On London’s Brook’s Mews last week, a grizzly bear had just arrived in a van. Minutes later, the delivery team were hoisting a hippopotamus down a stairwell. Wrapped in a protective blanket, it joined a flock of sheep, a giant grasshopper, a deer and two wild boar at Claridge’s newly opened ArtSpace. Meanwhile, down the road at Ben Brown Fine Arts, a couple of monkeys, a gorilla, some snakes and a crab had taken up residence.
The Mayfair menagerie is now part of Les Lalanne: Makers of Dreams, gallerist Ben Brown’s fifth – and by far his most extensive – London exhibition dedicated to the famed French couple François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne. From today, the two locations will display more than 100 works, both the utterly surreal sculptures and fantastically functional furniture the duo created, mostly in bronze, copper and aluminium, from the 1960s up until their deaths: François-Xavier in 2008, Claude in 2019. “Nobody has ever put on a commercial show this ambitious, not by a long way,” says Brown, adding that the only other possible contender for the biggest Lalanne show of all time was in 2010 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
It offers both iconic and never-before-shown works. “A huge cabbage is going out here,” says Brown at the entrance of his gallery space, referencing one of Claude’s Choupatte sculptures. “The Lalannes’ work is all about being drawn into another world. It’s very surreal. They were friends with Magritte and Max Ernst.” Inside the gallery black walls, dotted with a night sky of stars, are the backdrop to Claude’s whimsical floral-edged mirrors, swirling tables of Gingko leaves and delicate bamboo branches. While her leafy fronds of cutlery hang in the window, her jewellery is suspended from a cloud.
“The work is made to look floating, effortless,” says the exhibition’s designer Manfredi della Gherardesca, who choreographed Brown’s two previous Lalanne shows in London. A highlight has been “creating a room environment for a unique bed”, he says of Lit Hibou, a bespoke piece created by Claude in 2000 for a private collector. Accompanied by two side tables, it is a fairytale forest of furniture, the intertwining branches of the bedstead watched by an owl. This nighttime dreamscape is counterbalanced by the white cube of Claridge’s ArtSpace. Here, the animal forms by François-Xavier are centred on a group of his early sheep sculptures – “concrete sheep, woolly sheep, baby lambs”, as well as several headless Moutons de Laine ottomans. “Three of the ottomans belong to a friend of mine whose mother bought them in the ’70s, so they’ve never been out of a house on Cheyne Walk before,” says Brown.