I really love to see sculpture displayed well in a garden. I like when it has a purpose and fits in with the overall theme or ethos of the garden and never looks like it has just been abandoned there.
So I had reservations when I visited the formal gardens at Versailles for the celebration of the 400th Anniversary of Le Nôtre’s birth last year.
As part of the celebration a number of sculptures by the Italian artist Giuseppe Penone were on display. The artworks in themselves are startling – vast sculptures of trees in wood, stone and bronze.
“The tree embodies the encounter between nature and culture”.(Penone)
We were told that Penone’s work would be placed at Versailles like “new markers that will find here their right place, in subtle harmony with this prestigious site”.
A number of these giant tree sculptures were displayed along this historic vista. The main sculpture above, Tra Scorza e Scorza, displays casts of tree bark from a giant Cedar of Lebanon felled in a storm at Versailles in 1999.
An allusion, perhaps, to Man’s (Louis XIV’s?) arrogance in trying to tame Nature.
Hugely impressive though the sculptures were, they seemed out of scale, almost intrusive.
Not “in subtle harmony with the landscape”, as promised, but challenging that very landscape.
It’s true that classical statues are blanked out by most people visiting classical gardens like this. They are part of the background wallpaper and rarely given a second glance, although they subtly add to the balance and harmony expected in formal gardens.
Penone’s sculptures certainly provoked a response, challenging the visitor to look at the landscape anew.
But I have to admit I found it a challenge too far.
Compare this to another Penone sculpture displayed in the Tuileries gardens. It looks as if a great storm uprooted this tree from the soil. This seems to me to be a better context, and not just because the tree is “felled” and therefore more in touch with the ground and with the landscape. It is striking but doesn’t detract from its setting.
I love the way the sculptor has exposed the roots.
It provokes a reaction – who would abandon a fallen tree like this? – yet looks more in scale. It blends with its surroundings, highlighting the ambiguity between artifice and nature.
At Versailles, I was left wondering what Le Nôtre would have made of it all.
Would “the shock of the new” have delighted him?
Or was he turning in his grave?
I would like to think it was the former.