The Animal Wonderland of Les Lalanne

As I stepped into Kasmin Gallery’s Les Lalanne: Zoophites I felt like I was Alice tumbling into Wonderland. The room was filled with oversized animals, each adorned with peculiar features and foliage that appear to defy gravity, for a whimsical and surreal experience. These animal sculptures, many of which transform into utilitarian household objects — a bar cart, a bench, a chair, a desk — were set in close proximity to one another, like animals around a watering hole. Blending zoomorphic elements with a fanciful aesthetic, the works evoked a sense of wonder and enchantment in me. 

These charming, massive, and bizarre creatures, 35 in total, were created by the French sculptors Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne, known collectively as Les Lalanne. They met in 1952 and married in 1967. Around that time they began co-creating animalier sculptures that double as furniture. In the past, their work has been slotted into the design world, but in recent years they have received more recognition from the art world for their pieces, which merge art and design to form an entirely new category.

This synthesis of art and design is evident in the exhibition’s centerpiece: Franćois-Xavier’s “Grand Chat polymorphe” (1998/2008), a massive bronze creature sitting atop green moss. The polymorphic animal has the head of a cat, four hoofed feet, wings or fins on its sides, a fish tail, and nipples that seem to belong to a female pig. The wings open up to reveal a fully functional bar cart. As François-Xavier once said, “Great art is an art de vivre.”

Claude, too, had an affinity for animals, but mostly crocodiles. She would buy taxidermied crocodiles, mold them, and use an electroplating process to coat the crocodile skin with copper, before finishing them in bronze or aluminum. In “Crococurule” (1992/2013), an aluminum crocodile skin drapes over the seat and sides of a chair.

While the massive animals are impressive, the intricately detailed bronze foliage, flora, and fauna, most of which was created by Claude, is also stunning. In “Les Berces adossees” (2015), four oversized bronze gingko leaves compose the seat of a bench, while an additional four create a backrest. Bronze branches and other foliage holding the leaves together wrap around one another as if they’re dancing in harmony. The Lalannes co-created “Le Merle perché” (2006/2008), in which a small robin perches upon a tree branch, melding the animal with its natural environment.

The Lalannes started crafting their oversized bronze animal sculptures ornamented with flowers long before artists like Jeff Koons popularized similar large-scale works, such as his iconic “Puppy” (1992). Despite their pioneering contributions to accessible sculpture and the works’ artistic merit, the artists have been relegated to the sphere of decorative arts. This exhibition transcends the formalities of traditional sculpture and opens new avenues for appreciation and engagement with art. 

Les Lalanne: Zoophites from the Collection of Caroline Hamisky Lalanne continues at Kasmin Gallery (509 West 27th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 9. The exhibition was curated by Paul B. Franklin.

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