Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
Apes in Art
Les Lalanne at Paul Karmin Gallery. © Thomaï Serdari

Les Lalanne at Paul Karmin Gallery. © Thomaï Serdari

In the history of art, monkeys have competed for as much of the spotlight as humans have.  Our fascination with our distant relatives is not new and can be traced all the way back to Egyptian art. Monkeys’ ability to mimic human behavior has proven irresistible to artists who use depictions of monkeys as a means of satyr. The allure has remained fresh for at least 2000 years, even if humans cannot make up their mind when it comes to what the ape actually represents. Is it the positive association held by the Egyptians who saw apes as the eternal messenger of man’s soul in the afterlife? Or is it the conviction that persisted during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that the monkey is the incarnation of the devil? H. W. Janson, prominent art historian, elaborated on this aspect of monkey representation in his book “Ape and Ape Lore in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,” which he authored in the 1950s.

Christianity has not treated the image of the ape with much appreciation, albeit with respect for the usefulness of its didactic nature. And while behavioral lessons persevered in a variety of ape images in art, the real fun began when Dutch genre painting appropriated the image of the monkey to construct all sorts of improbable situations that brought laughter and tears to the viewer. Monkeys were having a blast: from smoking and drinking in the tavern to winning large sums in card playing to forming musical orchestras and even trying their hand at art, monkeys seem to have tried it all in the years from the late 17th century to the early modern times.

No one can ignore the fascination with which French artists, such as Christophe Huet or Jean-Antoine Watteau, produced some of the most interesting works on the subject at the peak of the 18th century. The familiar image of apes and its persistent exoticism proved the perfect vehicle for artists with baroque propensities. And perhaps this is where one can trace the attraction to ape imagery two contemporary French artists, François-Xavier Lalanne (1927-2008) and Claude Lalanne (1924–), have demonstrated with their sculptural work time and again.

The Paul Kasmin Gallery hosted the husband-and-wife’s work with a show that lasted for about a month and ended in mid-June. Les Lalanne’s work has made it to New York City on several occasions, the most colorful perhaps being their installation of sheep on the green along Park Avenue from 52nd Street to 57th Street, in 2009. Last month, the apes took center stage. The works, cast in bronze and of various sizes, spoke of the power of ancient techniques in casting (as les Lalanne have consistently done in their career) and of innovating on a subject matter that has been imbued with symbolism and has been celebrated with aplomb through history only to be discarded as kitch in the twentieth century.

The surreal character of the ape imagery that Les Lalanne incorporated in their utilitarian objects reminded me of the various roles this animal has assumed in the history of art. It also highlighted the importance of maintaining one’s humor when creating art. For those artists who forget that—and there are plenty around—the joke is on them.

© Thomaï Serdari