Guevrekian, cubist gardener

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The march of artistic transformation appears to be undaunted, and if the paintings of Saint-Lazare station in 1877 paved the way for the Water Lilies of 1910, the latter marked the transition between the invention of Impressionism and the origins of Cubism and the other modern avant-gardes. Thinking about cubism we cannot help but recall names like Pablo Picasso, or Georges Braque, and we are all familiar with their works. In this case, the concept of “impression” is completely surpassed, we are no longer in the domain of reality, or rather, we are in a deformed reality, disassembled and reconstructed to show its completeness. Among the founding principles of this current we can recall the distancing from reality and from all recognisability, the deconstruction of the subject – expressed from every possible angle – through intense analytical observation, the minimal sense of spatial depth, the bodies reduced to geometric figures with details reduced to a minimum. Cubism does not attempt to recreate a third dimension and recognises the two-dimensionality of the canvas, but allows us to observe the subject from all sides, including from within.

These are the criteria Gabriel Guevrekian chose to adopt when designing the garden of Villa Noailles in Hyeres, France. A work from 1928, in which experimentation with modern art began be recognised at an extremely important level. Indeed, not only was Guevrekian’s contribution as designer of the garden, but the whole site and villa were conceived by numerous experimental artists of the time.

It is a simple garden in its complexity, designed to be observed from several angles, where the paving contains a compositional game which reminds us of the principles of Cubism. In it we find the desire to show three-dimensionality without expressing it through light and shadow, letting the surface alone speak for the other dimensions. Although the root of the term “cubism” is actually an amusing anecdote (“When Braque presented some of his L’Estaque works at the Salon d’Automne in 1908, the examining committee first rejected them, then scoffed at them. Matisse, one of the jurors, said scornfully that “Braque had presented a work full of cubes”.

The comment was addressed to Louis Vauxcelles, the man who (sarcastically) coined the term “Fauve” to describe Matisse’s early work. And, as so often happens in these things, there it was, the name had been found, Cubism was born” [Will Gompertz, E questa la chiami arte? 150 anni di arte moderna in un batter d’occhio, 2014]) which does not necessarily involve “cubes”, Guevrekian breaks up the floor into several squares, some of which are filled with flowering tulips.

All placed on different planes, to give the sensation that the “canvas of the surface” literally emerges from the “picture of the garden”: “Guevrekian creates a triangular garden, like the Garden of Water and Light at the Exhibition, whose spatial idea he develops. The composition is based on a rigorous geometric control and on a perspective system that allows very different views as the point of view changes.

The use of the triangular form is in fact an expedient which allows the effects of depth and the dissimulation of perspective to be well controlled. In this garden, too, his is fragmented into facets, all square, placed on different levels, while variously inclined planes connect the ground with the vertical walls which enclose the garden.

Guevrekian intended the square fields to be alternately filled with brightly coloured tulips. In the foreground, a citrus tree and in the background, as a finishing touch, a rotating sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz, Joie de Vivre, animated by mechanical devices: the garden is both a tableau-vivant and a three-dimensional composition of cubist inspiration” (Annalisa Metta, Paesaggi d’Autore. Il Novecento in 120 progetti, 2008).

But this cubist garden is only one of the many examples of the link between art and the garden in the early years of the 20th century, where art took on a compositional role for the most part, transmitting its values and rules to the positioning of the different elements making up the garden, inspiring the designer but leaving him free to integrate the artistic aspect in a systematic, functional way, adapting it to needs without detracting from the free flow of creativity. But Guevrekian showed his skill in an earlier project, the Water and Light garden at the Paris Exhibition of Decorative Arts in 1925. This is a curious work, an inaccessible project, but one of great experimental research, described in a magazine of the time, L’Illustration, as “Four triangular basins in succession, coloured blue or red, painted by Robert Delaunay, receive and transmit water from a glass fountain in the form of a spiral goblet; the flower beds, begonias, ageratum, are also of triangular shape; a palisade of triangular glass plates, with shades of red sloping down into pink towards the top, closes the garden, the jewel in the crown of which is a large polyhedral sphere of glass and mirrors, the work of glassmaker Louis Barillet, which breaks up the light into scattered fires in the centre of the basin. Here, we recall above all the geometric intention deduced from the primitive form of the garden and the simplicity of the coloured planes of flowers” (Jean-Pierre Le Dantec, Le sauvage et le régulier. Art des jardins et paysagisme en France au XXᴱ siècle, 2002).

Garden in the name, affectively a three-dimensional work of art (also in Imbert’s words: “Guevrekian’s garden looks like an enlargement of his watercolours: an out-of-scale Cubist canvas in which the depth of field is compressed frontally”), a space designed solely through the principles of modern painting, transposes the Cubist will by exposing all the faces on a single surface, cancelling out their three-dimensionality. The natural elements disappear in favour of the most modern materials used at the time, mediated by colour, transparencies and textures. There are many works we could mention, some more or less famous, belonging to different artistic currents, and we will now illustrate some of them.