Michael Kenna

Nature, Gardens, Ruins

The modern aesthetic of the landscape thrived in the fertile English soil of landscape gardening, which was interested in everything that affected sight and the whole scale of sensations triggered by physical movement, strategically directed and hidden under the attractions of a walk. An art which mastered and guided the gaze with the help of all the artifices which keep the eye moving, while narrowing the frame. Belvederes, panoramas and views are all part of English gardens and their Anglo-Chinese cousins on the Continent. Carefully tended gardens, excluded from the field of the picturesque—that Gilpin insisted must be “rough”—bring into play many criteria for action or contemplation, including the frame and the point of view, which were transmitted directly to photography, along with the terms used to refer to them. The archetypal garden is glorified in Genesis, a hybrid of sacredness, poetry and myth. Divine or mortal, the gardener’s task has not changed: he must turn chaos into cosmos, fight against the dilution of forms and the vertigo of confusion, oust the terrible sublime which destabilizes and disturbs, and open the way to enjoyment. The strict rectangular structure of French gardens in the seventeenth century, the charming, irregular fantasy of the English gardens of the eighteenth century, the illusionism of lakes and ponds and velvety groves met William Kent’s desire to “plant pictures.”

Opening the way to enjoyment

The garden as a readymade picture? Kenna soon sorted this rigorous discipline out. He set about organizing a magnificent, humorous disorder, underlining the disheveled look of a tipsy topiary, subverting the Jansenist geometry of menacing box hedges marching on the photographer like the bushes of Burnham woods. The grammar of horticulture beats a retreat, the syntax of the formal garden is in disarray, surrendering its arms before the photographer’s original vision. The overriding perspectives and dominant circuits ordered by Louis XIV blur and tangle, the king would lose his way. The frame is adjusted and the picture is topsy-turvy. Then, the sensuality of the vegetation takes over in a joyful outburst and the strict patterns are softened; by the grace and enchantment of photography the music of the fountains, the mystery of the still waters and the Nervalian reveries of the terms and other statues split the carapace of rigor and austerity.
In the eighteenth century, the garden engendered artificial madness, deceptive melancholy, “because it would be illusory to think that a landscaped garden is designed to be a natural spectacle: it is above all a carefully ordered succession of ‘points of view’ of buildings or statues, that is to say, the staging of cultural relics.” (Roland Recht)
Gardens changed, Le Nôtre’s dominating Euclidian vision giving the “effect of a dessert platter or a sheet of cut-outs” gave way to a framed landscape. Girardin reiterates this point. The gap between landscape and garden was closed, the view was framed not enclosed, picturesque not geometrical.
Illusion, allied with strangeness and a taste for exoticism, prevailed in the English gardens of Stowe, Chiswick, Claremont, Carlton House … Gilpin went rather too far when he claimed that to give a monument picturesque beauty, “we must use the mallet, instead of the chissel: we must beat down one half of it, deface the other, and throw the mutilated members around in heaps. In short, from a smooth building we must turn it into a rough ruin. No painter, who had the choice of the two objects, would hesitate which to chuse.... In a word, instead of making the whole smooth, make it rough; and you make it also picturesque.” The passion for architectural decorations used as “eye-catchers,” subtly theorized by Girardin, reached its grotesque culmination in Bouvard and Pécuchet, the blithe architects of a horticultural disaster. Kenna produced a grandiose series on an extraordinary French garden of ruins known as the Désert de Retz. The theatrical, twilight atmosphere of these artificial ruins mingled with the disorder of the undergrowth and groves of trees enabled him to unfold the entire range of emotions and subtleties in landscaping from the misty sheen on the fall leavesto the awful roughness of ancient bark. Is there anywhere in Kenna’s work a more nightmarish image than that of the famous broken column, hidden by a tree whose monstrous fibers have gone mad and creep like a cancer over the space, splitting the image from end to end? A return to primordial chaos? Let us bear in mind the idea that the landscape expresses itself through the mediation of the artist: it is not the photographer who here offers himself a cheap metaphor of his moods, but his lucidity which objectively permits the monsters and spirits hidden in nature to appear before him.
Ruins “are present as ruins to the extent that they disappear as things, but in this disappearance as things, they impose a presence which is what interests us, because it is the presence of absent things that makes us think and interpret what we see. The thing must be ruined for it to impose itself in this new paradoxical presence, that of absence, which has the privilege of opening the way to what is essential.” Acceptance of the fragment, its enhancement as a ruin which loses its real size, opens directly into the field of photography. Photography as a trace, as a ruin, “as a presentation of what is not there,” comes close to death.
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