Saturday, June 9, 2012

Colourful thoughts about German gardening and art history

Hermannshof (in Weinheim) in late September

Just had a piece in The Daily Telegraph about my long-standing love of the German gardening scene. Rather funny for a rather Euro-sceptic paper, they published it on the Queen's Jubilee Weekend - nicely subversive.

This year it doesn't look like I'll be going, as so many other things on, but usually I look forward to meeting colleagues, seeing plants and new places. What I like about garden-visiting in Germany is the kind of disjuncture of seeing the familiar used in unfamiliar ways, often on a larger scale, which is a reflection of the emphasis on public horticulture I talk about in the article. Its like having the same set of ingredients but a different recipe for cooking them.

Of course, it being the Telegraph, I had to put in a dig - so the German love of the gnome (Gartenzwerg) seemed the obvious one. Yes, there are a lot of them. And you can even buy a murdered gnome (knife in back). Kitsch is a German word you understand.

I got an email back from my friend the landscape architect Anita Fischer who organizes the lovely Freising Garden Days, same time as Chelsea so consequently invisible to us. Anyway, she slightly ticks me off for suggesting that German gardens are untouched by modern garden design. Not true she says, as she thinks garden design is taking off. To be honest I am a bit out of touch so I'm sure she's right.

What started me off on writing the piece was a new book, by the new Prof of Planting Design and Plant Use at Weihenstephan- Swantje Duthweiler. It's historical, looking in extraordinary detail at the first half of the 20th century's perennials, the nurseries which grew them, the connections with garden designers, the use of plants in public space etc. Fascinating stuff and such a lavishly illustrated book with lots of old postcards, plans, nursery catalogues etc. Rather embarrassing that no-one has done this kind of research for Britain.What i found most interesting was the connections between early 20 century 'alternative' movements and flower colour. Lebensreform (life reform) was an important part of German cultural life in the first decades of the 20th century, mostly to do with diet and exercise, we in Britain had a similar although weaker movement, and of course the Steiner movement came over here; anyone who knows kids who have been to Steiner school will know about the emphasis place on colour in their teaching (and those rather wishy-washy paintings they all seem to bring home). There was an emphasis on pure colour  as an almost spiritual value as part of a healthy lifestyle, which influenced many artists, this also drove variety selection in perennials. Blue was seen as being a particularly spiritual colour by many artists; German breeders certainly produced lots of wonderful blue blue delphiniums.

All this talk of spirituality and colours seems a bit weird to us hard-headed Brits, but that's just one of the things which rather sets apart from German culture. Never underestimate the German ability to philosophize - which probably explains why none of the books of the great Karl Foerster, who dominated German gardening in the 20th century has ever been translated.  Our UK nursery trade did a lot of toing and froing with Germany in the 1900-1930 period, but we tended to be interested only in the colour as an end in itself. It might make a fascinating study to look at the differences between German garden designers and Gertrude Jekyll's theories of colour.

Phlox were a particular passion in the 1920s - so many variations on the theme of pink.

What was most fascinating was the level of connection between leading figures in the art world and gardening - and the consequent status this gave gardening and the nursery trade. I remember visiting the garden of the artist Max Liebermann (1847-1935) some years ago on the Wannsee (lake) on the edge of Berlin. His love of gardening and the artistic use he made of his garden reminds me of Monet and Giverny. Liebermann was involved with the Secession (Art Nouveau) movement and in reading Swantje's book, I realized he was associated with influential art historian Alfred Lichtwark (1852-1914), who wrote about gardens and colour theory in planting design

Those who can relate only to the horrors of 20th century German history will inevitably ask "what about the Nazi period?". Karl Foerster (a pacifist) ended up fleeing to Sweden, and returned to live in the communist east. Swantje points out that there was no specifically Nazi garden aesthetic, beyond a stress on native species, but that had little impact on the all-important public park plantings. The really interesting thing about the Nazi period is the links with the organic movement. I recommend Radical Gardening by George McKay if you want to follow this up. We tend to think of organic growers as being rather cuddly nice people - you won't do after reading this!


If you fancy some lighter reading why not try Dig, Plant and Bitch, the world's first soap opera for gardeners
Find out more here
Will Bonzo the gardener survive his fall off the Charles Jencks inspired mound?


Telegraph Tea Room Garden School said...

What an awesome read. I am going to read up on everything you have mentioned. O why can't we have 48 hours in a day! We need 24 hours in daylight alone! So enjoyed this read, so much information. Thanks.

Unknown said...

I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to see a post about gardens and art history. I so often cannot understand why I specialized once in French surrealist literature and yet now I play with seeds. I spend a lot of time wondering too what a Jackson Pollock garden bed would look like but that's my own subversive tendency... Thank you so much for making me think a bit!

Shirley said...

I was thrilled to read your article today, tying art history with garden history. Ever so interesting! Perhaps you are the one to write the British equivalent?

carolyn mullet said...

There are so many fascinating ideas in this post that I want to follow up on. Here in the U.S. we know next to nothing about 20th century German gardening/nurseries and I'm as ignorant as the next person! Must go beyond Karl Foerster. Loved the reminder that "kitsch" is a German word. Thanks, Noel.


Art is visible in our society, in architecture and in gardendesign. The history in gardendesign you described is so interesting!


Art is a part of our society and is visible in architecture
and also garden design. I have to read more about art history and the impact on the environment - thank you for deliver the interesting content. Excuse -
My English is very limited.

Qfarms said...

very informative post

Anonymous said...

Such an intresting artile on a very unique topic. It is highly informative and will be great help for those who are intrested in the history of gardens.

between-the-lines said...

"... they published it on the Queen's Jubilee Weekend ..."

In fact, highly appropriate for celebrating the Battenburg-Wettin ascendancy.

Glycine blanche said...

Super article. J'adore les delphiniums. Bonne journée.

Marta Góra said...

Dear Noel, What is this absolutely magnificent delicate decorative grass in the first photo?