The Art Deco Garden

Figure 1: Paul and André Vera, Four Studies of Garden Parterres, c. 1912-1919, watercolor and graphite on laid paper, 12 ¼ in x 15 ¾ in (31.1cm x 40cm). New York: Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Figure 1: Paul and André Vera, Four Studies of Garden Parterres, c. 1912-1919, watercolor and graphite on laid paper, 12 ¼ in x 15 ¾ in (31.1cm x 40cm). New York: Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Hidden among the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s treasures lies the watercolor entitled Four Studies of Garden Parterres. Designed by Paul and André Vera, this equisse deftly illustrates the formal elements of the Art Deco style in its use of geometric shapes and bold colors (Fig. 1). However, what is arguably the most significant aspect of Four Studies of Garden Parterres is the message behind it. This modern garden was intended to firstly, reflect that chaos of the modern world though its cubist depiction of fragmented perspectives; secondly, to provide comfort in its allusions to the structured gardens of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; and finally, to impose order with its explicitly Art Deco lines and geometric forms.

It is difficult to say with certainty what the parterre, a level space in a garden occupied by an ornamental arrangement of flower beds, would have looked like, since it is unknown if this garden was every produced. However, the faint writing on the center left of the design appears to be a note from the designer to himself, and indicates that the shrubbery would have been low to the ground.

Figure 2: Paul Vera, Garden Décor for Mr. and Mrs. Andre, early 20th century, watercolor. Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France: Musée d’art et d’histoire.

Figure 2: Paul Vera, Garden Décor for Mr. and Mrs. Andre, early 20th century, watercolor. Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France: Musée d’art et d’histoire.

This study of Four Studies of Garden Parterres, as compared to other designs published by the Vera brothers such as Paul Vera’s watercolor Garden Décor for Mr. and Mrs. Andre, illustrates that this watercolor was mostly likely a rough sketch, or an idea in its formative stages (Fig. 2). However, in regards to Vera brothers designs, the concept behind the garden is equally if not more significant than the garden itself, as was seen with other Art Deco artists. Firstly, Four Studies of Garden Parterres serves as a model of Art Deco style. The Art Deco movement began in 1912 with French artist Louis Süe and later received its name after the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris.[1] The Art Deco style was manifested by a variety of artists, who desired to create a new style through a variety of mediums. Among these artists was André Vera, who crystallized Süe’s ideas in Le Nouveau Style, in which he states that straight lines and right angles defined modernity in early twentieth-century France.  André Vera insisted that design should consist of these shapes and that decoration should consist of contrasting rich colors.[2]

The inspiration for such changes in art and design lay in the quickly changing early twentieth-century and its quickly advancing industry. Such changes inspired fear in the French people of the unknown.[3] In addition, the occurrence of the First World War during this period only exacerbated this fear of change ushered in by the modern world. There emerged a general feeling that the world had become fractured, and was no longer recognizable.[4]

It was not only the Art Deco style that reflected this seemingly fragmented modern life, but also the concurrent cubist movement. Primarily developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the early 1910s, cubism came to revolutionize the Western concept of painting and art through a style similarly defined by broken lines and geometrical shapes arranged around a grid-like structure. However, what primarily distinguished cubism from other contemporaneous movement was the illustration of various perspectives sat once, to reconstruct and reinterpret these broken times.

Although cubism is traditionally associated with the depiction of three-dimensions on a two-dimensional surface, cubists also experimented with sculpture, with the same goal as in painting: to reduce objects to geometric forms and planes. The next extension of cubism and cubist sculpture was then cubist gardens, which attempted to copy the effects of cubist painting.[5]

Figure 3: Paul and André Vera, Four Studies of Garden Parterres, c. 1919, watercolor and graphite on laid paper, 12 ¼ in x 15 ¾ in (31.1cm x 40cm). New York: Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. (Detail)

Figure 3: Paul and André Vera, Four Studies of Garden Parterres, c. 1919, watercolor and graphite on laid paper, 12 ¼ in x 15 ¾ in (31.1cm x 40cm). New York: Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. (Detail)

These cubist gardens similarly shortened the visible depth, and attempted to present all the facets of the garden simultaneously. This illusion was achieved by a variety of artifices, such as through the use of two shades of green to give the illusion of varying light, or the use of mirrors to expand the limits of the self-imposed enclosures of the garden space (Fig. 3).[6]

Some scholars have argued that cubist gardens, like cubist sculpture, failed in their endeavor to apply the concepts so deftly achieved in painting to a three-dimensional medium, since the basis of cubism is the articulation of three dimensions on a two-dimensional plane.[7] Regardless, Four Studies of Garden parterres effectively created new manner of viewing a three-dimensional space, a main goal of the Art Deco movement, and successfully generated a fractured environment, even if that fragmentation was achieved purely through the combination of unlikely materials.

However, the objective behind the Vera brothers’ design was to not only achieve a style that was new, but one that also referenced the past. For while Art Deco style was created as a new design, it was intended to appeal to the masses, rather than the more intellectual crowd of the cubists, through its reference to the familiar past.[8] For it was the past that would provide comfort, security and familiarity in these uncertain, changing times. For the Vera brother in particular, this sense of comfort in tradition could not come from pastiche of other cultures and other art forms, but rather from a continuation of French traditions. Thus, in the case of the design Four Studies of Garden Parterres, the Vera brothers attempted to convey that their design is a continuation of the parterre of the French Renaissance and of Louis XIV.

The formal garden rose to popularity in sixteenth century France as a method of demonstrating the powers of art over the wild tendencies of nature. Thus, formal gardens served to express the search for order that was typical of the Renaissance period. In addition, while gardens in the Middle Ages were often located in cloisters or were closed off by walls, the sixteenth-century garden was open and elaborate, demonstrating the order and the control that man had achieved over nature.[9]

It was not until the late seventeenth-century that French garden art reached its pinnacle, in regards to ‘high’ design.[10] Developments in garden design came as result of the great advancements that took place during the seventeenth century, which included the beginning of sophisticated town planning, engineering, and optics.[11]  As such, the golden age of gardening resulted in the formation of an established theory of design and practice, one feature of which was the opening of the garden into its surroundings through the use of lateral perspective and grids, as seen in the central axis of the iconic Tuileries and gardens of Versailles.[12]

Figure 4: Vera, André. Les Jardins. Paris: Émile-Paul Frères, 1919.

Figure 4: Vera, André. Les Jardins. Paris: Émile-Paul Frères, 1919.

This use of axes is clearly replicated in Four Studies of Garden Parterres as well as other Vera garden designs. The man responsible for this new practice, as well as the design of the Tuileries and the gardens at Versailles, was Andre Le Nôtre, who was deemed the greatest French garden and landscape designer. Trained as an artist, Le Nôtre aided in elevating the status of garden design, given that this was still not considered as a ‘high art’.[13] Consequently, garden design gradually began to be considered a ‘valid’ art form. Similarly, Paul Véra considered himself an artist. During his lifetime, he produced screens, clocks, rattan chairs, woodblock engravings, decorative panels, sketches for canvas and tapestries, as well as gardens, in what his brother, André, called his “pursuit of excellence,” particularly in regard to shaping the Art Deco style (Fig. 4).

However, by the eighteenth-century, formal gardens began to disappear as gardeners began the practice of landscape gardening, which was the practice of laying out the grounds in a way that imitated natural scenery, as opposed to the previously fashionable style of highlighting the artificiality of a garden’s scenery. Consequently, parterres, terraces, and canals were replaced by rolling hills and lakes.[14] While the aristocracy maintained the formal garden tradition as an indication of social status, landscape designs in general had, nevertheless, become circumscribed. As René-Louis de Giradin, Rousseau’s pupil and author of the 1777 book On the Composition of the Landscape, noted, gardens had become “sad” and “boring.”[15]

It was not until the twentieth-century that the formal garden experienced a revitalization, which reflected the artistic abstractions of the time. However, with the modern age came a change in how the garden was meant to be experienced. While similar to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century garden in that the intricately designed shapes of the formal garden provided the appearance of order in a quickly advancing and chaotic world, the Art Deco and cubist gardens differed from those created by Le Nôtre, as they were not intended as social spaces or places of interaction between man and nature. Instead, modern gardens were not meant to be experienced, but rather to be viewed. The bold lines and optical illusions not only reflected the chaotic modern times, but they then, in turn, served to impose order on these times. As such, Four Studies of Garden Parterres, as with other Vera gardens, do not allow one to walk aimlessly along the garden’s paths. In fact, rarely are there any paths to follow. Instead, a structure is imposed, an even more solid grid than those created by Le Nôtre, whereby man enforces order not only on nature but on the quickly changing times. Here are two shades of green, which reflect how the light may look at two different times, an effect that serves to depict the future as predictable. Here are blocks, here is cement, nothing is moveable, and all is stable.

Thus, the Vera brothers’ Four Studies of Garden Parterres serves as more than a reinterpretation of the classical French garden parterre but also as a platform for discussing the reemergence of the garden as an artistic medium as an extension of cubist sculpture which demonstrated the underlying need for a sense of order and comfort in the rapidly changing times of the early twentieth century.

[1] Penelope Hunter, “Art Déco: The Last Hurrah,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 30 (1972), 257.

[2] André Vera, Le Nouveau Style (Paris: Émile-Paul, 1912), 48.

[3] Richard Striner, “Art Deco: Polemics and Synthesis,” Winterthur Portfolio 25 (1990), 32.

[4] Richard. “Art Deco,” 23.

[5] Isolde McNicholl, “Shapes of a Future,” Art and Antiques (1985), 13.

[6] Ian Wardopper, “The Flowering of the French Renaissance,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 62 (Summer, 2004): 32.

[7] Fletcher Steele, “French Gardens and Their Racial Characteristics,” Landscape Architecture, July 1922, 222.

[8] Tim Benton, Charlotte Benton, and Ghislaine Wood, Art Deco 1910-1939 (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2003), 55.

[9] Wardopper, “The Flowering of the French Renaissance,” 32.

[10] Matteo Vercelloni, Virgilio Vercelloni, and Paola Gallo, Inventing the Garden (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2009), 142.

[11] Matteo, Vercelloni, and Gallo. Inventing the Garden, 156 .

[12] Alfred Marie, Naissance de Versailles: Le Château et Les Jardins (Paris: Vincent, Freal et Cie, 1968), 143.

[13] Alfred, Naissance de Versailles, 112.

[14] Timothy Vaughan and Anthony Blunt, L’Évolution du Parterre en France: Des Origines Jusqu’à Le Nôtre (Paris: Association des Propiétaires de Monuments Historiques Privés, 1981), 56.

[15] Dorothée Imbert, The Modernist Garden in France (New Haven: Yale University Press, c. 1993), 107.


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