Daniel Marchesseau on Stone Sheep, Surrealism, Sculpture And His Friends, Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne

Daniel Marchesseau on Stone Sheep, Surrealism, Sculpture And His Friends, Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne

Sotheby's meets museum director, art historian and author Daniel Marchesseau, to discuss his friendship with the Lalannes, and why he is consigning key works by the pair to auction this spring.
Sotheby's meets museum director, art historian and author Daniel Marchesseau, to discuss his friendship with the Lalannes, and why he is consigning key works by the pair to auction this spring.

I n the Spring 2022 sale, Important Design, amidst a treasure of contemporary and modern design pieces, Sotheby's is offering a selection of 18 choice pieces by those legends of European design, Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne.

Following the strong reaction to Lalanne sales in November 2021, the pair's work is enjoying something of a rediscovery from aficionadoes and collectors worldwide, reacting in particular to the couple's love of nature, inventive and often surreal ideas and timeless deesign.

In Important Design, we are selling several Lalanne works from the collection of Daniel Marchesseau, former curator at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1973-1981) and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (1981-1990). Marchesseau also served as Director of Musée de la Vie Romantique (1999-2012) and was a long-term friend of the couple. As he tells us in this exclusive interview, whilst his love and respect for the late First Couple of design has been a big part of his life - now, it is time to pass the works on, to support the renovation of the Musée d’Orsay’s research facility at the Hôtel de Mailly-Nesle.

Daniel Marchesseau © Didier Herman

You live surrounded by the artwork you love, so why part ways with this assemblage of works by Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne?

I wanted to make a major heritage-focused contribution, because the former Hôtel de Mailly-Nesle, which for several decades housed the French public publishing service, La Documentation Française, on the Quai Voltaire, opposite the Pavillon de Flore of the Palais du Louvre, is undergoing major construction and expansion work for the Musée d’Orsay’s new Centre for Education and International Research. Laurence des Cars, former Director of the Musée d’Orsay and now Director of the Louvre, and her successor, Christophe Leribault, approached me about helping to support the ambitious restoration of this 17th and 18th century private mansion that was remodelled into the 20th century. It’s a vital undertaking for an institution like the Musée d’Orsay, but it’s an expensive one, as well. After one of the sponsors withdrew from the project, I wanted to step in and assist, and that’s why I’m putting these works up for sale that I’ve collected throughout my life. Considering the tremendous success of Sotheby’s Lalanne sale on 4 November 2021, I decided I could sell the bronze lighting ensemble in my dining room: a large, 11-candle botanical torch lamp, a large, 16-candle chandelier decorated with butterflies and mice, an order for my old Place Vauban apartment, with an oblong centrepiece, all accompanied by two branch wall sconces and, last but not least, a delicate three-light lamp. Claude Lalanne consecrated our friendship, which lasted half a century, with this lighting suite. The first four works are one-of-a-kind pieces. Along with these are a stone sheep and a topiary turtle by François-Xavier Lalanne, the latter being something I ordered directly from François-Xavier as a prototype.

Under what conditions were these works created? What were your ties with the Lalannes?

I met them in 1971, during a studio visit to write a short article for Les Nouvelles Littéraires covering their first exhibition at the Galerie Alexandre Iolas. Later, I bought a house just three kilometres from the farm they’d fixed up in Ury in France’s Seine-et-Marne district. We naturally saw each other a lot.

Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne, Ury

Then one day François-Xavier asked me to handle their exhibition at the Château de Bagatelle, with its magnificent English-style grounds: it was their first major exhibition in a museum and it followed the exhibit dedicated to sculptor Henry Moore. François-Xavier asked me for advice because I was curator of museums in the city of Paris, which back then was in charge of this place near Paris that garden lovers so adore. Marking the occasion, Flammarion published my book Les Lalanne, their first monograph written by a Frenchman – the previous one being by the brilliant New York professor Robert Rosenblum. In the meantime, I’d invited them to join me on a trip to Japan to see a number of François-Xavier’s works acquired by the Marie Laurencin Museum in Tateshina and the Fuji Open Air Museum in Hakone. Shortly thereafter, Claude gave me the big torch lamp – she’d added three tall Siberian hogweeds, cut in her garden. Fifteen years later, as Claude wanted to give me a present, I asked her to add leaves to this lamp, so it’s now graced with big hosta leaves, making it truly a matchless piece. Claude and François-Xavier were very close to us and, up until my friend André Fourquet died in 2001, we saw each other very often on weekends as neighbours.

Claude Lalanne, Unique Torchère Hosta, 1982. Estimate: €240,000–360,000

What did you like about their work?

First, the extraordinary way they complemented each other, which is so clearly seen in the pieces they produced together towards the end of their lives. Their two workshops were distinct and separate, but their works complemented each other admirably. I also liked their profound originality, their wacky, improbable subjects, like Claude’s L’Homme à la tête de chou (Man with the Cabbage Head) or François-Xavier’s animal effigies. While I was working on their book, he told me that his first wife was the granddaughter of animal sculptor François Pompon.

"I liked their profound originality, their wacky, improbable subjects"
- Daniel Marchesseau

Thus François-Xavier’s animals...

Yes, and more particularly the craftsmanship of his sculptures. A smooth sculpture in the round, which everyone remembers, similar to the Ours blanc by Pompon, for example. But François-Xavier talked most about the oversized nature of his creations, size that’s disconcerting because it’s out of scale. An example is the slant-top secretary desk – called a dos d’âne or “donkey-back” secretary in French – he invented for the daughter of Marie-Laure de Noailles, to put in her deconstructed home by the architect Gabriel, the Ermitage de Pompadour in Fontainebleau. It was a real donkey (François-Xavier was so gifted with wordplay) that opened laterally and became a dos d’âne secretary desk, in keeping with refined 18th century furniture traditions.

François-Xavier Lalanne: Mouton de Pierre Estimate: 150,000 - 200,000 EUR

Their work often had a Surrealist side, didn't it.

That’s truer of Claude’s work than François-Xavier’s. On the other hand, both considered themselves part of New Realism, since they long lived on the Impasse Ronsin, near Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle, with whom they were quite close. When those workshops were demolished, they settled in Ury, not far from Fontainebleau.

How did you acquire these works? At galleries?

Directly from them. I bought the sheep in 1985, my very first month in the countryside, and it took me a year to pay for it. The turtle was an order for which he reinterpreted 18th century boxwood topiary in his own way. A subtle analysis of old vocabulary given new life. Both had very healthy relationships with money. They would set a price and stick to it.

Claude Lalanne: Pomme Bouche Estimate: 24,000 - 36,000 EUR

What memories do you have of the Bagatelle exhibition in 1998?

Their joy, more than anything. They were simply ecstatic. More than 120,000 people flocked to the estate, which wasn’t very well known at the time. François-Xavier had done the mise en scène, having decided where all the pieces we’d chosen would be placed. It was very different from their 2021 exhibition in the Trianon French gardens at Versailles, less official. Bagatelle was really a great setting for them – the light, whimsical spirit, finding humour in the smallest things. My book on the Lalannes was published between the work by American historian Robert Rosenblum – light, clear, tremendously lively – and those by Daniel Abadie and, more recently, Olivier Gabet, all of them prominent museum figures.

I imagine that you, being an art historian, feel strongly about the creation of a research centre.

The idea that the work of this pair of artists is serving to renovate an architectural complex of such heritage for the purposes of art-history research is simply essential, in my way of thinking. In homage to the great mentors of this discipline, there are Focillon scholarships in France, a Centre André Chastel for art-history research. Thanks to Michel Laclotte, the Salle Labrouste has been devolved to the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art. The younger generation needs to know that a lot of their elders want to support them: it’s about encouraging their research, not mine. I’ve read that the project also concerns international researchers and I find such openness vital in the age of globalisation. Apart from what any of us have done – exhibitions, catalogues and other publications – we have to leave something else that will last. And what could be better for passing down knowledge than education? I come from a family of academics and that’s also why I feel it’s so important for this archive and research centre to see the light of day, not to mention the fact that it's in an historic, magnificently restored site and will be open to researchers starting around 2025-2026.

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