On the long list of human activities that we label as artistic, there is one that is often overlooked, and that few have had the courage to label as such for a long time: garden art.
And yet, this art is very old. It started, at the very least, during the beginning of sedentary life, ten thousand years ago near the Mesopotamian marshes. The garden is first and foremost the place where man produces his food; therefore, there has always been a very profound link between the art of gardening and that of food.
Garden art is mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Bible, and in Homer. Almost all of us know about the Hanging Gardens of Semiramis and the Garden of Eden. There are records of an Egyptian expedition to Somalia to search for rare plants 15 centuries ago. Then, the Greeks, Romans, and Chinese did wonders. Christian convents, Japanese monasteries, and Arab palaces later competed on innovations related to the organization of their gardens.
Then came the Italian, French and English gardens. Some are made of harmony and mastery of nature. Others of abandonment and glorification of the wild world. Some were used as treasure chests for castles. Others were scattered with ruins. Some were open, while others were closed.
Hydraulics, terraces, fountains, boxwood embroideries, flower beds, topiaries, ponds, lawns, and many other techniques were later invented. With these inventions came countless wonders: Tivoli, Chenonceau, Vaux-le-Vicomte, Versailles, Stourhead Garden, Stowe Landscape Garden. And so many others.
Today, garden art has become a very popular activity that is practiced by millions of people around the world. Magnificent exhibitions, such as those organised every year by the Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire, showcase the latest trends in the art of gardening.
Landscape gardening has become a great profession, requiring artistic competence and agricultural know-how: the landscape gardener is the most credible of ecologists, and he is best placed to understand and explain to the world the art of beauty and goodness, both in food and in the preservation of nature.
In the future, garden art will be essential to the future of humanity. Because it is where biological diversity is preserved and conserved. This is where we learn to love nature.
It is also there that we learn that no one really owns his garden: we are only its tenants, and the ones who must maintain it. The garden is the place where we learn that all civilization disappears if we do not teach subsequent generations to maintain and defend it.
Additionally, it is where humanity learns the difference between wild nature, which can be hostile to human beings, and controlled nature, which can help human beings strive to do better, and which is truly a work of art.
A whirlwind question: should we consider nature to be a work of art, in and of itself, and let it live its life, in line with its own needs? Or should we dominate, control, and put it to the service of humanity, and make it a place where human creative impulses are expressed? Is art the property of man or of nature?
This question is at the heart of the debates that have and still put landscape architects around the world at odds. It obviously refers to our relationship with the world. It is also at the heart of today’s debates on how to respond to climate challenges: should we return to nature or trust technological progress?
True art is undoubtedly at the meeting point between these two conceptions. It is neither total savagery nor deadly artefact. Both, taken to extremes, are hell. Here, as elsewhere, life is a compromise. Civilization is a harmony. And art overcomes.
My editorial on the Journal des Arts