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Romancing the Ruins: Piranesi's vision of the Villa d'Este in Tivoli self-consciously turns the Italian gardens into an echo of the country's ancient past.

Down the Garden Path

A rich new show at the Cantor Arts Center traces our changing ideas about civilizing nature

By Michael S. Gant

THE TITLE of the new show at the Cantor Arts Center--The Changing Garden: Four Centuries of European and American Art--is slightly slippery. The "art" encompasses everything from oil paintings and watercolors to landscape plans, calendar pages and even a child's game. The "garden" includes not just the expected domestic domain but also the great expanses of lawns, woods, groves, flower beds and plantings most of us think of as "parks." Whether intimate or grandiose, the slices of tamed nature displayed satisfy deep needs, both private and public.

California Impressionist Theodore Wores' 1926 oil painting fills the modest space of his Saratoga Garden, Artist's Studio with an abundance of tall flowering plants tightly framed by the walls of his house and studio and a white-wood pergola, with just a glimpse of the Santa Cruz Mountains in the background. It's the kind of green sanctuary that Silicon Valley residents still pursue when they go looking for a single-family suburban home.

Daumier's lithograph My Graft of a Cherry Tree on an Apricot Tree Did Not Take ..., from 1845, still resonates with any determined amateur gardener. In this gentle caricature, a determined backyard botanist inspects a spindly fruit tree while his wife peers through her reading glasses at the French equivalent of the Sunset Western Garden Book. Three plates from the Diderot Encyclopédie of the mid-18th century function like a Smith and Hawken catalog for Enlightenment gardeners, with rakes, shovels and pruning shears that have hardly changed in 250 years.

At the other extreme, New York's Central Park offers a forested retreat from oppressive urban denseness. In Peter Fink's undated photograph Central Park, the 20th-century spires of Fifth Avenue form a high-rise horizon line dividing the city from the dense vegetation in the foreground, bisected by the park's lake, full of boaters at twilight.

In some cases, what began as private gardens--albeit on the scale that only dynastic wealth can command--eventually migrated to the public sphere. The gardens at Versailles, which served as Louis XIII's hunting grounds in the early 17th century, were expanded into a mathematical grid of walkways and hedge walls by Louis XIV. The astonishing extent of the royal enclave is precisely delineated in a hand-colored etching from 1717.

As much a symbol of absolute power as a showcase for the landscaper's arts, Versailles often served as a backdrop for royal festivals designed to impress a docile populace who viewed them secondhand in etchings like the ones by Israël Silvestre, whose work functioned as a kind of aesthetic propaganda. In a masked ball in 1745 (in an etching by the Cochins, father and son), the landscape comes inside as Louis XV himself and some of his guests arrive dressed head to toe as yew trees.

Versailles fell into disrepair and disrepute after the French Revolution. Eugène Atget's suite of albumen-silver prints from the early 1900s show the gardens pools and statuary bathed in a sepia glaze of nostalgia, with only dry leaves scuttling across the pathways. In Luigi Ghirri's 1985 color photo, the tourist masses get their chance to stroll the king's precincts, marveling at the labor-intensive evergreens, trimmed into the cone shapes.

The show, curated by Betsy G. Fryberger, comes with a complicated set of categories ("Designing Gardens," for instance, is broken into "Prospects and Plans," "Parterres, Mazes and Hedges" and "Textures, Shapes and Colors"). The coffee-table catalog from the Cantor Center and UC Press rewards diligent study, but the exhibit is best absorbed at a casual stroll, as if taking a walk down a garden path.

John Singer Sargent's evocative watercolor Fountain at Aranjuez, from 1902-03, pulls the light-colored stone of a Spanish garden fountain forward from a quick splashing of blue and purple vegetation abstractly rendered. For another fountain, this one near Rome, Singer portrays a female Sunday painter perching on a stone balustrade while a louche gentlemen leans back to admire her efforts. Just as leisurely are British artist Thomas Shotter Boys' hand-colored lithographs of London's St. James Park, circa 1840, with well-mannered young children gingerly holding out treats for greedy ducks and geese.

Not all the gardens are so placid. Piranesi's 18th-century etching of the Villa d'Este in Tivoli makes the famed estate look more like an unearthed ruin from antiquity. Preternaturally tall trees loom over hulking statues that in turn dwarf the mere mortals inspecting the grounds--the present overshadowed by the past.

Even stranger is the Désert de Retz, built near Paris on the eve of the French Revolution. Consciously designed to emphasize the idea of nature reclaiming dominion from man, the garden includes some instant ruins, among them a residence fashioned in the form of a gigantic broken column more than 50 feet high. This exceedingly odd architectural "folly" is depicted in both a engraving from the late 1800s and in a 1988 gelatin-silver print by Michael Kenna. It's easy to see why the bizarre project fascinated the Surrealists in the 1930s (when they found its faux ruination compounded by 150 years of actual neglect), leading Colette to liken it to an "imaginary island."

That phrase suits the show. Even in the most practical of design sketches, the gardens and parks on display are really figments, changing with the passing of seasons, altered by the attentions of visitors and gardeners, always on the verge of reverting to primordial proliferation.

(Note: The show is complemented by a natural work-in-progress: a California garden full of freshly placed native plants, designed by Meg Webster, just the other side of the road from the outdoor Rodin sculpture exhibit.)

The Changing Garden: Four Centuries of European and American Art runs through Sept. 7 at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University. Tours are available Thursday at 12:15pm and Saturday-Sunday at 2pm. The center is open Wednesday-Sunday, 11am-5pm. Admission is free. (650.723.4177)

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From the June 26-July 2, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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