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Garden Show Cultivates Cultural Sensibilities


Scripps College has staged a great big garden show, but the point isn't nature, it's culture. Five exhibitions scattered around Scripps and adjacent campuses in Claremont explore the notion of gardens "as indicators of taste, as icons of an era and as keys to understanding culture."

The multifaceted production, scheduled in conjunction with a symposium on Saturday, is the work of Prof. Eric Haskell and his students. While other scholars consult literature, art or music to find the essence of social history, Haskell studies the ways people order their outdoor surroundings. And what particularly intrigues Scripps' garden guru is the eccentric excess of the 18th Century.

The piece de resistance of his current extravaganza is "The Desert de Retz: A Late Eighteenth-Century French Folly Garden," an exhibition at Scripps' Clark Humanities Museum. Twenty-six engravings by Georges Louis le Rouge (published in 1875 as part of a monumental study of stylish gardens) and recent photographs by British artist Michael Kenna document a wildly imaginative environment built from 1774-89 in the forest of Marly, just west of Paris, by Francois Nicholas Henri Racine de Monville.

The creator of Desert de Retz was a wealthy, well-connected Frenchman "without an ounce of royal blood," Haskell says, leading a visitor through the exhibition. "Monville was banished from the court at Versailles because he had gorgeous legs," he says. As the story goes, the handsome gentleman was too popular with ladies of the court to be tolerated by the king, so Monville built a retreat at nearby Marly to have a convenient place to entertain his guests, including Marie-Antoinette and Thomas Jefferson.

As the exhibition illustrates, Monville designed a phantasmagorical paradise on 16 acres. Visitors entered through a grotto, followed winding paths and crossed picturesque bridges, making one discovery after another. Tucked away in groves of trees or around bends in the roads were such fanciful structures as the Temple of Pan, the Pyramid Icehouse and the Tartar Tent. There was also an authentic 12th-Century ruin, called the Gothic Cathedral, while Monville's residence was a five-story Ruined Column, constructed in the shape of a classical ruin.

"What everybody lusted for was a visit to the Chinese House because they wanted to see the mechanical singing frog that Monville kept there," Haskell says. Delighted with the outrageous lifestyle and visionary architecture portrayed by the garden, the professor admits: "It's a hoot."

But there's a serious reason for leading his students and exhibition visitors down all these garden paths. "This is the revolution before the revolution. The Desert de Retz sums up the aspirations of France's ancien regime as it tottered on the edge of a revolution that gave way to a new world order," Haskell says.

The grand gardens of France from an earlier era--notably those designed in the 17th Century by Andre le Notre for Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles--could be comprehended in one glance. "When you enter them, the entire plan is apparent. There's one idea and the idea is power," Haskell says. "But at Desert de Retz, you encounter whimsy and an element of surprise. Here the idea is pleasure."

As Kenna's photographs illustrate, the garden has been sadly neglected and overgrown, but an international effort is currently under way to restore it. Several of the buildings have been returned to their original condition, while others await attention.

Broken columns and stone ornaments accompany the Desert de Retz show, as well as an adjacent exhibition of engravings portraying the Folie Monceau, an 18th-Century pleasure garden in Paris. Designed and built by Louis Carrogis Carmontelle for the Duc de Chartres, this multicultural folly included everything from a Dutch windmill and an Italian vineyard to Turkish tents, but the main attraction was a carousel ring game. Both shows close on May 16.

The other three garden exhibitions feature illustrated books from campus library collections. The Ella Strong Denison Library has "Paradises on Paper" (through April 8); the Honnold Library offers "English Landscapes From the William W. Clary Oxford Collection" (through May 16) and the Francis Bacon Library presents "Horticulture and Culture: Books From the Francis Bacon Library" (through April 14).

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