Seconds Magazine

"Once I had an American religious fanatic come into the gallery and he started to cry and pray. He came back in ten minutes with a Bible for me because he thought I was possessed. He would write letters to me that I should read Psalm so-and-so and meet the local priest..."

By Steven Cerio

If you believe that gothic serpents, winged dragons, angels, and horned goddesses are the stuff of legend and myth alone, then you are surely unacquainted with the inhabitants of the realm of silversmith and sculptor ANDRE LASSEN. A native of Holland, Lassen draws first-hand influence from the vestiges of Celtic culture that can be found while roaming the countless foggy Megalithic sites of Europe. These inspirations have fueled his energies and sharpened his abilities to bring the wildest creatures of his fantasies into twitching, metallic life.

Lassen began working in metals in the Seventies, creating lost-wax cast silver jewelry. Since 1981 Lassen has dedicated himself solely to larger-scale works, the largest of which, "The Gate," stands eight feet tall and nearly seven feet wide. It ushers forth images from King Arthur and Merlin in rich, cast bronze. Lassen never works in clay, preferring bronzes and silver which endow his imagery with a rich historical symbolism.

In addition to his heritage in the Gothic arts of Fantasy and Horror, Lassen draws great influence from Japanese weaponry. He is considered an expert on the subject, working as a consultant and appraiser to Sotheby's on Japanese swords and armor. From this immersion in the subject of blade-making, it naturally followed that he would combine that knowledge with his Gothic and Fantasy themes to create his own series of knives and daggers. He hand-forges blades in the traditional painstaking Japanese technique, creating Damascus Steel blades that thrust out from one-of-a-kind wrought sterling silver handles inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones. Lassen's handmade scabbards are constructed from toad, lizard, snake, crocodile, and other exotic skins. One of his prize daggers, "Dragon," is inlaid with onyx, amethyst and hematite, with a scabbard fashioned from stingray skin.

Lassen is self-taught, without any formal art training. At the age of eighteen he was rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts in Holland on their mistaken assumption that he did not have a sufficient amount of talent. However, fifteen years ago the same school offered him a teaching position.

Lassen himself is quick to admit that his skeletons are not anatomically correct, but fantasy takes precedence over reality in his work. He leans his energies into focusing his visions. He chooses to sharply communicate through recognizable figures rather than through abstraction, drawing more influence from J.R.R. Tolkien than from Alexander Calder. His figures stand quietly, like sentinels guarding either the gates of Heaven or of Hell - which is never made clear. He swirls his hallucinations into metallic life, giving his metals purpose, poise, and new strength - the perfect symbiosis between symbolism, function and beauty.

Seconds: Why did you go into sculpture and not painting or writing?
Lassen: That's not completely true. I like to draw and paint. I found out I'm better at sculpting and it's the medium I like the most.

Seconds: Is it that painting is more creating an illusion? You are creating objects...
Lassen: Yes, you have more freedom with sculpting than painting. You can walk around a sculpture from all sides.

Seconds: I've read you made your first dagger at nine years old...
Lassen: We used to vacation with my uncle in Denmark and he was the local blacksmith. For me, it was a fantastic vacation to spend every day forging my own toys in the smithery. I was forging swords, daggers, and guillotines. I loved it. Many years later, Ive picked up forging again. I picked up the equipment and I found a place where I can do it. For me it is also a way of relaxing. Forging is a way to get the stress out.

Seconds: Everything you create is functional?
Lassen: Not everything. Quite a few pieces are, because I like it - the knives, the jewelry, the ashtray. But the mounted skulls or sculptures, even "The Gate" needn't be functional - it is a great thing to have on the wall. Now and then a function slips in but I don't mind; function doesn't make it lesser art.

Seconds: Your work seems to be centered around violence. What draws you to that?
Lassen: I don't know; maybe it is hidden beeause I'm not aggressive. I like power in the work - it must be powerful - you build that tension with aggression. You can also build it up with other images, like skulls, which are very related to aggression.

Seconds: This may be the same question, but why do you use skeletons, bones, as opposed to, say, bunny rabbits?
Lassen: Bunny rabbits are very soft and sweet but I'm not like that. I like strong books and strong films, and that reflects on my work.

Seconds: Sometimes it seems you're mocking death, as with thecutlery.
Lassen: Yeah! And a whole series of bronzes. There's a lot of black humor in it. It's good fun.

Seconds: People have used words like "frightening" and "horrific" to describe ' your work...
Lassen: It's ridiculous that they are afraid of my work. Those people would probably be frightened by the bunnies as well. The knives are not meant to be used to kill someone. If people are afraid of my work, that's their one-hundred-percent own responsibility. But I don't want to frighten people. If I wanted to, I would do something totally different.

Seconds: The way your lines flow, it seems you're a lover of Art Nouveau.
Lassen: Yes, maybe it slips in without me even knowing it. There were some magnificent sculptors at that time in England and France. It's such a pity that period was so short. It's one of my most favorite periods. Not everything - I like mainly the sculptures and jewelry, the painting, the posters - they made some great posters in those days. Everything was all very tasteful, in a way - erotic without being rude.

Seconds: Where they had a vine, you'll have a bone.
Lassen: Yes. A lot of artists in this period were focused on Japanese art. There's also a lot of Japanese influence in my type of art. I don't show it directly, but maybe movement and maybe composition; the composition then immediately relates to Art Nouveau.

Seconds: What reaction would you want your work to get from someone?
Lassen: That it is accepted as art. In Holland, I am not totally accepted in the art world. A lot of people see me as kind of an outcast. It's difficult to get shows there, because art has to do with fashion and trends. But I'm not following trends. If I was a trend follower, it would have been a lot easier for me. But I like to be accepted.

Seconds: What's the strongest reaction anyone's had to your work?
Lassen: The gallery I have in Amsterdam has very thin windows and I can hear outside. Not a long time ago, I heard a lady say to her husband, "This all comes from the devil. This is very evil. You see that man inside? He also looks very evil." Once I had an American religious fanatic come into the gallery and he started to cry and pray. He came back in ten minutes with a Bible for me because he thought I was possessed. He would write letters to me that I should read Psalm so-and-so and meet the local priest...

Seconds: Why do people associate bones with evil?
LASSEN: I have no idea. Maybe it has to do with being afraid of death. I don't know any explanation other than fear of mortality. In all my work, there we no signs of Black Magic - nothing. I've been doing skulls and bones for fifteen years and honestly, I'm bored with it. But people expect it and I get commissions to do it, but I love to do many other things, not just skulls and bones.

Seconds: Are you working on other projects now that people wouldnt think of as typical of your work?
Lassen: Well, you can always can tell it's my work. Last year, I designed some furniture; actually, I'm working now on it. I had some furniture made by the best wood carvers in Indonesia, Bali - a cabinet that looks, like a big armored angel and you can open the angel and there's your stereo.

Seconds: What other shapes are you interested in?
LASSEN: I have a very good idea to do an erotic dagger - no skulls - and the shapes and lines will be Art Nouveau. A marvelous erotic dagger, nothing rude - not pornography. Very nice, very delicate.

Seconds: You get a lot of your inspiration from Celtic myths and legends. What inspiration do you get from reality?
Lassen: Nature has inspired me enormously. It's fantastic.

Seconds: You've a mentioned Boris Valkio and Frank Frazetta as influences.
Lassen: That was a long time ago, with my earlier bronzes that had a lot of action in them - but nothing technical, just movement.

Seconds: Were you interested in Celtic imagery as a child?
LASSEN: No, that came in the mid-seventies, when I read a lot about the Stone Age and Bronze Age. The Bronze Age is immediately related to the Celts. Then later you come to the Iron Age, and you get the Germans and Vikings. I've gotten a lot of inspiration from these cultures without adopting their ornamentation. I don't use Celtic ornaments in my work, but the type of jewelry they made is great. How they stylized animals is fantastic.

Seconds: You've described your work as fantasy. Where's the line between fantasy and reality?
Lassen: I work realistic. My work is not abstract. Realistic means you see what I am doing. You recognize what I have made. It is not even stylized. It is realistic. All the elements are real -snakes, frogs, etc. But how I combine the elements is the fantasy; such combinations don't exist in nature, just in your mind. It can possibly exist in the future, and then it is Science Fiction. Sometimes it is called Surrealism, but I prefer to call it Fantastic Realism.

Seconds: Could you tell me about your swordsmith work?
Lassen: It's difficult to find the right steel. You can also use iron nowadays, there are all different types of elements in the steel you buy. The old steel was much easier to fold over and weld together. It was purer. What is important is high-carbonate steel. I use old files. I'm not sure of the carbonate content; it is not written on it. After each folding, you lose a lot of carbonate. If you make a blade out of a file and you harden it and you drop it, it will break. It is too hard. I chop the file up and put it together with slices of low-carbonate steel, which is a lot softer, or iron. You wind them up with wire, weld a bar on it to hold it, and then it goes in the fire. You turn it till it is white hot and sparks are coming off. You take it out of the fire and hit it, then the layers are welded together if you have done the job correctly. Then with small hammers you hammer it out to a bar, you cut a groove, and you fold it, double it. That is your first fold. It is still red hot. You use borax, a kind of melting powder, in between the fold. Then it goes back to the fire, repeat the same process, it comes out, you hit it, then hammer it out gently, and then fold it in the other direction. And this you can repeat up to fourteen times, depending on what you like. I like a very fine structure of the blade. Usually I forge a "U" profile and put in a layer of softer steel. It goes back in the fire. I weld it together then I hammer the blade out to give it the actual shape. You have a blade with hard skin and a soft inside. This blade cannot break; at the most you can bend it. And this is, in fact, like the Japanese technique - also similar to the technique used with the Indonesian blades, but the other way around. There the inside is hard and the outside is soft. When hardening the blade, I make a solution of 32% clay, 32% sandstone powder and 32% charcoal powder and I mix it with water. The sandstone powder makes the clay fireproof and the charcoal powder makes the clay glow so you can see the color when it's heating. I cover it with a thin layer on both sides of the blade, let it dry, and then put a thicker layer on - but not more than two or three millimeters, and not on the edge of the blade, so it will be a lot thinner. When it's dry, it goes in the fire. You heat it up until both sides are bright yellow and then you plunge it in warm water, not cold. After polishing, you see a beautiful hardened edge and the back of the blade still remains soft.

Seconds: Do you ever ruin one?
Lassen: With my skill, one out of three. With people who have a lot more skill than I have, like Japanese swordsmiths, nearly every blade comes out good. They still make them in the traditional way.

Seconds: How did you become a consultant to Sotheby's on Japanese armour?
Lassen: I've collected Japanese swords since 1971. In 1973, I met a Japanese man who was a sword collector and appraiser. He started to teach me what to look at, and I came into that world. I started to know the value of the items. That's how it began. Later, I started consulting with local auctions. That went on, then Sotheby's came to my shop with a couple of swords asking for an appraisal. Eventually I also started doing descriptions for their catalogs. One came from the other. I do it now for three auction houses, one of them being Sotheby's. But it is only occasionally.

Seconds: You were talking about furniture before. Weren't you working on some installations for a biker bar?
Lassen: Yes, I was commissioned to do a private bar. It's not really a biker bar; it's for a man who imports motorcycles from the States to Holland. He's building a new house and wants to have this bar in his house. Actually, the bar will be his living room for his partners and friends. Unfortunately, it won't be a public place, but I'll make sure it is well-documented.

Seconds: Most artists have extra ideas that dont fit with the continuity of their work. Do you have any ideas like that? Like that bunny rabbit?
Lassen: I'm open to everything hut I'll always give it my own twist. You'll say, "Okay, it is a bunny dagger, but there is something 'funny' about it." I'd love to do a bunny dagger, it is so over the top. I think I'll do a pink scarab with turquoise gemstones, very beautiful and gay. I'd love to do it, but nobody would understand it.

Seconds: What will your future work be like?
Lassen: I have a painter friend who's about seventy-two. He started with lots of Horror in his work. He told me the older he became, the more the Horror faded away. He's become softer and softer. Now, he's drawing little elves and things like that. I hope that will not happen to me.

Inquiries regarding AndrČ Lassen’s daggers, sculptures and furniture may be directed to:

AndrČ Lassen
Grimburgwal 4
1012 GA Amsterdam, Holland
Tel: Int'l + 31 6 262 587 98
email: andre@andrelassen.com

or his agent:

Leslie Barany Communications
226 East 27th Street, Suite #3D
New York, New York, 10016, USA
Tel:  (212) 684-2225
Fax: (212) 689-6494
email: lesbarany@aol.com