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In 2017, the artist Valentine Schlegel was the subject of a long-overdue retrospective. This Woman Could Sleep in Water, which took place at CAC Brétigny in Paris, reintroduced one of France’s most spirited and multifaceted artists to the world. The exhibition took its name from a comment made by one of Schlegel’s fishermen friends, who was in awe of the sea-loving artist’s ability to nap just about anywhere.

Schlegel was born in 1925 in Sète, a port city in southeastern France. Growing up in a family of artisans informed her relationship to tools and her love of the handmade. After studying drawing at the fine arts school in Montpellier, she worked for an arts festival in Avignon where she alternated between roles as a costume designer, props specialist, set painter and stage manager.

In 1945 she moved to Paris, attracted by the artistic freedoms of the cosmopolitan lifestyle and the possibility of living more comfortably as a lesbian. But the capital never outshone her tenderness for the landscapes of the south and—as her practice grew—Schlegel worked constantly with its vernacular materials and toggled between Paris and Sète. Her oeuvre drew upon her Mediterranean roots and her travels to Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy.

After a period of experimentation, she created a series of stunning, curvaceous ceramic vases using a coil technique, mostly executed in the 1950s. The gestural contours and fantastical volumes were inspired by organic outlines of trees and birds, and evoke the freewheeling, jubilant shapes of Henri Matisse’s paper cutouts. Schlegel’s mastery of various crafts enabled her to make a range of everyday objects: mahogany serving utensils, a stoneware whistle shaped like a bird, painted terra-cotta figurines, leather gladiator sandals and—arguably her greatest achievement—sculptural plaster fireplaces.

Her body of work unfurled without hierarchy between milieus. Meanwhile, Schlegel also oversaw workshops for children and adolescents. She taught at Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs from 1958 to 1987; three of her former students, schooled in her signature pedagogy, went on to become her assistants.

Schlegel lived simply but was a bon vivant and loved preparing meals; her recipe books were dotted with bouillabaisse-style fish stew, plum tarts and apple cakes. She spent her free time gardening, cooking and sailing. And her passion for objects was intimately linked to a sense of utility; when she made an earthenware salad bowl, she delicately folded its edges inward to prevent the greens from escaping when being mixed. She maintained her marked regional accent, wore her hair in a cropped style and sported androgynous uniforms typically worn by sailors.

When living away from the south, she nostalgically recreated its sensations—referencing the limestone of the French Camargue and the undulating movement of sails from Sète’s port life. The outlines of shells, seaside pebbles and plants in turn shaped her sinuous objects. Intended for everyday use, they were nonetheless guided by aesthetics. “A pot is designed to hold flowers. Without flowers, it’s nothing. To have a life of its own, it must also be a sculpture,” Schlegel insisted in an interview published in the catalog of one of her Paris exhibitions. She believed in creating sculptures à vivre: dynamic objects that possessed their own sense of folklore.

“Parisian society had little time for women using media not sanctioned as high art.”

Schlegel’s greatest innovation was born out of a simple frustration. When she sold a vase to friends in 1959, she placed it where she saw it best fit in their house, atop their fireplace—but she wasn’t fond of the fireplace itself. And so she redesigned it to be a perfect platform for her piece—a graceful swell cast in white. The new creation was so successful that she continued making domestic fireplaces until 2002 (including one for iconic French actress Jeanne Moreau at her Faubourg Saint-Honoré home in 1968). These architectural outgrowths from the walls were made of wire armature and white plaster, undulating into custom-built shelving, benches and nooks. Schlegel described the endeavor in a 1962 television documentary about her work as “extending and energizing walls.” She mused: “If I could cut my chimneys and houses from rock, I would do it.” More and more friends commissioned her to make fireplaces, as did museum curators and parents of the children attending her workshops. Each made-to-measure installation could take from three weeks to two months to implement.

Her show-stopping fireplaces were impossible to circulate due to practical considerations, so Schlegel’s work largely flew under the radar. The spotlight brightened only recently through the diligence of French artist Hélène Bertin, who spent five years exploring Schlegel’s art practice and assembled a book and exhibition of her work. She interviewed Frédéric Sichel-Dulong, the artist’s former assistant, along with her family, students and collectors; they recounted stories and conversations. Her investigation was an immersive journey into Schlegel’s work, life story and daily practices. Schlegel is, in fact, still alive and living in her home—a former wheel factory located in Paris’ 14th arrondissement that also houses her atelier. She has had Alzheimer’s disease since 2005.

Bertin’s inquiry into Schlegel’s work was based on certain probing questions: To what purpose or “end” is a sculpture made? Where should a sculpture be situated? Who should art be addressed to? Before discovering Schlegel, Bertin had studied Sophie Taeuber, an artist from the preceding generation. Swiss-born Taeuber created her own atelier to showcase her furniture and tapestries—and various other oeuvres d’intérieurs—separately from her more-famous husband, artist Jean Arp.

Both Taeuber and Schlegel proved that it was possible to create as an artist outside of institutions. Instead of engaging with the art world (where, in 1960s France, new realism was in vogue), Schlegel’s work was conceived for personal spaces. Her work was included in four exhibitions at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, but the limited museum exposure shows her to be a pioneer. She refused to play into the museum system, and Parisian society had little time for women using media not sanctioned as “high art.”

When Bertin started her research in 2012, Valentine Schlegel was a name that turned up few results in online search engines. In the years since, she has glided into the consciousness of a certain demographic of tastemakers. Raf Simons directly referenced the artist when creating a structure for the Christian Dior Spring/Summer 2014 haute couture runway: a snaking white sanctuary outfitted with skylights inspired by Schlegel-like forms. The year before, when Simons’ private ceramics collection went up for auction at Piasa Rive Gauche in Paris, he sold a biomorphic vase by Schlegel for five figures. The attention he brought to the artist provided greater visibility to her legacy.

In 2017, Bertin’s exhaustive archive became an exhibition at CAC Brétigny, an arts center in the southern suburbs of Paris. On display were Schlegel’s vast collection of knives and daggers accumulated since 1950, often gifted to her by friends; exhibition catalogs from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs; her prized books detailing artisanal techniques; a film by Agnès Varda made during Schlegel’s tenure as a teacher; an assortment of greeting cards, charms, cutlery and leather objects she made; mock-ups of her fireplace designs—and a transplanted original.

Schlegel’s life/work dichotomy guided the page structure of I’m Sleeping, I’m Working, the publication tied to the show. At once a biography and monograph, the book catalogs all of the fireplaces that Schlegel produced over 40 years, using both archival photographs and contemporary images taken by Bertin of surviving fireplaces, which she went to see in person and often experienced ablaze.

The underestimation of decorative crafts never deterred Schlegel’s productivity or confidence. Her approach centered on creative independence. Above all, she interwove the artistic with the day-to-day. “J’aime le quotidien exceptionnel,” she once said; the small objects matter as much as the larger-scale pieces, and the tiny thrills matter more than the blockbuster successes.

“Schlegel lived simply but was a bon vivant and loved preparing meals.”

“Schlegel lived simply but was a bon vivant and loved preparing meals.”


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Twenty-Nine

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