François-Xavier Lalanne, Grand Chat Polymorph (1968/2008)

Written by Jimin Kim, BA in Art History and East Asian Languages and Civilizations, 2022 in collaboration with Roko Rumora, PhD Candidate Department of Art History

“What if we place a giant unknown living creature in a domestic space?”

In 1968, French sculptor François-Xavier Lalanne turned this question into reality, presenting this immense sculpture as a functional object for lounge spaces. While the work appears as a massive cat at an initial glance, a closer look reveals that it is in fact an amalgamation of the body of a cat with the tail of a fish, the wings of a bird, and the hooves of a bull. Suggested by the word polymorphe in its title, a derivative term of polymorphism, the work visualizes an imaginative organism occurring in multiple forms. Inspired by the fantastical polymorphic creatures from the Ancient Near Eastern mythology the artist engaged with as an at the Egyptian and Assyrian galleries of the Louvre, Lalanne gave life to this imaginative creature, turning his own imagination into a tangible form.

Bull hooves stomp the earth, bird wings fly through the air, and scaled fish swim in water. While each element of the object’s wondrous body draws references to different areas of nature, it requires our attention that the function of the work is to serve as a furniture in a domestic space. Once the wings of its body open to side, the figure reveals a shelf, transforming the seemingly decorative object into a functional one. Such a duality between the work’s natural origins and its practical purpose directs us to the intimate relationship between the domestic and natural environments we live in.

Read More

Along with everyday objects like chairs, desks, and shelves lies Grand Chat Polymorphe, a massive sculpture of an unknown mythical animal that may appear as quite ‘out of place.’ In the world envisioned by François-Xavier Lalanne (1927-2008), the installation of the grand-scale sculpture is not ‘out of place,’ but rather a necessary addition to a domestic space. The seemingly decorative object is in fact a functional one that transforms into a shelf upon opening its wings. Such duality challenges the conventional notion that sculptures can only serve a decorative purpose, giving a new use to the imaginative creature.

Since Lalanne started producing oversized surrealist sculptures in 1964, he had regarded art as a “funhouse, rather than a cathedral.” Rejecting the dominating idea that art lacks relevance to everyday life by nature, he attempted to bridge the two seemingly different ideas – imagination and practicality. The forms of his sculptures, including Grand Chat Polymorphe, are strictly imaginative, combining various elements from animal anatomy into fantastical creatures that have no place in real life. As suggested by the definition of the term polymorphism, an individual trait of an organism cannot exist in multiple forms according to biological rules. Yet, in Lalanne’s artistic productions, a polymorphe can exist, even in the form of a cat with the tail of a fish, the wings of a bird, and the hooves of a bull. Moreover, Lalanne takes a step forward by granting a practical function to his creatures as desks, toilets, and shelves, suggesting how the imaginative animals can coexist with us in a domestic environment.

Upon receiving commissions from French architect Emile Aillaud and his wife, Lalanne gave birth to Grand Chat Polymorphe, intending it to serve as a furniture piece for the couple’s living room. In order to build a work of such massive scale that measures as 183 cm (72 1/16 in.) in height, he began with hand-crafting smaller parts of its body by welding, shielding, cutting, and soldering brass and steel sheets before welding them together to complete the object. To maintain the work’s function as a shelf, he would paid particular attention to ensuring that the body could support additional weight without tumbling over. At the same time, to prevent the sculpture from remaining static, Lalanne ensured that its head could rotate in full circle, and that its wings could be manually outstretched sideways, providing a sense of dynamism and animation to the object. Such an extensive planning process was essential to his practice, and one which he later described as analogous to the working methods of a musician who would “write the score completely before playing it.”

The significance of Grand Chat Polymorphe lies not only in its demonstration of Lalanne’s fascination with animals, which he once described as a “way we can enter into contact with another world,” but also speaks to his interest in mythical creatures from the Ancient Near East. The resemblance between Grand Chat Polymorphe and the statues of mythical creatures from Mesopotamia is not a coincidence. Early in his carerr, Lalanne briefly worked as an attendant in the galleries of ancient Egyptian and Assyrian art at the Louvre; he was mesmerized by the animal sculptures and artefacts that surrounded him. Later, he used his inspiration from hi time at the museum to create his own sculpture that reminds viewers of Issamu, an imaginary ‘protector’ that originated in Assyria. As in the case of a sculpture excavated by the Oriental Institute in 1929, Issamu has the head of a human, the wings of a bird, and the body of a bull, which altogether resemble Lalanne’s fusion of four different animals in Grand Chat Polymorphe. By reinventing a mythical character from the ancient times in a contemporary context, Lalanne suggests how our past can be reborn in the present for a practical purpose.

“Everyone can recognize animals throughout the world,” Lalanne once said. Through his works, imagination turns into reality, ancient myths are brought to the present, and the natural world merges with an interior space. His sculpture serves as a universal language that transcends the boundaries between what we would not imagine to ever converge—imagination and reality, past and present, and nature and a living space.

Artist Profile

François-Xavier Lalanne
French, born 1927

Written by Jimin Kim, BA in Art History and East Asian Languages and Civilizations, 2022 in collaboration with Roko Rumora, PhD Candidate Department of Art History

An artist, sculptor, metalworker, and interior designer. None of these words fully encapsulates the career of Francois-Xavier Lalanne (1927-2008), a French-born multifaceted creator known for his signature surrealist sculptures of animal forms.

Since his training at the Académie Julien in Paris, Lalanne actively pursued his artistic aspirations at a studio next door to his friend, Constantin Brâncusi. While his primary interest initially lied in painting and drawing, he soon developed a deeper passion in metalworking since his first encounter with Claude Dupeux, a fellow sculptor and designer who would later become his lifelong creative partner and collaborator. The two turned into an inseparable duo, co-creating metal set pieces for high fashion designers, such as Christian Dior and Yves Saint-Laurent. Upon their marriage in 1962, they began exhibiting their artworks under the name “Les Lalannes,” facilitating a number of solo shows, among which was their first show in the United States at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1967.

Aside from the two’s collaborative productions, each of the Lalannes often created their own works independently, and later in separate studios. Unlike Claude who mostly found her inspirations from plant life, François-Xavier was enamored with the animal world, turning oversized animals into tangible forms through his furniture works. To produce works of a grand scale, he often produced multiple prototypes to put together for his final artwork. After hours of meticulous production of metal pieces, he would give life to unconventional sculptural objects that drew reference from imaginative animal figures that often served practical uses as furniture.

Related Links

Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago: Human-Headed Winged Bull (721–705 BC) 

UChicago Arts: Public Art on Campus