“I never tried to create an oeuvre,” Valentine Schlegel once said. “I had to live and survive with what I had—a solid body. Work that pertained to the body and the utilitarian. I love the exceptional day-to-day.”
To remove a single photo from the life of French sculptor Valentine Schlegel (1925-2021) would be to place it into an oeuvre – an example alongside other works that trace the natural bends of the earth, or to celebrate the craft of a single object. And yet, it’s the whole of her work that creates a picture of the extraordinary utility that she lived by.
Schlegel split her time between Paris and her hometown of Sète, a coastal town just south of Montpellier. On the door of her studio she hung a sign that read “je dors” (I am sleeping) on one side and “je travaille” (I am working) on the other. This sentiment of “I am” is continued in a note by Schlegel that the art historian Hélène Bertin uncovered: “je bats la terre (I'm beating the ground) / je pose du plâtre (I'm laying a plaster) / je pioche un mur (I'm picking a wall) / je pioche la terre (I'm picking the ground)” and so on, finishing with “j'épluche (I’m peeling off) / je ramasse tout à la plage (getting it all together at the beach) / je brode (I’m embroidered)”.
The proximity to the Mediterranean Sea is inherent in all of Schlegel’s work. There is a constant play between the strength of the ocean and the weightlessness of the atmosphere, the way sunlight slowly grazes, and water impresses itself on cliffs over time. Her work is at once both responsive and declarative. Shells, pebbles, and the undulations of the ocean appear in her work as distinct characters in their lore. Yet, the materiality of place is applied with the most basic utility – handmade sandals, or a cushion fastened to a wall with a leather strap.
Schlegel’s work declares, “I am.” Its essence remains. As firm as she stood in herself, her work embodies the world that was around her. She challenged what form could do, learning from the craft of the past and propelling it into her present. She believed in the capacity of objects to live lives, to take on their own sense of folklore – sculptures à vivre. She was quoted in the catalogue of one of her Paris exhibitions saying, “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.” Between this fine line of design and sculpture is where Schlegel still lives.
Schlegel made vessels. Vessels which hold flowers, water, books, salads, friends, and fire. There is a certain security in a well constructed vessel – also another name for a ship – which can both protect and illuminate what it holds. A vessel has purpose and requires a solid body. Schlegel’s curvaceous pots and vases were made by coiling clay, a thousands-years-old method for shaping clay into its studiest form. This process allowed for her to explore gestural, biomorphic shapes at large scale. Her pots grew until they began to defy visual gravity, sometimes housing single stems of flowers from vases with multiple openings, and eventually covering entire walls. In 1960, the forms would begin to spread across the walls, energising interior spaces. These were final vessels, ones that would house fire. For the remaining 40 years of her life she would sculpt unique fireplaces in the homes of friends and friends of friends. Though the designs were vast and inspired by the swelling seas of the ocean, the installation of the sculptures was intimate and housed in personal spaces, including her own Paris apartment.
When we look at an archive of an artist we see what is not there, the impression of a life left. Valentine Schlegel cannot pour us water from one of her gargoulettes, which she designed to keep water fresh in the summer. We will never hear the dull rattling of hand-carved mahogany spoons in the kitchen, or feel the smoothness of the wood and its soft curvatures. And we cannot see Schlegel place irises or bundles of seagrass in her clay-coil vases. Yet, her legacy lives on in an archive of imagery, which despite her reluctance to being reduced to a single aesthetic, manages to capture a sense of being that can be read as a manifesto. Perhaps one as simple as: “I am carving some wood, I'm rowing, I'm putting on my boots”.
Words by Monica Nelson.
Images featured with permission from Valentine Schlegel: je dors, je travaille written by Hélène Bertin and published by