Up until the last few years, the oeuvre and life of French modernist Valentine Schlegel went largely unrecognized. That changed with the 2017 installation of This Woman Could Sleep in Water, a tribute to the versatile abstract ceramicist’s vessels by Hélène Bertin at CAC Brétigny in Paris, France. The name arrived during Bertin’s extensive research into Schlegel’s life, a nod from one of her fishermen friends in awe of her ability to sleep in almost any space, undisturbed.
Born in the southeastern port city of Sète, France, in 1925 to a family of artisans, she first developed her creative intuition by spending time in her father's upholstery and carpentry workshop, equally inspired by time spent at sea or at the beach.
Dividing her time between Paris and Sète, Schlegel drew inspiration from her countryside hometown, which informed the soft waves and abstract curvature of her vessels and, later, her signature plaster fireplaces. Paris allowed her to live simply, experiment with various media, and collaborate with fellow artisans. In her spare time, she enjoyed cooking decadent meals, sailing, and gardening.
Her multifaceted talents and desire to explore new forms of expression led her to develop an ever-changing art practice. Re-imagining everyday items into sculptural works of art, Schlegel mastered each craft, including mahogany flatware, leather sandals and terracotta figurines, before creating a series of sensuous ceramic vessels using a coil technique, inspired by the organic outlines of trees and birds.
Schlegel began to focus on architectural home elements in 1960, experimenting in her own house with built-in plaster sculptures, ultimately leading to her best-known work — curvaceous plaster fireplaces. It's often sited that the immobile nature of her work was a hindrance to her gaining recognition.
Interiors were an opportunity to meld fine art and the domestic space. Of this desire to combine form and function, Schlegel noted, “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.”