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“Natural” Performances: Early Twentieth-Century Body Cultures in American Gardens

Robin Veder, Pennsylvania State University, Fellow 2011/12

Dumbarton Oaks was a fertile research home and subject, yielding an expanded and re-conceptualized project that now frames early twentieth-century landscape aesthetics and body cultures in relation to period understandings of kinesthesia, then believed to be the muscular “sixth sense.”

Upon arrival, I traced the historiography of the theory and history of human movement in gardens. In the institutional archives, I studied photographs, drawings, and correspondence related to the design and use of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens in the 1920s through the 1940s. Talking, working, and playing on site with garden staff allowed me to experience and understand the extant landscape from multiple perspectives. By cross-referencing the contemporaneous landscape architecture, body culture, and physiological aesthetics texts that I had systematically identified and amassed, I was able to put Beatrix Farrand’s design into the context of period spaces for, beliefs about, and practices of walking.

What began as an investigation of garden spaces designed and used for physical activity has led to the formulation of a new argument that makes a more pointed contribution to landscape studies: between 1890 and 1940, American landscape writers and landscape architects engaged with theories of kinesthetic experience. Emerging body cultures that demanded new physical settings in this period contributed to the formation of this aesthetic discourse.

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