You may say, that thanks to his remarks the park grew and became richer. In advance already did he recognize what the new and growing plantings promised to become like. No spot was neglected where some thing of beauty could still be made to stand out or added to the garden.
Goethe, Die Wahlverwandtschaften
One thing is certain – Utopia is nowhere.
Some have designed their utopias to exist – one of these days. Others are invented never to come alive. Then again, there are also utopias expressly intended by their creators to realize a dream. In all cases, however, Utopia is simply nowhere, a non-place and thus pure future. No jam today, always jam tomorrow.
There is no way of testing the truth of a Utopia, no manner of predicting its effectiveness. Only what meets today’s requirements and needs can possibly be verified. Anyone claiming that art is an experiment with history is using a metaphor. The elusiveness and largesse of art’s objects exclude all testing. After all, an experiment presumes the possibility and ability to vary a number of variables. Art as such, however, is completely variable and always individual. Art is always utopian.
One chilly April day, sitting in my hotel room in French Fontaine-Chaalis, I wrote the following words on the back of a postcard showing an autumnal garden:
How strange, a world so bitter and cruel, yet covered with so many genuine paradises. Oh Garden Artists throughout the ages, Thou painters with brushes large as weeping willows and pigments fragrant as hyacinths – You are the greatest utopians ever!
That very day my colleague and I had already visited the gardens of Beloeil in the south-west of Belgium, now we were a stone’s throw away from the park of Ermenonville. The noble creators of these two parks, Messrs De Ligne and De Girardin, enjoyed their gardens thoroughly, they were considered a resting place for lost souls who wandered in from faraway cities.
Their owners, moreover, regarded these parks as true topoi, each a locus amoenus or beguiling spot which should encourage and spur its visitors to organize their own lives and their own society in accordance with the polished version of ‘nature’ as they found it here.
Intended not as ou-topos they were- a spot that never had existed and never would exist anywhere – but rather as a sort of zone liberated by guerrilleros from which goodness would spread throughout the whole wide world. Prince Franz wanted the realm of his Anhalt-Dessau to be ein Gartenreich, one great garden empire covered with paradises that would one day spread out to become Paradise period.
A noble guerrilla, for sure.
Curiously enough, it was precisely in the fact of their practical expectation of realizing such dreams that the unrealistic and utopian aspect of their ideas may be explored. When in the second half of the 18th century such noble Gentlemen began to lay out their first wild English Gardens, their social class – the aristocracy – was already doomed, certainly in France but if seen in a slightly longer time perspective also elsewhere else in Europe. Even in their own eyes all evidence pointed that way.
While in 1790, under the glorious Provence skies and in the very year after the beginning of the French Revolution, the Seigneur of Gémenos Jean Baptiste Albertas was giving a party in honour of his villagers, they murdered him in of all places his own garden. Yet, a slaughter of this kind still had the charm of being personal, bearing in mind that hundreds of kilometres further north not long after this gruesome event the nobility was to be killed en masse and almost anonymously.
This was done on the assembly line of the scientifically developed guillotine, a device that as a contemporary aptly remarked cut off heads with the speed of a wink. Perhaps, those who killed Jean Baptiste thought that with their Lord still alive the ‘better society’ as represented by his garden could simply not be realized.
Even before that time though, the gardens of Prince Franz and Jean-Baptiste were already ou-topoi or non-places. After all, their views on an ideal society and the notions entertained by ‘their people’ were rather different. The ‘modern age’ that was about to dawn or had perhaps already started was urban and industrial rather than feudal, rural and idyllic.
Meanwhile, the paradises – or rather the miniature paradises in the shape of gardens like Wörlitz, Ermenonville, Beloeil and Le Désert de Retz – had lost their exemplary function. They no longer stood for a ‘better society’ but had degenerated into places of pilgrimage for nostalgic visitors who no longer possessed the allegorical power of their 18th-century predecessors.
Despite his misgivings the gardens of De Ligne survived the Revolution unscathed, however somewhat later they yet disappeared. Utopian as they always had been, they now became an ou-topos in a double sense: not only were they no longer kept, along with the Revolution ‘people of sentiment’ whom their designers had in mind had also disappeared. Nobody could understand the deep meaning of all those follies any longer…
All is flux – one cannot step into the same river twice, however one can do so twice in the River Rhine. Even when walking the gardens of Beloeil today, you are not walking in the gardens of De Ligne. In full bloom, yet nature morte. This even applies in a stronger sense to all the gardens that became incomplete, where follies or fabriques were not maintained or even have been demolished.
Just as the rise of the genre of the English Garden was not an instantaneous affair, its specimen in Wörlitz was not created in one stroke. The garden revolution began with a rather Dutch-sounding text, written in 1685 by William Temple:
In laying out the gardens, great sums may be thrown away without effect or honour if they want sense in proportion to money; or if nature be not followed; which I take to be the great rule in this, and perhaps in everything else …
Whether the greatest of mortal men should attempt the forcing of nature, may best be judged by observing how seldom God Almighty does it himself, by so few true , and undisputed miracles as we see or hear of in this world.
This process of slow transformation of the French style of gardening – in England often known as Dutch Garden – into the natural English version involved the disappearance of a garden confined within walls with its formal flower beds, fruit trees, neat rows of plants and bushes, in favour of an idealized ‘total landscape’ sometimes called a ‘country park’.
Early 18th-century German literature was trying to express this growing feeling for ‘nature’. Such intensification, however, was not yet reflected in the period’s aristocratic gardens which, longer than those in England, remained formal and organized according to ‘the French taste’. One of the reasons for this was the fact that at the critical moment – around 1750 – the German antiquarian Winckelmann’s plea for ‘the Greek taste’ gave rise to a new German classicism, preventing the change towards the ‘English’ style.
The Wörlitz estate – the first German garden to become ‘English’ – consists of several gardens, a few of which are still geometrical, while the rest is in the English style. Work on them started in 1764, the geometrically laid out gardens being established first. The work on the much larger English park followed in stages, this after in 1770 great floods around the Elbe had occurred which actually triggered this garden revolution. A flower garden, several lakes and large areas of arable and pasture land were incorporated, bordered by a variety of trees.
Around 1770 you would still find French styled gardens at all small German royal courts, either stretched to its high-spirited rococo limits, or with a Baroque Garden fragmented into a number of smaller gardens, however still geometrically designed. By that time, in England the type of ‘natural’ garden had already become quite popular. Prior to and during the construction of his gardens Prince Franz von Anhalt-Dessau and his advisors had even made four study trips to that British Isle. The Prince also considered to settle there with his maîtresse. However, regal form triumphed over bourgeois frivolity and folly so in the end he married a real Princess.
A remarkable contrast exists between model and imitation it was – between on the one hand his English ‘colleagues’ and on the other hand the German minor monarch Franz. The English landed gentry was largely made up of nouveaux riches, upstarts who had seized both the opportunity to become capitalist industrial entrepreneurs and take hold of a title, this at a moment of history, when the system of feudalism was definitively breaking down and parliamentary democracy began to take root, however not yet giving all too much power to the common people.
In Germany, by contrast, the top layer of society felt most uncomfortable about the bad example which rebellious people in France and elsewhere had given their own nationals, even though there was no revolutionary zeal in Germany yet. Smaller states, such as Weimar and Dessau, were ruled by ‘enlightened’, albeit still ‘absolute’ princes who had succeeded in buying out their nobles’ competition while brushing them aside. However, quite a few of these small princes did contemplate the handing over some influence to their people. They could afford the promotion of the arts and attempted to raise their people’s health, knowledge and skills.
Purveyors of culture, often members of the nobility, pursued Winckelmann’s classicism; the progressive bourgeoisie was looking mainly to English comfort. Prince Franz somehow managed to represent these two different levels of his population in his one royal person.
Apart from a Country Seat in Park Wörlitz built in the classical Palladian style, the Prince had also planned a Gothic Mansion. Here he withdrew himself among his old treasures and the family memento’s. Like the entire park, this country house was also open to the common man. His contemporary Boettiger wrote in a commentary: Man genoss doppelt, denn man genoss mit Hunderten. [You were enjoying yourself doubly so, as you enjoyed it with hundreds.]
In his novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften Goethe described (1809) this transformation of countryside into country park as mainly the pastime of a bored aristocracy. This, however, does not apply to Wörlitz. Prince Franz’ Gartenreich is rather unique, because he radicalized the inclination already present in the works of the Brit Pope, to unite the Useful with the Beautiful and the Pleasing.
Anhalt-Dessau under Franz’s reign presents us with the picture of an educational project integrating culture, medicine and farming. The primacy of the Beautiful, which had applied since Horace, was now reversed. There is nothing in this park purely for its aesthetic effect – everything is either immediately useful, with cultivation, grazing and growing going on right in the park; or indirectly so, with every scene designed to educate the people.
In a letter from 1770, addressed to the philosopher D’Alembert, the Prusian King Friedrich wrote rather egotistically,
…that it is a waste of energy to enlighten humanity. One should be content with being wise oneself, provide of course that one is capable of it. Folly must be left to the rabble, and one must keep them form crime because that disturbs the social order.
While, in the same vein, ‘enlightened’ David Hume believed that the common people could be irrational and religious; while Voltaire wondered how far one could go in trying to fool the people; while Schiller believed that, despite his proposal fort a Aesthätische Erziehung des Menschen [Aesthetic education of Man], it would take centuries to enlighten the common people, Franz and his advisers begged to disagree.
In contrast with these insights they adopted a strategy in which, also contrasting with the British solution, the park was there not only for the pleasure of its owner. They allowed the garden to descend the social ladder and invited ‘their people’ to enjoy it. The garden was expressly aimed at public education.
In Wörlitz repression was ‘trained to fit the Zeitgeist’, to use Sloterdijk’s words. It was most certainly not the intention of Prince Franz’ Gartenreich to instigate a revolution.
With an inscription on an imitation urn atop an imitation island in the Wörlitzer park, Franz praised the Frenchman Rousseau:
He instilled common sense into foolish fellows, he instructed the sensualist in genuine pleasure, he referred erring art back to the simplicity of nature, the doubter to comfort and revelation – all with manly eloquence.
The German philosopher J.G. von Herder was also given a memorial island. He had rewritten the ideas Rousseau on individual education, turning them into a pedagogy of the people which he interpreted as ‘an education of the heart’ as well as an ‘education of the whole of humanity’.
Bildung in short, a process that naturally unfolds in stages, each one taking up a whole ‘era’. This should have heartened good Father Franz, as he was sometimes called – after all, Herder was interpreting 18th-century despotism in a positive way. He called it the ‘fatherly hand’ so needed by ‘the childhood of humanity’.
Kent’s pioneering English Gardens contained multiple perspectives involving scene after scene. 18th-century garden theorist and neo-Gothicist Horace Walpole commented on them in his essay On Modern Gardening:
Prospect, animated prospect is the theatre that will always be the most frequented. An open country is but a canvas on which a landscape might be designed.
Kent’s individual scenes each have their own viewpoint or a line of sight without becoming overly forceful. However, the natural transition from one scene to the next also manages to give them a common harmony. We know that before they started on Wörlitz, Franz and his advisers had seen Kent’s gardens. Herder, who had his own unique views on the relative value of different cultures, appears to have been a solid source of inspiration for the pedagogical theory that fed the Wörlitzer set-up. Here then Herder’s cultural relativism was married off to Kent’s garden philosophy, both connected with Franz’ Gartenreich.
To anyone who asks which has been the happiest nation in recorded history, Herder replies that every nation has its own high point of happiness – one sort of happiness is not ‘happier’ than another. The measure of happiness is certainly not technological progress, but rather the happiness of each person and the contentment of the whole of humanity. This point of view considers Winckelmann’s idea of a privileged Classical Greek period as being superior to others just as stupid as placing one’s own epoch on a pedestal, as did the Enlightened philosophers of the Age of Reason.
Italy is the theatre most instructive as to the various epochs of the world … Here you come upon the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans an Etruscans … Travel provides us with a catalogue of what survived.
Herder’s own trip to Italy, made in 1788, ended however in major disappointment. Face to face with the remains of Antiquity, he suddenly found these to be stagnant pools in a dead sea. His own philosophy, by contrast, focused on the living ideas of each period. He rejected as ‘foolishness’ all forms of nostalgia and Sehnsucht for the past.
Herder’s aversion to France and ‘French taste’ is remarkable. He called it Gallicomania and regarded it as the glorification of an ideal of life that is certainly not part of the German national tradition. In Germany it can only be borrowed and thus unnatural. Cynically he noted with regard to the French fashion: Every little Court must be a Versailles. Included in his scorn Herder had also the French Garden style in mind. For him the Gothic manner of construction is the true metaphor for natural growth of both language and folk culture – little by little, unplanned, everywhere each in its own individual way.
What nature cannot stop, the gardener cannot curb.
A wise prince must therefore take the responsibility of managing nature; he must not go against her. Herder’s God is to be found both in nature and history, two entities connected by a spiritual bond. Against this background his rejection of any revolution may be understood. When it comes to the regeneration of humanity, the buzzword ‘revolution’, en vogue at that time, is completely unacceptable for him: it is unnatural because it upsets the vibrant circulation of sap in the Tree of State.
Given that radical intervention in naturally evolved cultures is totally unacceptable, Herder recommended education through character formation, this by way of the measured guidance by what he calls a wise Father-Gardener. His concept of individualization is rather broad. Each nation is considered as the individualisation of the whole of humanity; within a single nation every person needs to be individualized and have a character. Individualisation of nations takes place under the pressure of their particular climate:
An atmosphere that surrounds us, an electric lake in which we live. Both are in perpetual motion … There, in the place were their sons have migrated and settled over thousands of years, they take root – like trees that have special leaves and fruits suited to the climate.
The true man of God is – still according to Herder – more likely to feel his weaknesses rather than to wallow in his positive powers. In other words: such a man is educable. Education is not about disciplinary regimentation, it is all about formation of individual character.
Social class merely produces puppets; personality, however, provides value and merit, to be understood as a person’s full value, his civic usefulness … full of healthy ideas and warm and joyful tendencies instead of external morality.
In this context, the influence of the arts on people is crucial, in particular the influence of the art of gardening. In his critical debate with Immanuel Kant, Herder emphasized that art is not just an artistic game played with our imagination; it is instrumental in forming character. Natural beauty is absolute, our feeling for it is innate. However, its shape in the forms of people’s tastes is determined by the environment. Art, then, is an vital part of these surroundings considered as our cultural climate.
Herder’s analysis of the significance of the various senses in relation to the arts is important. The philosophers tend to give primacy to the visual. This, however, is our most detached, our coolest sense. Hearing and touch bring us far more directly in contact with the substance and form of things. Kant, in his Aesthetics, had already claimed that the essence of architecture and of the art of gardening lies in the drawing. Undoubtedly, he had the formal French garden in mind.
Ideally, one may conjecture, a Formal Garden must indeed be viewed from a static point, situated on the platform in front of the House, that is: as if the garden were a drawing. For Herder, however, perfection is the essence of any art, including the art of gardening – perfection as the essence of form. For Kant, on the other hand, aesthetic satisfaction is merely a play of forms.
Among the five liberal arts Herder registers the gardener’s art, while according to Kant could never be a real art at all, being too useful, too utilitarian.
In this context Herder’s unique consideration of the sublime is of interest, i.e. the experience of the many in one. The more unity in the experience there is, the more for him it is sublime. For Kant the visual sense is especially susceptible of the sublime, so painting, architecture and sculpture can best achieve this effect. Missing in his list is gardening.
For Herder the garden is abundance of the many par excellence, the involvement of all the senses, particularly those of smell and touch, but even those of taste for anyone who quenches his thirst with a few dewdrops or honey leaves.
Unity effects the sublime, as seen in the unity of the French Garden; multitude and abundance however provide us with the beautiful, which for Herder happens in the English Garden, presented as something organically grown and therefore not primarily sublime. However, one can still get this uplifting sublime experience while observing the great House and also the pensive follies and sculptures that are scattered in the park.
For Herder, then:
…every prince is a gardener taking care of the education of the first,
tender human shoots – this in a favourite garden of God.
Could Prince Franz, the gardener and educationalist, have thought of a finer motto for himself and his Wörlitzer undertaking! Herder’s God resides in the unity of history and nature. Only in the English Garden, and this through the senses, do these two come directly together. An enlightened educationalist could find fulfilment in this. It was at the time the pretext for control by the gardener of the cultural climate.
Prince Franz succeeded in combining the aesthetic guideline contained in the Englishman William Kent’s series of relatively autonomous scenes, each with their own perspective, with Herder’s philosophy of history. In his Wörlizter park Prince Franz collected models from various periods in human history, giving each of them their own ‘scene’ which symbolizes their intrinsic cultural value – not a hierarchy, not the one above or below the other, but all cultures beside one another.
Thus in his park you will find a Jewish synagogue in a classic guise, a Gothic mansion, a British version of the Palladian Villa, an Egyptian base for a Pantheon, a Classical urn – and so on.
That these several cultural periods should not be interpreted as fragmented pools in a dead sea is proven by the fact that long sight-lines between certain key elements in the park have been created, giving them an overriding, but at the same non-hierarchical coherence. From the terrace of the Schloss you can simultaneously observe from afar all the various historical highlights; the same applies to the positioning of the Urn, the Monument, the Gothic House and the Temple of Venus.
Sometimes, this solution is found in one and the same building, as for instance das Fremdenhaus in the Georgium, one of the other parts of the Dessauer Gartenreich.
It is a design from the architect Erdmannsdorff, who was responsible for a significant portion of the classicist buildings in Anhalt-Dessau. This building, once a ruin, now restored, has four different façades: baroque, gothic, renaissance and late classical. It stood secluded in the garden and none of these façades took precedence over the others. For the connoisseur a stroll around it was like walking through the history of humanity, however without making any progress. One might, as it were, walk on an on in the same circle.
This deliberate choice for various types of garden and its follies, all next to one another, seems to express Herder’s cultural relativism, which is typical also of Wörlitz. After elsewhere in Europe the Garden Revolution’ had taken place, whole French Gardens were suddenly dug up completely to make way for the English variety. In Wörlitz it was there from the start, itself naturally evolving over the years.
The enlightened, yet absolute little Princes of Germany anticipated the possibility of their people getting revolutionary ideas and therefore began to educate them properly, that is gently pushing their imagination in another direction. They had always that beautiful example in their mind of the a non-violent revolution in England.
What better to do in this context but hold up to them a static tableau which, albeit showing a variety of real historical cultures, completely dispenses with that notion of progress which elsewhere in that same period was so richly praised. All this in a park which assembles these cultures under the aegis of a Prince whose aim it was to improve the living conditions and the character of his people, of course according to his own design.
What we have in Wörlitz is Herder’s ‘the many and the one’ and why not: the many in one, many ages in a single age, even though it is impossible to survey these in there entirety. However, the variety of perspectives do give it the nature of a baroque collection of cultures, like the baroque library aimed at the creation of a collection of all possible sorts of knowledge, with no less the figure of God himself high in the lofty roof of the library, in his ultimate wisdom overseeing and encompassing it all – something, of course, not given to a mortal intellectual down there at one of the reading tables.
The main function of the classical English Garden in Wörlitz was the stabilising of an existing order and of immobilising time. Refinement is the maxim, not progress. Whereas in England a landed gentry made the countryside productive and profitable in a capitalist manner so as to provide the growing cities with enough food – by order of parliament, believe it or not – Anhalt-Dessau was a Bedarfsdeckungsgesellschaft, a society based on the principle of the fulfilment of need, with a Prince who needed to make its preservation his function.
The Wörlitzer Gartenreich – a conservative utopia, a garden in which the future of the past was designed. Here Herder’s ideas took precedence over the revolutionary ideas of Rousseau. A collective and conservative pedagogy was more than a match for a progress-oriented individualism.
Prince De Ligne and prince Franz were convinced that a well-designed garden could attract only people of the right kind – people who would leave it as better men than as they had come in.
What conclusions should we draw from this experiment with history, an experiment based on the art of gardening? Should we say that Wörlitz failed because it was unable to save an enlightened absolutism? Or claim that – if only more people had been ‘exposed’ to the park – its loss could have been avoided? I believe that Herder has taught us a wise lesson. Each work of art is utopian and unique – the great grasp of an artist can neither be verified, nor falsified.
Herder in Wörlitz – Herder not in Wörlitz. Who knows? I’ve had my say and perhaps my reader could follow my argument. But to verify my reading of these gardens – once again impossible.
When in 1787 Prince Franz was constructing the Dessauer cemetery he was still considering death as a form of sleep. By the time he had created his Herder Island – in 1797 – he seemed to have changed his opinion and moved to Herder’s more melancholic position.
The first of the inscriptions on the philosopher’s cenotaph is taken from his work:
We are mortal and so are all our wishes
Sorrow and joy, they pass as we pass
It would appear that during the long decades in which the Wörlitzer park was laid out, Franz moved closer and closer to Herder’s view of the world. The second inscription on that cenotaph reads:
We must learn to play,
for without play life is doom and gloom.
With this, just like Franz, Herder meant the serious play with Beauty which is considered at once the Good and the Truth. Not the frivolous play of mere sensuality. That only leads to revolutions and the like.
This essay was first published in The Architecture Annual 1996/1997, 010 Publishers Rotterdam (1998)
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