Skin Deep

Skin Deep

With a new selection of enchanting, animal-inspired sculptures hand-picked by their daughter Dorothée, Sotheby's presents Les Lalannes de Dorothée Lalanne, an exhibition and sale of covetable works by the feted French sculptural duo, Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne.
With a new selection of enchanting, animal-inspired sculptures hand-picked by their daughter Dorothée, Sotheby's presents Les Lalannes de Dorothée Lalanne, an exhibition and sale of covetable works by the feted French sculptural duo, Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne.

S culptures have a skin of their own; that goes without saying. But it is common knowledge that the most obvious things are often hidden in plain sight. And the Lalannes' work attests to this, always standing out for the high degree of attention paid to surface treatment, to the skin or patina of their creations, although the significance of this pursuit within their process has never really been acknowledged.

There can be no skin without flesh, and we must first consider the astonishing variety of materials they used throughout their journey, ranging from the sturdiest to the most fragile: bronze, marble, copper, galvanized zinc, resin, epoxy, manganese, aluminium, wood, leather, glass, terracotta, porcelain, bisque, wool and paper... each of these media requiring or allowing a particular finish.

We have long since lost the use of polychromy in sculpture; as a result, we generally tend to overlook the surface of a piece, the aspect that gives it its tone - in more ways than one - and instead focus on the interaction between its volumes, the different points of perspective, and the way it plays out in space. Yet just considering this raw material - bronze - is all it takes to realise that it can be rendered, whether polished or rough, in deepest, velvety blacks, in the red glow of mahogany, in a dark sea green or in celestial blue, each of these hues adding, in its own way, to the tonality and meaning of the work.

Although the Lalannes, especially François-Xavier, didn't spurn the use of this canonical sculptural medium, they also took great pleasure in routinely eschewing it in favour of the unexpected materials and components listed above; these, in turn, they subjected - using one more twist or magic trick - to various processes such as acids and oxides, resulting in an astonishing range of patinas - gold, silver, grey, black, turquoise, brown, dark green or verdigris - each tailored to the use or nature of their creations.

As a matter of fact, showcasing the range of this palette is part of the value of the selection presented here. Along with contrasts of scale, enlargement, and reduction that the two artists could play with, along with the diversity of the media they used, another variable was added: this difference in skin that imbued the pieces with a paradoxical 'pictoriality', a sensual density to the sculpted work, and exalted its unique tactile quality. The 'kinglet', perched on a bronze pot with its black patina differs in nature from the bisque one created for the Bagatelle exhibition in 1998; one resin 'wind rabbit', only a few inches tall, is nothing like its larger version with a dark patina, blending in with the flowerbeds of the garden it adorns.

The Lalannes liked nothing better than to diversify the scope of their creations, to produce multiple versions or options, in complete contrast to the cult of the one, single, definitive, monumental piece. They took a sensual, almost childlike pleasure in it, along with a constant and resolute desire to innovate. I experienced this in action, so to speak, when I invited them, in the last years of the twentieth century, to contribute to the 'Presses de Serendip' that I had just created. I must confess I was worried they might resent being asked to work in this flattened dimension, which hardly seemed appealing to them.

Not only did François-Xavier Lalanne jump at the opportunity, renewing his etching practice, and engraving some fifteen plates in record time based on a personal selection from La Fontaine's fables, but he decided, as soon as this work was completed, to embark on a series of Bestiaries, with each illustration produced using a different technique (a condition he set for himself): lithography, woodcut, copperplate, etcetera; so as to play with different modes of impression - in every sense of the word - and with the different types of value they afforded him.

I was struck by his enthusiasm and appetite at the prospect of facing these new challenges, of trying out methods and processes, some of which he was not yet familiar with. The dreamlike quality, the ironic or playful aspect of the Lalanne's world is often mentioned; yet we generally tend to forget the extreme precision of their process, their passion for the craft itself, the artisanal quality that underpins the construction of their artistic vision like a keystone.

The fervour François-Xavier Lalanne put into producing, alongside his work as a sculptor, a series of publications that would no doubt have continued had fate not put an end to them, can also be explained by the paradoxically linear quality of his work: his sculptures were often supplemented, or preceded, by countless sketches or drawings with lines as sharp as those of his prints, which in turn repeated themes treated in three dimensions - varying, modifying, and adjusting them. These exchanges or circularity were based on his desire to make the most of multiple media and techniques, as much as to use different ways of doing things.

In this, his approach differed from Claude's, who favoured a direct, immediate relationship, a confrontation with the raw material - these electrolyzed elements that she shaped, deformed, matched, assembled, welded - and who nurtured an imagery drawn from derivation, grafting, hybridity, abundance, arabesque, and vegetal profusion, as her last piece, the 2018 bench S'asseoir en forêt, ('Sitting in the Forest') superbly demonstrates. It is another of the strengths of this collection that it illustrates the dual postulation, which, in essence, so to speak, drove the Lalanne twosome.

During the two artists' lifetime, in Ury, near Fontainebleau, the artworks were scattered all over the house, in the courtyard, the garden, the lean-to buildings; they also had their own dedicated space: they literally lived in a second building, across the street, part private museum, part dream space, part archive, and part showroom; and the loss of this magical space, with its whitewashed walls and tiled floors, where sculptures seemed to live a life of their own, will be forever mourned.

Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne, Ury.

There they shone, far from the anonymous security of warehouses and storage facilities, where they are usually covered up, tucked away in boxes, and dusty. In this limbo, merely existing out of anyone’s sight, the skin ages, the surfaces fade, and the patinas are damaged; and it is hardly a leap to think that this observation is what led Dorothée Lalanne to bring this body of creations out from hiding today, to shed light on them once again and restore them to life.

The Paris Sales

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