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What has the idea of the garden meant to painters in the European tradition? It is a big question, but an ambitious and wide-ranging show at Frankfurt’s Städel Museum – there are more than 200 works on display here, spanning some 600 years, and including works by the likes of Rubens, Dürer, Corot, Van Gogh, Monet, Klee and many others – offers some tentative answers.

The show begins with walls of quotations, one of which is by the English poet John Milton. Milton writes of the garden as a narrow space that contains, in spite of its constrictedness, nature’s whole wealth; it is, as he put it in Paradise Lost, “a heaven on earth”. These words peer down at old, leather-bound paintings of botanical specimens from the 16th century that seem to be in entire accord with Milton’s thought, such is the exquisite pleasure the painter seems to take in recording the richly colourful presence and shapeliness of a flower such as the tulip.

Central to Milton’s epic poem is a theme that receives surprisingly little attention in this exhibition. The Bible tells us that Adam and Eve, although born into an exquisite garden of natural abundance, were expelled from it for the sin of human curiosity. So a key element of the Judeo-Christian heritage – and one that has been fully addressed in painting – is one of exile from Eden. This exhibition, by and large, chooses to ignore that great heritage, and is the poorer for it, although that is not to say it is second-rate. Far from it: there are far too many wonderful paintings here in celebration of the garden for that to be possible.

The first great painting we encounter is one of the smallest on show, and the earliest. “Little Garden of Paradise”, painted by someone now known only to us as the Master of the Garden of Paradise at the beginning of the 15th century, shows us a tiny, enclosed space bursting with natural wonders. The curator, peering over my shoulder as she speaks, is at pains to point out to me how many identifiable species of flowers and birds can be seen in this painting.

Her observation links up with another interesting fact about this show. It is almost as much about the wonders of nature in general as it is about gardens in particular. Botanical specimens loom large here and there, including samples collected and mounted by the likes of Goethe, Joseph Beuys and Paul Klee, for example. So there is some evidence of thematic drift – the show has spawned the beginnings of another show about the relationship between science and art. Again, this doesn’t matter much because it is fascinating to discover such a general passion for botanical specimens among painters and writers, to recognise how plant forms – their visual panache, their graceful styles of dying – had a powerful effect on the shapes that subsequently appeared in the work of Beuys and Klee.

The greater part of the show cleaves more closely to its theme. One important division in the way artists have handled the
garden is immediately noticeable. There is the garden inhabited
by human beings, and the
garden void of human presence. Flowers alone, as in paintings here by Nolde and Monet, are tremendous visual feasts. We gobble them up with the eye in passing. For Fragonard, on the other hand, in the 18th century, the garden is a site of elegant encounters, not so much some breathing natural presence as scenery or theatrical backdrop.

In general, the presence of the human element often serves to tame the garden, to eliminate any vestiges of untamed nature – and to concentrate the mind on the fact that we are in the presence of a privileged bourgeoisie at indolent play. The garden with its brilliant array of nodding colours serves to enrich the rouge on the cheek of the elderly hostess as she swings her croquet mallet.

One interesting painting by Caspar David Friedrich, “The Garden Terrace” (1811-12), shows us a woman reading. She is sequestered in an elegant garden, set against a view of untamed nature. The periphery of the garden is defined by two lions and a piece of neoclassical statuary. The order within is set against the fearfully unconfined world without. The woman may have permission to live within the imaginative world of her book, but she herself is rigidly confined within the conventions of the garden in which she sits so pertly. How risky is her reading material?

This is the garden as site of threatened innocence, a place of manufactured peace. And when you glance up from wandering round the ground floor of this show, you suddenly see it, just beyond the window: a museum garden, quietly secluded, manicured to give instant pleasure. The real thing: what better counterpoint could there be to this intriguing exhibition?

‘The Painter’s Garden: Design, Inspiration, Delight’ is at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt, until March 11. Tel +49 69 605098 200

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