From Derek Jarman to Edie Beale, we take lessons from some of culture's greatest gardeners to celebrate a new exhibition at Paris’ Grand Palais
“I waited a lifetime to build my garden,” wrote Derek Jarman in Chroma, his contemplative tome on the colour spectrum. Anyone who has visited the artist and filmmaker’s black tar cottage on the windswept headland of Dungeness will attest not only to its desolate beauty, but also to the deceptively simple pleasures of its lovingly tended garden. Jarman understood the language and symbolism of plants, their rhythms and healing properties, as well as their importance in art: “Here was a garden to soothe the mind,/ A garden of circles and wooden henges,/ Circles of stone, and sea defences.” As spring deepens, and in celebration of the gorgeous Jardins exhibition at Paris’ Grand Palais, we present a guide to the benefits and delights of botany.
1. Cultivation is a kind of world-making
As Jardins suggests, the cultivation of flora and the sculpting of land are often the expressions of an artistic sensibility. Some of the most bewitching gardens have been created by artists and eccentrics seeking shelter from the world, with these places invariably becoming works of art in their own right. There’s Niki de Saint Phalle’s psychedelic Tarot Garden in Tuscany; Edward James’ surreal paradise in the Mexican rainforest; Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta; Monet’s Giverny. To the list, perhaps we can also add poor John B. McLemore’s comparatively modest maze in Alabama, memorably brought to life in the podcast S-Town. Gardening is a creative pursuit, with gardens providing both inspiration and enchantment to artists and outsiders alike.
2. Lack of space is no obstacle
The joys of botany can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of circumstance. As Wolfgang Tillmans proves, all you need is a window-box. In 1998, the artist moved to a flat on Gray’s Inn Road, where he inherited a weed-strewn window-box. He pressed some acorns into the soil, and within a year had grown saplings. “Over the course of three years I photographed this window-box, which became a sort of miniature garden, and even though it was tiny, it felt like a sort of enclosed world,” he told an audience during the Serpentine Gallery Garden Marathon in 2011. His photographs of urban verdure, including Stoke Newington’s Abney Park Cemetery, have their own dedicated room in Jardins.
3. Plants are good for the soul
“I built my garden with the colours of healing,” wrote Jarman of the humble plot of land he decorated with rose, lavender, sea kale, mint and rue. There is little doubt that the tending and contemplation of green space promotes calm in an unsettled mind, while the painstaking study of botany can focus it away from the cares of the world. “For a while I toyed with the idea of being a botanist,” mused Sylvia Plath’s protagonist Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar. “I loved cutting up leaves and putting them under the microscope […], it seemed so real to me.” Plants are also renowned for specific properties alleviating a range of nervous and physical ailments. For Francophones, the Grand Palais’ website features an interactive page prescribing a selection of healing plants to ease afflictions including stress, nausea and fatigue.
4. Gardens are measures of time and taste
If a garden is a living, breathing work of art, then it will also act as a mirror to the passage of time, changing with the vagaries of climate and fashion. Sometimes these spaces become more magical with disrepair (the unruly grounds in Grey Gardens spring to mind), while styles are reinvented every generation (the gardens of master landscape architect Capability Brown have fallen in and out of fashion ever since they were created). Some of the loveliest works in Jardins meditate on the time-reflecting nature of gardens, in particular the black and white photos taken by Cartier-Bresson of the nearby Tuileries over 40 years ago, creating a lyrical counterpoint with this sculpted urban paradise.
Jardins runs until July 24, 2017, at the Grand Palais, Paris.