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Decorating with Nature: Les Lalanne at Ben Brown Fine Arts
December 17, 2018
On leaving Les Lalanne at Ben Brown Fine Arts, I was surprised not to see a line of aspiring young influencers queuing up outside: this might be the most Instagramable exhibition since Martin Creed filled the Hayward Gallery with balloons.
The show has been choreographed by interior designer Manfredi della Gherardesca, and certainly departs from the traditional white cube approach to fine art. The gallery has been transformed into an Alice-in-Wonderland-style tea party, where sculptures, furniture and everything in between designed by French duo Les Lalanne are used to create a fantastical setting.
The designs play with scale and materials, creating a menagerie of the surreal juxtapositions for which Les Lalanne are known: a giant cabbage with the legs of a bird and a fluffy sheep on wheels perch like guests around a table, where a six-legged salamander sits beside an oversized teapot and elaborate candelabra. Some of the walls are lined with gilt-framed mirrors, while others are covered in a curtain of origami paper flowers.
This bizarre arrangement feels like a fitting tribute to the hybrid nature of Les Lalanne’s work. Francois-Xavier Lalanne (1927-2008) came of age in Paris under the personal guidance of artists such as Man Ray, Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp. However, it was only under the influence of his artist wife Claude (b. 1924) that he took up sculpture, and the pair began to work together.
Their installations were generally assemblages made up of objets d’art created separately, but co-operatively, by the spouses, allowing each to maintain a degree of autonomy and to pursue their own formal interests. While Francois-Xavier’s pieces generally focus on the animal world, Claude’s work was more inspired by botany; together, they create a surreal ecosystem of flora and fauna placed firmly within the realm of human experience.
Les Lalanne’s work is also interesting for the way in which it crosses the divide between the fine and decorative arts. This is something drawn out by the exhibition, where distinctions between form and function are blurred: elaborate chairs are hung on the wall like sculptures, while a mobile of nature-inspired handmade cutlery hangs above a bed of leather fish-shaped cushions sitting inside a giant sculptural sardine tin.
There is undoubtedly something a little gimmicky about the display, and indeed about some of the Lalanne pieces on show – the wall of flowers, in particular, seems made for Instagram. But then there is also something charming about the show’s immersion in the world of Les Lalanne, and in the concepts that characterise the discourse about their work. Everything here offers a bit of an art-world antidote: art as cooperation, art as decoration, art as social media fodder. A little silly at times, but perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, it’s nearly Christmas.
Words by Anna Souter