Thursday, August 16, 2007

Gardens in Art: the concept and the art of the garden

For this month's Gardens in Art project, and in developing my own work, I find it really helpful to look at how other people have responded to and interpreted gardens over time. It opens up potential avenues to explore further.

The Art of the Garden was an exhibition which took place at the Tate Britain Gallery in London between June-August 2004. As with many galleries, past exhibitions survive in a semi-virtual basis on their website and this is no exception. It has a strong base in conceptual ideas associated with the garden. It's especially helpful to me given my own strong leaning towards representational art ("what is") rather then conceptual art ("what it means"). Reviewing the exhibition as it continues to exist on the website doesn't mean I'll understand or agree with everything but it will definitely provide food for thought.

The exhibition had five main sections which (with links to the website) are:
  1. Thresholds and Prospects
  2. The Secret Garden
  3. Fragments and Inscriptions
  4. Coloured Grounds
  5. Representing and Intervening
Each section explores an aspect of the myriad ways in which artists have responded to the garden in Britain, visually, emotionally, intellectually and aesthetically.
I'm going to discuss my own responses to the website version of the exhibition below - and this will include relating themes to my existing work. Obviously I'm not seeing all the works in the exhibition and may have reacted differently if I had. All quotations below comes from the Tate Britain website - which is worth studying in more detail as it covers more than I've commented on here.

Thresholds and Prospects
This identifies views of the landscape - the prospect - as including the garden. Fences and windows are seen as significant boundaries or thresholds and therefore key features. The exhibition took a particular interest in gardens associated with artists or ones fashioned by an artist.

Jilly's View (NFS)
pastel, 12.5" x 9.75"

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

This is a view - but it's also about an artist and the impact of having a garden with a threshold or boundary such as this. This is a pastel work I did about 10 years ago. It started life in the garden of Jilly Sutton, a very fine artist and sculptor who lives in Devon.

I find it interesting because although the majority of the painting is devoted to the River Dart and its banks, whenever I look at it I always remember it as being the view (note the title) from the garden of a creative artist which I was very fortunate to be able to visit one day - . I find this particular piece to be very restful and it makes me think how such an environment - and having such a 'threshold' - must be conducive to good work.

When I went to find her website I found that her artist statement said the following. So maybe I do have concepts after all!
The driving force behind her work comes from the tranquility of her surroundings. Her wooden house and studio are on the banks of the Dart Estuary where the calmness and order of the river, continually influence the peacefulnes of her scultures.
My own mental vision of the perfect studio opens up on to a garden which provides the potential for constant visual stimulation and subject matter for work through all seasons and all weathers. It's my ambition to find it one day.

The Secret Garden

The second section of the exhibition examines the emotional attachment of the artist to the garden, through themes such as children’s art, seclusion, spirituality and sexuality. It explores not only innocent pleasures but also the more painful thoughts and memories that gardens can evoke. It also focuses on the continuing role of the garden as a metaphor for femininity. This has developed both through the classical tradition and the Christian identification of the enclosed garden, or ‘hortus conclusus’, with the Blessed Virgin.

Now I'm afraid most of this completely passes me by - except possibly the bit about the relationship children have with gardens.

I guess the notions about sexuality, femininity and spirituality explains the preponderance of nineteenth century portraits of women dressed in flimsy stuff draped around a tree or sitting on some grass! It does make me wonder whether these notions are also associated with male artists and female models - or whether we women artists also think in quite the same way! For myself, I have no thoughts at all of putting any figures in artwork involving gardens - I want them to be places where my mind can go back to and find a peaceful environment.

However I do think gardens are a stage on which all sorts of games and stories and fantasies can be played out when we are young. I guess this should have implications for portraits of children. I wonder how many artists think about the places which children like to be and how often gardens find a way into the background of portraits of children in a way which are meaningful for the child?

Fragments and Insecriptions

Gardens have seldom been simply places for relaxation and cultivation. Since antiquity they have been spaces for contemplation, the embodiment of poetical and philosophical ideas – particularly ideas of mortality. This has encouraged a range of symbolic objects, such as sundials, funerary urns, and fragments of antique statuary.....An important archetype for such contemplative spaces is the classical woodland grove.
I can identify with some of this - but still struggle with it to a degree. Contemplation - yes; memory - yes; mortality - no. Unless one is talking about a very specialist sort of garden. The nearest mortality gets to gardens I know is the need to remember where the dead pets are buried.

However I do love William Nicholson's painting of Miss Jekyll's gardening boots and I do think that the artifact approach is something which maybe does have meaning for me after all and that I should think about this and should explore the use of artifacts within a painting at some point.

I do remember an artist (whose name I sadly forget) who used to do the most fantastic and complex watercolours of the various artifacts to be found inside a greenhouse or potting shed. I always loved these because of the way I kept finding more and more as I looked at the painting and then began to wonder how and why all the objects came to be there.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-1886)
Oil on canvas 174 x 153.8 cm
John Singer Sargent - American painter

Tate Gallery, London, England (Purchased from the artist, 1887)

Coloured grounds
Many late nineteenth century painters took flower gardens as their subjects. Such pictures went out of fashion after 1914, as lavish Edwardian gardens could no longer be maintained. But the effect of changing light on colour continued to interest painters who used gardens not as subject matter, but as a means of exploring colour, shape and light.
I can well understand the notion about the attraction of trying to portray the effects of changing light on colour - I think it's one the main things which majes me want to draw and paint gardens (See yesterday's post for some examples of my work).

The example of the John Singer Sargent painting "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" (which hangs in Tate Britain - it's a 'must see' for any visit) has a wonderful story which is explained very well by Natasha Wallace on the JSSGallery site - the link includes associated drawings and studies which JSS made for this work and a description of the process of painting this picture plein air at twilight. The garden in question is that of the Lavington Rectory at Broadway in the Costwolds.

Representing and Intervening

The notion in the last section is that of the garden as an increasingly precious commodity within an ever more urbanised society. That's fine and I totally understand that. However, I'm afraid that the conceptual basis for some of the contemporary work as described left me cold and I suggest reading about it on the website.

I think I'd have liked to have seen the exhibition explore the relationship between artwork and garden design a bit more. How much does garden design impact on our notions of what the garden is about and what is it for and how we should behave in it and respond to it. Do artists design different types of gardens to other people - or do they adapt and mold what's already there? In other words the old 'chicken and the egg' question - which comes first?

As I continue to struggle to relate some concepts to my own art and way of thinking, I'd be very interested to hear about any thoughts you might have for thinking about ways in which gardens might be represented or conceptualised in art today. In particular:
  • For you, are concepts relevant or important to drawing or painting gardens?
  • What concepts do you have about gardens which you apply in your artwork?

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