like Jacques Grange and François Catroux, and later Peter Marino. Their reputation was growing slowly, but in the best collections, they were famous. Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé were collectors very early on also, and things changed after the Saint Laurent – Bergé auction. There is a good reason for that because I think they were the most important artists and sculptors after Giacometti, and they were the best because they had a unique position in the concept of sculptures with use – that was a revolution in sculpture. It was understood as design, but in fact it was a sculptural, conceptual revolution. Claude came back to electroplating, to sculpting directly from nature thanks to electrolysis and the system of molds. She was molding objects and bodies. She and François-Xavier both really had very eccentric and very exceptional ways of making sculpture. François-Xavier was famous already with his wool sheep and then his stone sheep. And Claude became famous very quickly with her cabbage “Choupatte” and “L’Homme à la Tête de Chou”. So in the late ’60s already, although it was more confidential, they were already well known.
Why weren’t the Lalannes accepted at first by the critics?
I think that the revolution that François-Xavier and Claude started was to give a function to sculpture. This was a kind of crime against the concept of sculpture; it was totally against the school of sculpture. The sculptor was an important man or woman with a concept, with respect. The Lalannes were very simple. They used simple models: animals, plants and flowers for Claude and animals like a duck, donkey or hippopotamus for François-Xavier. They were important sculptors and very creative, but in a modest way. And at the same time, they did this crime against sculpture. They incorporated usage into every work they did, so the sheep was a seat, and Claude was making mirrors, candelabras, chairs and tables. This kind of work gave them the name of “designer”, but in fact they never really created for the function. They added a function to the sculpture, but when you use a Lalanne work, you have to respect the sculpture first because it’s not so easy to use. You have to transform your own way of using a fork, desk or seat. It’s not functional; it’s just a poetic, elegant way to live with a sculpture.
Was there a specific artwork that saw them make their initial breakthrough?
Yes, at the beginning, the wool sheep was extremely well accepted by everybody, even the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. The Centre Pompidou bought a flock of sheep in the late ’70s and it’s still in its collection.
Why did the couple rarely collaborate on pieces?
François-Xavier worked in a very traditional way, starting with a drawing, then a little sculpture in plaster, then a mold and work on the cast in the studio. He was talented enough to eliminate a maximum of details to arrive at a pure expression and line of the animal, so he was a purist in the tradition of Nicolas Poussin, Ingres and Matisse, who were his masters. Claude worked in another way in another studio. She had a big disorder of plants and flowers in bronze or in copper, and when she came to the studio every morning, she decided to do something new. She mixed everything, destroyed and tried again. She was more baroque, working with intuition and with extraordinary elegance and taste. Two different ways of working, but at the same time, the two were very close, respected each other, loved each other’s work, had extraordinary complicity and could be critical of each other also. Rarely did they make work together. The “Centaure”, “Minotaure” and four dinosaur fountains in Santa Monica were made by both. Those are the only examples I know of.
What were the Lalannes’ most important gallery and museum exhibitions?
Their most important gallery was first of all Alexander Iolas, whom I met him many times. He was an ex-dancer, extremely amusing, extremely handsome when he was young, full of spirit and extremely powerful because he had Jean de Ménil and Dominique de Ménil from New York as his best clients. Dominique was a Schlumberger daughter and bought a huge amount of Brauner, Max Ernst and Magritte from Iolas, I think more than 500 masterpieces, and also Ed Ruscha and Warhol. He had young artists Lalanne, Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely and Martial Raysse in his gallery at the same time. I think he was the most important, he really launched the Lalannes through his great clients like Agnelli, de Ménil, Gunter Sachs and the famous Pauline Karpidas, who lives between London and New York, with a huge collection and many commissioned Lalannes. I worked alone with the Lalannes for almost 20 years after Iolas’ death. We started working together in 1988, then Ben Brown joined us with his gallery in London and New York, and also Paul Kasmin in New York, so there were three of us working very easily all together to build the best exhibitions for the Lalannes. I did an exhibition at the Chateau de Chenonceau early in 1994, then I did the famous Bagatelle garden exhibition near Paris in 1998 that was a huge success. Paul Kasmin did a Park Avenue exhibition and a Botanic Garden exhibition in Miami that were very interesting. The Lalannes had important exhibitions in the early ’70s organized by the National Museum of Modern Art of Paris, just before the Centre Pompidou, and in museums in Edinburgh and London, and then they disappeared from the museums, except the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris that gave them a huge exhibition in 2011 that was extraordinary. It was beautiful scenography by Peter Marino. Jacques Grange and François Catroux also started the reputation of the Lalannes. Peter Marino started in the ’80s to love and to collect the Lalannes and he put them in the American collections. Then I organized their exhibition at the Chateau de Versailles, in the Queen’s Hamlet and the Petit Trianon, in 2021. The four daughters of the Lalannes loaned works from their own collections so we could hold an exhibition, which was the most important outdoor exhibition by the Lalannes with more than 60 works.