Creator, Artist, Sculptor: Nicolas Lavarenne

February 2009


Nicolas Lavarenne
(Photo WIPO/Castonguay)

Born: October 2, 1953, Chamelières, France

Education: Technical Baccalaureate in mechanical design

Exhibitions: Dozens across Europe, the Middle East and North America

Recognition: 1998 – Public Prize, Antibes; 1993 – First Prize Sculpture, Tende; 1993 – First Prize Sculpture, Beaulieu sur Mer ; 1990 – Public Prize, Nice; 1987 – First Prize Sculpture, Brignoles; 1984 – Public Prize, Nice

One late summer day, the WIPO Magazine and WIPO Multimedia team loaded up cameras and equipment and headed out to interview the sculptor Nicolas Laverenne in Seyssel, France, a remote mountain village which once marked the border between France and Italy. We almost missed his workshop: a run-down building, hidden behind a grocer’s parking lot.

But on crossing the threshold, we entered Ali Baba’s cave. Mr. Lavarenne’s art – wood, plaster, wax and bronze sculptures in various stages of progress – was everywhere: on the floor, worktables and shelves, and hanging from the ceiling, walls and staircases. There were even sculptures hanging from sculptures. A motorcycle, hand-drawn doodles, posters from exhibitions and other objects littered the room. We did not know where to turn, what to look at first. We wandered from one object to another fascinated and eager to find out how such a slight, self-effacing man could have created such works. Our cameras turning, he told us his story.

(Photo WIPO/Castonguay)

“Sculpture fell on me”

To hear Mr. Lavarenne tell it, he was walking around, minding his own business, when “Sculpture ‘fell’ on me.” He cannot otherwise explain it. His father was an oil painter, but Nicolas did not have that calling. He studied mechanical design and worked for a few years in the motorcycle industry before getting bored. “I asked myself ‘What am I good at? What do I like doing?’ Looking back, I realized I could draw, I could do whatever I wanted with my hands.”

“I chose to do manual work. For ten years I sculpted decorations for furniture. Then one day I was doodling as usual when I made a little drawing and decided to sculpt it in wood. When I finished I looked at it and thought ‘What is this? What use is it?’” Until then, Mr. Lavarenne had always sculpted on order for pay, precisely following the instructions he was given. He had never even thought to create his own designs, much less sculpt them. Creation was a strange notion to him. “That day, I started to ask myself questions about art. It completely threw me. It changed my life and reconciled me with life. So I started to sculpt when I was 23, but I did not become a sculptor until I was 33.”

That was the day that “sculpture fell” on Mr. Lavarenne – and proved a hard master. Self-taught, he had no precise idea where he was going; progress was by trial and error. “There were moments of despair and loneliness.” He continued to sculpt wood but was unhappy with the results. Wood necessitated joints, was dense and had to remain thick in places where he wanted long, lean lines. To make ends meet, he sculpted mannequins for high-street stores, discovering plaster and wax. He perfected his technique, found new mediums. When he made his first works in bronze, he had found his element.

“I sculpt first of all for myself then I hope that it will touch others, bring me into communication with them. My greatest pleasure comes when others feel touched by my sculptures.”

“Sculpture is a presence”

Mr. Lavarenne had no difficulty defining sculpture. “For me a sculpture is an object that tries to inhabit a space, not just occupy emptiness. When one arrives in a place that has a sculpture, it must have presence. It is that presence that is important. Sculpture is a presence – a presence, if possible, with an expression.”

“I often identify with my sculptures. They express my sensitivity. I am part of them, they tell me my story. But art is a mirror and each viewer will find in an artistic expression what he or she brings to it. He identifies himself with the work in one way or another. If he does not, the work does not correspond to his sensitivity.”

When people tell Mr. Lavarenne the emotions or stories they feel reflected in his works, it rarely corresponds to his experience during the creative process. However, when he meets “someone who tells me exactly the same story that the sculpture I created told me, then I tell myself our sensitivity is identical. It feels like I am meeting my alter ego and it sends shivers down my spine.”

(Photo: Pierre Bondier / Courtesy: Nicolas Lavarenne)

“Inspiration is a form of absence”

Asked about his inspiration, Mr. Lavarenne gestures towards a tiny corner room with windows looking into the workshop. There we find all kinds of small drawings, hundreds of them. Mr. Lavarenne says he can sit there for hours, days, weeks drawing and never coming up with anything. Then, one day the phone will ring and while he is talking, his hands will keep moving. He is unconscious of what they are doing; they just keep going while his mind is occupied elsewhere. When he hangs up, he stares at the result. It might be just a scribble, but becomes a two-meter bronze sculpture, soaring into the sky. For Mr. Lavarenne, “inspiration is a form of absence.”

In an open air shed at the bottom of Mr. Lavarenne’s garden, white plaster dust billowing in our faces, we watched as he worked on the torso of a sculpture. “When I sculpt it is laborious. I am looking for something that doesn’t exist. I am seeking to build in space a volume that exists only in my mind and on a little bit of paper. That volume must be visible from all angles, one must be able to go around a sculpture and it must be interesting to look at from all angles. I can be working on a face and see something coming out of it that I find interesting. I turn it a bit and oh…the profile is a disaster. I rework the profile and give it a three-quarters turn and ugh!…I rework that angle then look at the face again…oh, no! ”

“By the time it is done I am sick of it. I have done so much work on it and I can only see its faults. It takes me a month or two to digest and accept that it is not perfect. I like to see them go so that I can create others, make another dream into reality. The only sculpture that interests me is the one I have not yet created.”

“I cannot distance myself from my sculptures, but when I look at my work I see quite a realistic, anatomically correct, human body and this body is launched into the air, or sent flying, by poles which look similar to the lines of force used in comic strips. The poles lift the sculpture from the ground, symbolically lifting it from anything solid and material, making it lighter, almost virtual, unable to be touched. It is the paradox of the sculptor: bronze is very heavy and yet it flies.”

“You’re the one who made these?”

When Mr. Lavarenne started exhibiting his work, fans were surprised when they met him. “People would exclaim, ‘You’re the one who made this!?’” He most definitely is. He marks each piece to make sure his authorship is recognized and numbers them so that copying can be detected. Though Mr. Lavarenne is not too preoccupied with the copyright process, it does worry him when he catches a glimpse of his work on camera, in books and magazines and he does not even receive an acknowledgment. “I think that at the very least the name of the author should be cited.”

A copyright collective management society regularly sends him checks, but he is not too sure what for. He is happy that the process works and thinks he should probably be more involved, but sculpture leaves little time for other activities. His energy is focused on creation. He highlights for us the obvious difficulties of copying his work: the size, weight and bulkiness and the price of the raw material. Bronze is quite expensive. He also outlines the strict French legislation that regulates his work (see box).

He does decry the lack of education in the school system on copyright and on how to use it to make one’s living. Sometimes students come and stare through his workshop windows. He says he wants them to come in and see and know that they too could do something like this. “Why did someone not tell me when I was in school that I could create and live from my works?”

“I try to be a sculptor, and at times reproach myself that it is all I am.”

(Photo WIPO/Castonguay)

“Nobody asked me to do it”

“I am an artist, I am lucky to be able to live from my work. I love the creative side, but there is a heavy administrative side. If I don’t go out and tell people what I am doing – nobody asked me to do it – no one would know that I shut myself in that workshop.”

As our cameras followed Mr. Lavarenne around his workshop, he stopped face to face with a Nubian figure. He studied her perfect features, then reached up with both hands and pulled off her head. We gasped…then remembered she was not real, only a wax trial, one of his creations. So our interview ended. Locking up behind us, Mr. Lavarenne jumped on a battered old scooter, waved goodbye, calling out that he was heading out for a dip in the lake before sundown.


Is it an original?

Sculptors in bronze, like Nicolas Lavarenne, are authorized under French law to make only 12 originals of each sculpture. Each must be numbered: eight in Arabic numbers and four – the so-called “épreuves d’artiste” – in Roman numbers. Any foundry that does not follow this strict directive is not considered to produce originals but reproductions, whether they make 13 copies or 300.

Mr. Lavarenne numbers his pieces, 1/8 – for the first of eight – and so on. He works with a reputable foundry and molds are destroyed once the originals are produced. Nicolas has had various offers to make reproductions which he has categorically refused.


By Sylvie Castonguay, WIPO Magazine Editorial Team, Communications Division
Acknowledgements Jean-François Arrou-Vignod and Nicholas Hopkins, WIPO Film and Multimedia Section

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