Thursday, June 20th, 2019

Cowboy Boots and Mao Tunics: Claude Lalanne remembered by a grieving courtier

Claude Lalanne, Sculptor and Designer, 1924-2019

Claude Lalanne, Pair of Birds on the Balcony, 2000. Bronze and copper, edition of 8. Courtesy Galerie Mitterand, Paris
Claude Lalanne, Pair of Birds on the Balcony, 2000. Bronze and copper, edition of 8. Courtesy Galerie Mitterand, Paris

“It’s strange, we never changed ourselves….we are still doing exactly what we always were.” Claude Lalanne played her own bafflement with pitch perfect innocence; for how had this bohemian Surrealist, an artisanal craftswoman in her Chinese peasant jacket, horny-handed everyday metalworker, gardener and cook become a fabulously wealthy fashion icon?

For at her death aged 93 Lalanne was suspiciously close to being a celebrity, certainly a point-of-reference for anyone who wanted to prove their own status within that modish zone where fine art, design and haute couture mingle. “Claude”, her first name alone was a code word to a certain world, like using just ‘Jacob’ rather than Rothschild, proof of membership.

But even with all their recent retrospectives and books Les Lalanne, Claude and her husband the late François-Xavier, still remained a shared cult, clandestine secret. Famous yes, but only amongst the right people, their furniture, sculpture and jewelry traded and treasured amongst an international élite, the last exhausted fumes of the jet set, final crust of le gratin.

The paradox was that for decades nobody had been willing to take Les Lalanne seriously within the contemporary art circuit and yet their credentials were nonpareil; as young and poor artists at the fabled Impasse Ronsin they were friends of not only Brancusi but also such Surrealists as Ernst, William Copley and Dalí, with whom Claude collaborated. as well as an entire generation of emerging avant gardists from Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle to Jimmy Metcalf and Larry Rivers, even cooking steaks on their studio stove for Yves Klein.

If the Impasse Ronsin was the founding myth of the Lalanne cult their compound at Ury, outside Fontainebleau was where we devout disciples had flocked for decades, a simple farmhouse in the simplest of villages where behind a long stone wall Claude and François-Xavier maintained separate studios and an enviable communal existence. Having moved here at the prompting of Tinguely there was no shortage of local artist friends – Marcel and Teeny Duchamp and Jackie Matisse – nor adjacent grandeur whether de Ganay or Noailles, and the house soon became famous for its parties, a veritable flotilla of limos heading south from Paris in the night.

Les Lalanne were the ultimate exemplars of Picasso’s dictum to live as a poor man with lots of money, the modesty of their world being a lesson in the taste that wealth alone can never purchase, whitewashed walls, wonderful art, warm worn furniture and an entirely personal goût impossible to replicate. An anonymous wooden door opened up to this enchanted private domain, an alligator acrawling, a baboon standing guard in the courtyard, a little gate leading to an enfilade of gardens, each wilder than the last and inhabited by a menagerie of sculpted beasts and benches, cast flora and patinated fauna.

Claude Lalanne in 2018 seated on one of her crocodile benches. Photo: (c) Luc Castel
Claude Lalanne in 2018 seated on one of her crocodile benches. Photo: (c) Luc Castel

Since the death of François-Xavier in 2008 Claude had enjoyed a full decade in which to really blossom and come into her own, increasingly recognized as just as creative, inventive and industrious as her late husband and indeed perhaps the more ambitious and worldlier of the two, her energy and acumen seemingly redoubled as she hit her eighties.

This ferocious work ethic, heading into her atelier no sooner than she had risen to spend the day solving the practical problems of her latest chair, necklace, chandelier or staircase, was the core of her personality. But it was mitigated by a most honest and open hospitality, this perfect hostess with her home-grown fruit and vegetables and suitably good bottle of Bordeaux, her posy of garden flowers, every meal culminating with her own justifiably famous tarte tatin.

Some could find her altogether ‘formidable’ for she suffered fools badly and was easily wearied by the devious demands of photographers and hagiographers, capable of turning frosty at the slightest perceived slight, her full froideur being a winter unto itself and impossible to thaw by mere flattery alone. It was also probably true that she preferred male company, often homosexual and of deliciously old-fashioned bitchiness and took the slightest sadistic delight in teasing and tweaking, promoting and demoting, those within her private court.

Despite her petite presence Claude was a genuinely strong woman, physically, emotionally and practically and her beauty, still notable even in old age, was of another era. Likewise, her manner of speaking should really have been preserved like a rare threatened species, a mellifluous, high-pitched sing-song with an echo of vanished aristocratic diction, a voice designed for the telling of naughty stories and juiciest gossip, irresistible in its intimacy, “et alors, mes chéris…”

A highly attractive woman it was hardly surprising Claude had gathered a considerable fan club around the world for whom any invitation to Ury was achievement in itself. And her uniquely confident style, cowboy boots and Mao tunics, men’s white shirts with paint brushes in the hair, had always proved irresistible to her many friends in high fashion from Christian Dior lui-même to young ‘Karl’, her lifelong soulmate St Laurent and an entire subsequent generation of designers, from Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs to Maria Grazia Chiuri.

After lunch Claude would retire to her white sofa where with Texan heels crossed high, cigarette at a jaunty angle and devoted dog she would trawl for the latest tittle-tattle, speed dialing one of her infinitely indiscrete friends whilst toying with a precious broach or cuff link, lifting it towards one with a teasing twinkle, “do you think you might like…?”

One of my last memories of Claude was of her digging wild cyclamen from her garden to give me, she herself wielding the spade with a determination that belied her ninety something years, a clod of black sod with the prettiest white and purple flowers, costing nothing yet meaning everything. For surely it was a central metaphor of her personality that she took the natural, the soft and yielding, leaves, branches, flowers, and by a process of galvanization made them hard, strong and inflexible, her own admixture of the gracious and indomitable.

“Why not have this?” she might say and the generosity was not in the market value of the piece pressed upon one but in the initial generosity with which Claude had made it, the inherent act of ‘offering’ which is the essence of all art making, each artist’s ‘gift’ in every sense and one here accepted and acknowledged with suitable gratitude and admiration, and now, grief.