The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

The idea of a gar­den is im­plic­itly an­ti­thet­i­cal to that of a wilder­ness. A gar­den is in­her­ently a place of or­der, peace and se­cu­rity, and for that rea­son is of ne­ces­sity bounded, if not fenced off from the out­side world. The Vir­gin Mary is reg­u­larly shown, in me­dieval and re­nais­sance art, sit­ting in an en­closed gar­den, a hor­tus con­clusus; of­ten the barred gate of the gar­den is shown too, re­call­ing her vir­gin­ity.

But this image in its turn echoes a much older prece­dent. “God Almighty first planted a gar­den,” wrote Fran­cis Ba­con, chan­cel­lor of Queen El­iz­a­beth I, pi­o­neer of em­pir­i­cal sci­en­tific method and es­say­ist, “and in­deed it is the purest of hu­man plea­sures.” He was in turn quot­ing the verse from Ge­n­e­sis: “And the Lord God planted a gar­den east­ward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.”

This is the be­gin­ning of the sec­ond of the two ver­sions of the cre­ation story that are com­bined in the first pages of Ge­n­e­sis — the one con­cerned not with cos­mol­ogy, as the first nar­ra­tive is, but with the fall of man and the ori­gin of sin. Ac­cord­ingly, while the first nar­ra­tive rep­re­sents the cre­ation of man and woman to­gether as the nat­u­ral cul­mi­na­tion of the process of mak­ing the world, the sec­ond starts with the mak­ing of man, then puts him into a shel­tered gar­den, where woman is cre­ated, and from which they are both ex­pelled into the harsh world out­side af­ter their temp­ta­tion and dis­obe­di­ence.

The Gar­den of Eden is thus the He­brew myth cor­re­spond­ing to that of the Golden Age in Greek tra­di­tion, pro­ject­ing the in­tu­ition that hu­mans could be bet­ter than we are into the hy­poth­e­sis that we once were bet­ter, and seek­ing to ex­plain how we came to fall from that hap­pi­ness into our present state.

The Gar­den of Eden was trans­lated into Greek in the Sep­tu­agint as pa­radeisos, bor­rowed from a Per­sian word for a walled en­clo­sure, and its use was prob­a­bly in­spired by the first large-scale for­mal gar­den — and its many later im­i­ta­tions — built by Cyrus the Great at Pasar­gadae, where his palace once stood and where his tomb re­mains to this day thanks to its misiden­ti­fi­ca­tion as that of Bathsheba, mother of Solomon. The out­lines of a vast gar­den, with a net­work of ir­ri­ga­tion canals, can still be seen: mem­o­ries of a time when what is now an arid plain was a lux­u­ri­ance of trees, wa­ter and shade.

The or­dered and con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment of a gar­den, the sub­ject of an ab­sorb­ing ex­hi­bi­tion at the State Li­brary of NSW, is de­signed to of­fer us the most plea­sur­able and har­mo­nious ex­pe­ri­ence of na­ture. So the gar­den is not about the sub­lime, the breath­tak­ing or the over­whelm­ing. These are ex­pe­ri­ences en­coun­tered well out­side the gar­den, in the set­ting of the wilder­ness; the do­main of the gar­den, in Ed­mund Burke’s di­chotomy, is not that of the sub­lime but of the beau­ti­ful. Con­se­quently light and shade are of the great­est im­por­tance, for these are vi­tal to our com­fort and plea­sure in a nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment; and the rel­a­tive pro­por­tions of sun­light and shade re­quired vary ac­cord­ing to the en­vi­ron­ment. In an­cient bu­colic po­etry, writ­ten in Si­cily and Italy where the sum­mers are very hot, the plea­sure of shade is con­stantly re­called; in Eng­land on the other hand, Keats writes with long­ing of “the warm south”.

The ti­tle of the State Li­brary ex­hi­bi­tion, Plant­ing Dreams, evokes the way gar­dens com­pose ideal en­vi­ron­ments, specif­i­cally in the Aus­tralian con­text, but in­clud­ing a range of books and other ma­te­ri­als that in­vite us to re­flect on the ear­lier his­tory of gar­dens. One such vol­ume is a 1697 edi­tion of Dry­den’s Works of Vir­gil, open at the ti­tle page of Book II of the Ge­or­gics, which is de­voted to grow­ing trees.

The image rep­re­sents con­tem­po­rary gar­den­ers work­ing in a for­mal gar­den that is, as one would ex­pect from Restora­tion Eng­land, a com­pro­mise between French and English sen­si­bil­i­ties: plant­ings are in or­derly rows and beds, gov­erned by long vis­tas, as in the great gar­dens of An­dre Le Notre at Vaux-le-Vi­comte and later Ver­sailles. The trees, how­ever, are not sculpted into square hedges or other ge­o­met­ri­cal shapes but al­lowed to grow into nat­u­ral crowns, an­tici- pat­ing their later al­most com­plete lib­er­a­tion in the 18th cen­tury. The English gar­den of this pe­riod art­fully mim­ics the in­for­mal­ity of na­ture, while ac­tu­ally al­low­ing trees to grow into a fuller ex­pres­sion of their own form than they can in na­ture, where they are usu­ally con­strained and crowded by ri­vals.

An­other re­mark­able image is the fron­tispiece of a late-16th-cen­tury Ger­man vol­ume on the Amer­i­cas. Adam and Eve are de­picted, elon- gated in late man­ner­ist style, among the flora and fauna of Brazil. The plate is not meant to be polem­i­cal but al­ludes to the kind of prob­lems that the ex­pand­ing world of the 16th cen­tury posed for those who sought to take the scrip­tural texts lit­er­ally.

For while the myth of Ge­n­e­sis im­plied a sin­gle cre­ation and a sin­gle na­ture, voy­ages of ex­plo­ration in Africa and Asia and, above all, the dis­cov­ery of the Amer­i­cas had re­vealed what

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