Until a few years ago, Valentine Schlegel had little by way of legacy: Her sculpted interiors were too immobile to be displayed in museums, and yet too domestic to be appreciated as architecture. Writer Sarah Moroz charts the story of a single-minded woman whose contribution to French design is only now being appreciated.
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.