The most recent post on the excellent British website ThinkinGardens is about the use of allusions in gardens. Noel Kingsbury, one of three people taking part in the conversation, suggested that allusions were all well and good in gardens from other times and places but that in today’s gardens, they are outmoded.
“Allusion in the West which previous generations of artists and garden makers used was based on Classical and Christian mythologies. Very few of [us] are now conversant with either. So – first question – how do we create and use a contemporary language of allusion?
And the very practical question two – how do you ‘get the message across’? Either allusion works or it doesn’t.”
In effect, Kingsbury is saying that allusions to classical sources are elitist, that you either ‘get’ the allusion or you don’t based on your familiarity with classic mythology, the Bible or Shakespeare, to note three of the most common sources of literary allusions in English.
I disagree. For large numbers of people many allusions based on classical and Biblical sources are as ‘readable’ now as they were in the past. In fact some are so obvious that they have become clichés to be avoided.
Snakes in gardens, for instance. The idea is widely understood and when used in a garden could be heavy-handed. But at the same time it suggests something that every gardener believes, that while their gardens may be wonderful, they remain imperfect, a suggestion rather than a realization of paradise.
At the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, statues of Hercules dating from the 1500s linked Cardinal d’Este and his family with the strength and power of the demigod. Garden visitors of the period would ‘get’ that message because they knew that the d’Este family claimed to be descended from Hercules, but even without that specific knowledge, the layout of the garden and the arduous climb to the palazzo at the top of the hill made the point clear.
A statue of Hercules sends a similar message today. Whether at Villa d’Este in Italy or at Vaux-le-Vicomte in France or at Kykuit in New York State, the presence of Hercules tells us something about the person who built and owns the garden — she or he is large and powerful; approach with care.
Kingsbury asks how we can create and use a contemporary language of allusion. My response is that many garden designers, landscape architects and artists are doing this already, using today’s cultural landscape to allude to larger and broader concerns.
Andy Goldsworthy, for example. Permanence and impermanence, constant themes in gardens throughout the centuries, are central allusions in his works whether they are made from stone, leaves, snow or the petals of flowers. For a thoughtful viewer, the ephemeral nature of much of what he does highlights current concerns about the environment and our effect on it.
Allusions to scientific discoveries and mathematical ideas feature in the works of Charles Jencks; these allusions stretch our minds beyond the confines of the particular garden, which is what allusions are meant to do.
More mundane allusions exist as well. In my village in rural Quebec, a tree stump by the road is painted with the picture of a woman with blue hair piled high. Could anyone who watches tv miss the allusion to the Simpsons or doubt that someone named Marge lived there?
A more literary allusion appears at a junction in the woods at Glen Villa where a sign on a tree trunk painted yellow announces that a choice must be made. Most people passing by will recognize the source — Frost’s poem is so overworked that you can easily imagine it appearing on a poster on the ceiling of a dentist’s office. But seeing the sign, the walker may think again about the poem and about what it means. They may read it again. They may even understand that it doesn’t matter which path they take — both lead to the same destination.
Allusions aren’t necessarily elitist or exclusionary although they can be. Much depends on what the viewer brings to the garden and to the effort she is willing to expend. Seeing something unfamiliar, does she simply pass by or does she stop to look, to think, to question?
Many people visiting the English garden Rousham will wonder why a statue of a lion attacking a horse appears at the end of the bowling green in front of the house. Did General Dormer, the garden’s owner, choose the statues for his garden or was it the designer, William Kent? Is there a connection between Dormer and a dying gladiator, or between him and the attacking lion? Or were they simply the statues that happened to be available when Dormer or Kent went shopping?
A visitor to the contemporary Italian garden, Bosco della Ragnaia, may feel a sense of disappointment at not seeing lots of flowers. Or she may look at the arrangement of trimmed shrubs and blocks of tufa and wonder why it feels familiar. Is Sheppard Craig, the garden’s creator, alluding to something in the history of Italian gardens? And what about the name of the garden? Or the multiple references to opposing qualities — night and day, light and dark. Why does Craig picture himself as Pan and who is represented in the small statues of goddesses that appear throughout?
Allusion is one of many tools in a garden designer’s toolkit, as useful today as it was in the past. Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden Little Sparta, considered one of the 20th century’s greatest, is jam packed with allusions. Many will escape most viewers unless they bring a knowledge of the classics with them or make a concerted effort to understand the allusions once they’ve left. Since many allusion refer to war and warships, understanding them may require a knowledge of history which certainly can vary with the age of the viewer. How many teens, for instance, will recognize the humour of the sign pointing to the Siegfried Line that sends them marching to the site below?
At Glen Villa, a wooden bridge that joins our property to our neighbour’s becomes a visual reference to a linguistic metaphor — the idea of bridging gaps between people and countries and ideas. The signs are a playful allusion — appropriately so, since the word allusion comes from the Latin alludere, to jest or play with. The signs play with the idea of the metaphoric versus the concrete; the sign says that the bridge is not, and yet clearly it is. The signs allude less directly to René Magriette’s painting, The Treachery of Images, where a picture of a pipe is accompanied by the words, Ceci n’est pas une pipe. They may also say something about our relations with our neighbour.
Does it matter if the person crossing the bridge ‘gets’ these allusions or is the touch of humour enough in itself?
Allusion is a short hand that simplifies complex ideas and emotions. And there are many ways to use allusions in a garden that go beyond statuary. A symbol carved on a rock, a name given to a garden feature, a window framing a view of a commonplace scene — all can allude to an idea, an attitude, a bias, an experience. By suggesting a separate or different point of reference, allusions allow a person experiencing a garden to put what they are seeing, feeling and thinking into a broader context. Allusions take them beyond the garden walls and link them mentally to a wider world.
By doing this, garden allusions engage the mind as well as the other senses. It is true that unless the garden visitor knows the story or event or person that is being referred to, the allusion will go unnoticed. But is that necessarily a bad thing?