Exhibiting François-Xavier Lalanne’s wholly distinctive sense of whimsy and wonderment coupled with his extraordinary technical ingenuity, Grande Carpe sends us tumbling down the rabbit hole of the artist’s imagination. With its hinged doors closed, the larger than life Grande Carpe evokes some fantastical beast out of a painting by Hieronymous Bosch; when open to reveal its utility as a bar, the sculpture divulges its incisive wit and grand surrealist poetry. Marrying art with architecture, and gracefully embracing function while engaging, enchanting, and challenging our curiosity, the phantasmagorical creature achieves an over-the-top, luxurious grandeur that is the very essence of les Lalanne.
Executed with great precision of heavy-duty welded steel—the same employed for German U-boats—Grande Carpe epitomizes the spirit of François-Xavier Lalanne and his wife Claude, who together are celebrated for their ceaseless originality and extraordinary craftsmanship in harnessing utility to add an additional dimension and stimulus to their imaginations. Here in the Trojan horse of the bar’s inherent purpose, the sculptor merged mythology, metamorphosis, fantasy and reality, akin to the Art Nouveau style popularized at the turn of the century that embraced art as an all-encompassing philosophy of living. Playing on the French idiom ‘muet comme une carpe’, which is used to humorously and colloquially express someone who is obstinately silent, stone-faced, or non-responsive, Lalanne teases out the play on words in presenting to us an actual carp who is eternally silent and in servitude to the patrons who drink from its interior. It is not difficult to imagine those celebrities and art-world luminaries who undoubtedly gathered often around this bar at Schlumberger’s notorious parties, delighting in its comedy and sorcery just as Lalanne intended.
François-Xavier Lalanne grew up in Gascony at the southwestern edge of France, in a seventeenth-century townhouse near both the Fine Arts Museum and the town zoo. Moving to Paris in the late 1940s, Lalanne took a job as a guard at the Louvre where he was assigned to patrol the rooms housing the ancient sculpture of Egypt and Mesopotamia; the artist’s synthesis of naturalism with the lavishly decorative can still be traced back to his formative six months surrounded by the prehistoric depictions of animals that fill the museum halls. By 1949, Lalanne took up a studio in Montparnasse at 11 Impasse Ronsin, a well-known artist’s complex that had been home and studio to Constantin Brancusi since 1927. The two men developed a great friendship, their conversation often consisting of the great antediluvian myths and epics, and the anthropological and philosophical origins of mankind. In his eloquently contained forms of monolithic entirety, Lalanne’s sculpture echoes Brancusi, while also owing its form to the ancient Mesopotamian representations of animals, which possessed value in their service as spiritual reliquaries. As John Russell wrote, “So this is a complex art: one which mates Ancient Egypt with ‘Alice in Wonderland’, zoology with cabinet-making, metaphysics with personal adornment. It is also an art of psychic equilibrium. Its basic temper is inquisitive, undiscouraged, resourceful. It is there to work for us, yet it is not at all servile. It has its own life, and it leads it, and we are the richer for its being around.” (John Russell in Exh. Cat., Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, les lalanne, 1975, p. 23)
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