Essais de poètique des jardins

Posted on January 20th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Michel Conan, Essais de poètique des jardins (Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 2004). 426 pp., illustrated. ISBN 88-222-5358-2

The seventeen essays in this book are arranged under four headings: ‘The Poetic Texture’ and ‘Creation of Gardens’, ‘Life in Gardens’, and, lastly, ‘Gardens as the Crucible of Culture’. Most of the essays have appeared previously in edited collections, journals, conference proceedings and exhibition catalogues. The rest are previously unpublished conference papers. This diversity of address is both a strength and a weakness of the text. It allows for a synchronic rather than a chronological sense of duration, tracing and retracing themes, and object lessons over the span of the author’s work and over time which loosely covers the late Middle Ages to the present. It also enables spaces, both real and metaphorical, and as varied as Solomon de Caus’s Palatine garden at Heidelberg, or Skansen Park in Stockholm, or Monsieur Pecqueur’s garden in northern France, to be envisaged with equal curiosity. Yet, there is still a thrown together feel about this book, the whole not quite adding up to the sum of its varied and erudite parts.

First, this important work that should be published in English (many of its essays first appeared in English in proceedings of annual colloquia at Dumbarton Oaks), could gain from some radical trimming and pruning, better copy editing, more plentiful referencing and an organizing structure. Seven of its essays relate to seventeenth-century French formal gardens and gardening. Each reveals under the author’s interpretative prism a facet of understanding. These circumstantial papers could, for example, have been gathered and rewritten into, say, three separate and strongly themed essays (gardens as writing; gardens and the making of civil society; practices, manners and mores), which could have more explicitly informed the rest. As it is, the book’s essays are hung from a very lucid introductory summary.

True, more structure might have imposed a determinism that would have betrayed the author’s approach, a ‘philosophy of the ambiguity of the lived’. This reminded me of Max Weber’s notion of verstend – a knowledgeable and intuitive understanding of cultural practices that allows their forms and configurations, always unfinished, to emerge. Effectively, these essays are configurations of explanations of gardens as crucibles and conjunctures of Western European culture. With it goes the rejection of a historicism and connoisseurship – ‘the shape of flowerbeds does not determine the behaviour of gardeners’.

This crisp challenge to conventional garden history is the joy of this book. Instead of connoisseurship, there is engagement and easy erudition juxtaposed to formal pedagogy. Each essay offers one or more gardened spaces as vehicles for a lesson. For example, the essay on André Mollet’s Le Jardin de Plaisir (1651) explains how composition and design principles can pre-exist and take-off in garden creation due to changing political circumstances. An essay comparing social and transgressive behaviour in the Tuilleries and St James’ Park in the eighteenth century demonstrates their roles in the emergence of differing notions of civil society – as well as fashion and journalism as they are understood them today. An analysis of Bernard Lassus’s Jardin de l’antérieur at l’Isle d’Abeau discusses the conflict between municipality and community over the meaning of the past and the uses of the present. A last essay on the eighteenth-century revolutionary botanist André Thouin’s proposals for an experimental farm in the torrid zone reveals the chilling and expansionary dimensions of botanical utopianism. Other lessons are that private gardens are never truly possessions but metonyms for larger cultural practices, that public gardens are not only spaces of Arcadian discipline, but also liminal spaces of experimentation with power, feeling and sexuality, and the summary lesson is that gardens uncover the significance of concurrent social practices and co-existent dimensions of time and meaning. The muses of Lassus, La Fontaine and Mlle de Scudéry keep us in good company.

Elizabeth Lebas

33:1 (Summer 2005)

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