A Vision: The Collection of Michelle Smith
A Vision: The Collection of Michelle Smith
April 22, 11:22 PM GMT
600,000 - 900,000 USD
number 4B from an edition of 8
gilt bronze, copper, leather upholstery
monogrammed CL, dated 1993 and numbered 4B/8
34 ⅝ x 31 ½ x 25 in. (87.8 x 80 x 63.5 cm)
At midnight during a full moon in 1972, Claude Lalanne paid a visit to the zoo. It was a surreal and eagerly anticipated event for the artist. The director of the zoo, who shared a common friend with Lalanne in the artist Niki de Saint Phalle, had agreed to meet her for a most unusual purpose: to give her the remains of a recently deceased crocodile. Lalanne was inspired to incorporate the animal’s unique form into her bronze work, but knew it would be impossible to realize without a model. So she waited for nature and fate to take its course. When the zoo’s crocodile died and its body was handed over to Lalanne on that night, it marked the beginning of an important artistic journey--the “Crocodile” series--which endured for decades and came to represent some of the most significant works in the artist’s oeuvre.
Once in her possession, the crocodile was reincarnated into an array of whimsical forms borne of Lalanne’s boundless imagination. She captured every detail of the crocodile’s body by casting it in bronze directly from the animal itself and then treating the bronze cast with galvanoplastie, a process in which metal is deposited over the bronze surface via a continuous electric current. The result of the combination of these techniques is at once incredibly realistic and utterly fantastic: the reptilian bodies appear exactly as they would in nature but are seemingly other-wordly with their luminous golden flesh.
Lalanne produced a variety of crocodile forms and parts, including full-body and isolated elements like feet and scales, and turned them into functional design components. Either fragmented or in its entirety, the crocodile motif appears in the artist’s chandeliers, tables, desks, stools, chairs and benches. She began experimenting with the armchair form very soon after receiving the crocodile remains, and a circa 1973 photograph shows the artist Max Ernst seated in one of these early armchairs in the artist’s studio. The image immortalizes the significance of Lalanne’s work to the wider Surrealist dialogue of the period and shows an early example of a form that she would continue to develop and refine over the next decades.
The present armchair is a particularly rare iteration of the model. The shape and proportions of the chair conform effortlessly to the crocodile’s body, which is positioned with its tail sweeping dramatically upwards above the armrest. Immersed within a complex ensemble of swirling reeds and leaves that comprise and accent the structure of the chair, the crocodile’s active pose suggests it is swimming through water. One particularly unique and uncommon feature of the present example is the curling leaf that delicately accompanies the crocodile’s tail on one side of the backrest. Its three crocodile feet playfully animate the work, making it seem as though the chair itself could wander off, but are also a nod to traditional “claw feet” furniture. With this chair, Lalanne invites the sitter to approach an elusive, predatory creature and to sit with it comfortably, admiringly, and to revel in a moment in nature that she seemingly miraculously preserved in gold.
The “Crocodile” armchair epitomizes the Surrealist aesthetic that defines Lalanne’s work but, importantly, it is entirely distinct from the Surrealism of the 1920s. Describing the work of Claude and her husband and co-creator, François-Xavier Lalanne, art critic John Russell explained, “where the original Surrealists inhabited a night-world of the imagination in which nearly all dreams were nightmares and sabotage was the first duty of the artist, the Lalannes take a humane and peaceable attitude towards conjunctions which would elsewhere be called ‘abnormal.’ Their work is done in the light of day, and as if for a world in convalescence.” The armchair exemplifies Russell’s observation of Lalanne’s desire not to “overturn our habits of thought and feeling, but rather to give them an added luxuriance.” Such is the case in the present masterwork which, like a dream, straddles the realms of the enigmatic and the familiar.