For the first time in over a decade, the Garden’s scientists have noted a change in the behavior of that famous flock of sheep. They have now migrated to a fresh new grazing patch 20 feet from their original location.
Anyone who knows the Garden knows the sheep sculptures just as well. A familiar staple of the Garden’s sculpture collection, the little flock is a crowd favorite and a popular spot for photographs. Who in St. Louis hasn’t taken a photo with those sheep since their arrival? Through rain, snow, and the onslaught of climbing toddlers, the herd endures.
The first of the sheep arrived at the Garden in 1991 on long-term loan from The Greenberg Gallery of St. Louis. In 1997, they were joined by a ram, and the lambs came soon after. Eventually, the whole flock was gifted to the Garden by the Soffer family. By 1998, the little family was permanently installed. They made headlines this past winter when a flock of sheep by the same artist sold for $1.9 million at auction.
The artist behind these sheep is François Xavier Lalanne, who, unlike most artists, dreamt of his art being scuffed, sat, and climbed upon. Lalanne and his wife Claude worked as the collaborative duo “Les Lalanne” for most of their careers, and they both disliked the practice of displaying art in a way where it could only be viewed from a distance, roped off and separated from its audience in museums. François Xavier Lalanne wanted “to bring the notion of usefulness to sculpture and to demystify art, which he regarded as a funhouse rather than a cathedral. Hence the sheep,” writes William Grimes of The New York Times. “Just the fact that you can squat on it reduces the risk of this inappropriate devotion,” Lalanne said.
The work of Les Lalanne was meant to challenge the convention of distant admiration by creating objects that invited the viewer to touch, use, and even sit on their sculptures. Much of their art took the form of useful items. Their repertoire includes a baboon fireplace, a donkey desk, topiary dinosaurs, and much more. “If there are frontiers between art and decoration, art and utility, and ‘applied art,’ the Lalannes have not heard of them,” notes The Greenberg Gallery. “All of Lalanne’s work is fun and functional on some level, and much of the work is designed with the garden in mind.”
Les Lalanne focused almost exclusively on the natural world, with François taking interest in the animal kingdom and Claude the plant kingdom. At the height of their career in the 1960s and 70s, pop art and abstraction were all the rage. Their focus on natural subject matter was unusual, but it made their work the perfect fit for a garden.
Here at the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Lalanne dream of playful, engaging art comes true every day. The sculptures are especially popular among children, who are always drawn to the sheep. “Everyone can recognize animals throughout the world,” said François Xavier Lalanne. “You don’t have to explain what they are or mean.” Artwork can sometimes feel as though it demands a complex analysis, but the simplicity of the sheep asks only for a grin.
People take the invitation that the sheep extend—in fact, photos of people sitting, climbing, and playing on the sheep have become so popular that they’ve created a bit of a bottleneck in traffic by the Kemper Center. To reduce traffic on the main path and provide a more picturesque backdrop for photos, the sheep have been shifted to face a different path. Now they’re settled in their new home, waiting for visitors to come and play. And these sheep are ready for their closeup.
“The supreme art is the art of living” -François Xavier Lalanne
Kristina Schall DeYong Digital Media Specialist
Feature photo by Cassidy Moody