I was delighted last week when the advertisement came out for the Royal Academy Exhibition, Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse which opens on 30th January. Pride of place in the images are Monet’s lilies, painted from life in his studio at Giverny.
Many artists have owned garden; many artists garden, but historically their gardens have tended to become a backdrop for their sculpture or a subject for painting. Leafing through the sumptuous book Artists Gardens (Bill Law, Ward Lock 1990), I find Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture garden in St Ives. The garden is an important adjunct to the work, but are they works of art in their own right?
Some might say that Gertrude Jekyll’s own garden at Munsted Wood is a work of art, not merely because of its beauty. Beauty is not enough in art. Munsted Wood was a laboratory; an experiment in colour and form. Jekyll was trained as an artist and used her knowledge of complementary colours found in the newly discovered colour wheel, to plan her planting. In her gardens it is the plants themselves that are the sculptures. There is beauty, but there is also Jekyll’s philosophical standpoint. She loved the natural, the native, the profuse. It was she who started to plant species that flower at the same time together, rather than to dot specimens randomly in a border to flower in solitary splendour. Her borders were orchestrations rather than a series of solos.
One of the most integrated of gardens with artwork must be Carl Milles, Millesgården in Lidingö near Stockholm. Milles combined his heroic, neo-classical sculpture with a garden of almost Roman proportions and style. Height is used to good effect. A series of columns and trellises define different spaces, but the scheme is not symmetrical. In addition to the garden columns and vertical planting, other columns and plinths support figurative sculptures, dancing couples and winged messengers. This garden was not made overnight, or even during one season. There is nothing of the Chelsea show garden, or the television project in its making. Throughout his life, from the date he and his young wife Olga bought the plot in 1906, to the day he died in 1955, Milles was always experimenting, expanding and altering. Even during long absences in Italy and in America he would keep up a constant stream of correspondence on the planning and maintenance of the garden, with friends back home. The Millesgården was a life’s work. The artists even planned his own burial there, beneath the soaring sculpture, Man and Pegasus. Many people would attest to his garden being one of his strongest pieces of work.
The recent reconstruction of Frida Kahlo’s garden at the New York Botanical Gardens (NYBG) for their exhibition Art, Garden, Life, was a brave effort to resurrect an art-piece. Yet there is something staid about the reconstruction. A working garden, a real garden, is much more powerful that a manicured set, however hard we may try to replicate it. In the New York Times the curator Adriana Zavala called the show “an evocation, not a re-creation.”
“When Zavala and a team from the botanical garden paid their first visit to Casa Azul, a couple of awkward facts came to light. The garden as it now exists, they discovered, bears only a faint resemblance to the one that Kahlo and Rivera knew. Mexico City receives much more rainfall now, than it did in the 1930s and ’40s. Also, as the trees in the garden matured, they shaded out sun, requiring different plant species to be introduced. Since there was no master list of plants in the garden — another obstacle — the Frida Kahlo Museum’s archival photographs had to be scrutinized.”
Along with the Royal Academy exhibition there will be a series of events, including one that I’m pleased to be taking part in. The talk, Contemporary Urban Gardening, Provocations in Art , to be chaired by Alys Fowler, features forager and founder of Forage London, John Rensten, guerrilla gardener Richard Reynolds, whose record of illicit cultivation began in 2004 and me, described in the blurb (rather generously) as an artist gardener. But I’m content for you to consider my rooftopvegplot as a work of art. It is certainly an installation.
The goal for contemporary artists is that we should be moved by the work, whether they are making an installation, a performance, or a sculpture. Art should make us see the world differently. It should make us shift our views. We sometimes think that the artists of the pre-modern era, like Monet in his garden, had a far simpler raison d'être than today’s artists. It is easy to forget that Monet painted these achingly beautiful images in 1914. The studio was within hearing of the guns of the trenches, only 50 kilometers away from Giverny. When I regard these heroic canvases with that knowledge, it is not their beauty that strikers me most. What I'm left with is their aching ability to evoke peace.
Contemporary artists who use the natural world around them from Richard Long to Jeff Koons are always telling us something. The artist’s message, because it is rarely overt, can be intangible, mutable and open to interpretation. It can become irrelevant, as society moves on, or it can, like Monet's work become timeless.
Urban gardening of any kind is an act of faith. The avid front garden ‘decorator’, growing lurid flowers so close to a main road, the allotment owner who toils in the shadow of the steel works, the man who digs up his local roundabout and plants sunflowers are all making a statement of diefiance. We are all committing an act of hope over the insatiable greed of urban development. And artists, even if they have not gardened themselves have used the garden as a metaphor. I’m a particular fan of Van Gough's images of the Paris Market Gardens of Montmartre and Sir Cedric Morris images of his own kitchen garden in wartime Suffolk. I often feel I must cut a similar figure as Pissaro’s peasant gardener in his series depicting the gardens at l'Hermitage, Pontoise.
But gardening can also be a form of agitprop. I went over to vegetable growing because I wanted to demonstrate that vegetables could be grown in six inches of soil, on a roof in the heart of the city. Frustrated with the plodding path of the bureaucracy that I used to work for, I decided to act instead. I decided to grow and show, rather than merely try to influence developers with images and rhetoric. I guess that Richard Reynold and John Rensten both had similar motivations. They too felt a need to get out and do something. Sometimes I still feel the need to shout it from the rooftops.
Modern artist gardens are often ephemeral, blooming just once in the city - a bit like Chelsea Flower Show gardens. But just sometimes someone does produce a living artwork that endures, that speaks to us about our urban obsessions and gently reminds us (because gardens are almost always subtle) that there might be a different way.