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ART BOOKS : English Gardens, Russian Icons, American Moods

June 04, 1989|TIM RUTTEN | Rutten is a Times staff writer.

The two most interesting volumes to be plucked from this season's crop of art books are not in the conventional sense books about art. One of them is, in fact, about gardening; the other is what amounts to the first official English-language survey of the Russian Orthodox Church's incomparable iconographic heritage.

Though their publishers clearly intended something more serious, both books have the additional virtue of suggesting useful reflections on two significant movements in contemporary life.

Gardening, after all, is part of a complex of current preoccupations--like cooking, domestic architecture and a renewed interest in so-called traditional values--that, together, constitute what might be called the revival of private life. Whether this trend derives from social exhaustion, the final triumph of narcissism or the realization of a decent sense of our own limits, we Americans increasingly are a people concerned with how we will live our own lives, educate our own children and provide for our own futures. Anyone who doubts this need only look at our major corporations' rush to capitalize on the "cocooning" phenomenon. Mikhail Gorbachev may no longer believe that history is economically determined, but it's an article of faith among marketing directors.

Similarly, that which against all odds has remained an object of belief among the people of the East is a matter of considerable interest in this era of glasnost and perestroika. One of the least understood aspects of the historic upheaval now underway in the Soviet Union is precisely what place Gorbachev's new thinking will make for the ancient traditions of the Russian church. As orthodox communism declines, Orthodox Christianity may reassert itself as a focal point of cohesive social values, national identity and, perhaps, of the messianic aspirations great powers seem inevitably to assume. Moscow, after all, was the "Third Rome" centuries before it was the capital of the Socialist Motherland.

Historical speculation is fascinating, of course. But fully realized historical fact is far more satisfying. And in this regard, British architectural historian David Ottewill has made an altogether admirable success with The Edwardian Garden (Yale University Press: $50; 230 pp., illustrated; 0-300-04-338-4).

Today, when we think of an "English garden" it is invariably those of the Edwardian period we have in mind. Given that fact, it is hard to believe that Ottewill's history actually is the first comprehensive survey of the personalities, ideas and artifacts of this influential movement. His accomplishment, however, is sufficiently magisterial that no other will be required for years to come.

This handsome, oversized volume from the Yale University Press was designed by Gillian Malpass and printed in Hong Kong, facts worth noting because of the unusually adroit integration of Ottewill's intelligent, but unpretentious text with the book's 125 excellent colorplates and 180 black-and-white illustrations. Many of the latter are period photographs and reproductions of the architects' and designers' working drawings.

When juxtaposed with contemporary photos, as they often are, these lend real substance to the architect Francis Inigo Thomas' pointed admonition: "To design a garden is one thing, and to garden it so as to obtain the desired effect is another."

Vita Sackville-West aptly described the Edwardian gardeners' approach as one which combined "maximum formality of design with maximum informality of planting."

As Ottewill recontructs it, the Edwardian school of garden design began in a controversy rooted in that very dichotomy. By the late 19th Century, the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement were widely held among forward-looking Britons concerned with aesthetic issues. Among the many simple pleasures the movement commended to its followers were those of country living and the garden. Simplicity, however, is often a rather contentious thing, and controversy erupted over what kind of thing this new sort of garden ought to be.

On the one side were the architects, who--rather unsurprisingly--insisted that the new gardens ought to be designed by architects as integral complements to the houses they surrounded. On the other side were the professional gardeners, who argued that principles derived from the experience of wild and cultivated nature ought to prevail over formal design.

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