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by Michel Conan

Turning to the theme of our symposium I would like to point out some of its difficulties. Let me show you a description of a dance, the Passe-Pied, that was presented to the court in Paris by monsieur Pecour in the early years of the eighteenth century, as it was reported by Pierre Rameau. (1)

Pierre Rameau, after he went to the Spanish Court in the early eighteenth century to become the master of dance for the pages of the queen of Spain, published two books for people who wanted to learn how to dance the fashionable minuet, courante, gigs, and other courtly dance figures, such as the Passe-Pied, Bourrée, Allemande, Rigaudon, Gaillarde, and Courante. He developed a notation system that would enable anyone to know exactly which motions should be made and how to move about on the dance floor and relate to another dancer. His system highlights the different kinds of motion that should be considered for all of these dances: bodily motions that change the gait, motions of the feet from toe to heel, or from heel to toe, ways of bending the knee and extending the leg, and motions of the hands and the head. Each of these has to be indicated in relation to the space of the dance floor for any person to learn how to perform a given dance. As music is an art of the motion of sounds through time, dance is clearly an art of the motion of bodies through space.

Rameau stressed the importance of the dance space,(2) and it is very clear that each dance describes a balanced figure on the dance floor. Yet in order to enable dancers to learn how to maintain control over their bodily motions in space, he always shaped the dance floor into the same rectangular figure. Thus there seems to be little to be learned by a landscape architect in such a treatise since it assumes that a dancer can bracket out the experience of space when moving and concentrate on her bodily experience alone. Yet motion is necessary to experience most gardens and landscapes, in particular to make a tour of a picturesque landscape garden, park, or countryside, such as the river Wye in Wales, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, or the Parc du Roeux, with its high bridge, or the Catle at Prulay.

Unfortunately there is no system of notation that would allow us to know what the precise intentions of landscape designers might have been with respect to the changing experiences of a landscape when moving through it. Thus we have to try to engage in an interpretive study of garden and landscape design in order to retrieve the kinds of experience of motion that they considered, to discover to what effects they were concerned by motion, and to which design issues and propositions this led them.

A further difficulty springs out of the elusiveness of the idea of motion itself. At an Oxford conference in 1911 Henri Bergson remarked: “We think of motion as if it were made of stillness, and when we look at it, we reconstruct it with the help of moments of stillness. Motion for us comprises one position and then a new one, and so on indefinitely.”(3) This remark sheds light on a paradox of picturesque travel, and in a more pressing way on the paradoxes of contemporary touristic travels. Travels through a landscape are thought of as a series of stopovers, resting moments given to the contemplation and aesthetic enjoyment of landscapes in perfect stillness, and the more there is motion in the landscape — gushing waterfalls, sailing boats turning a buoy in regatta, or skiers running down a slope — the more aesthetic enjoyment seems to demand that we stand still in front of the landscape. As a consequence the motion of the traveler itself does not seem open to any aesthetic appreciation in the picturesque literature. Let me give an example and illustrate in passing the further difficulties of studying human experiences of time.

The Motionless Landscapes of Picturesque Travels

In 1819, Arsène Thiébaut de Berneaud published a description of his travels on foot from Paris to Ermenonville, in the company of his daughter Uranie, after the death of his beloved wife, Charlotte. They followed a road across the countryside, running from one small town to the next. Memories crowd the narrative, and landscape descriptions give way to a pageant of famous characters on a shadow theater.

The travel accounts are extremely interesting because the author attempts to describe his experience of travel by relating his thoughts and emotions to the places and views he discovered. They give rise to a stream of landscape sceneries that conjure up, each in its own way, eventful moments of recent history: Saint Gratien calls to mind the wise Catinat, Soisy the general Kellerman, Eaubonnethe poet Saint-Lambert and Benjamin Franklin, at Montmorency every place sings the memories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Thiébaut de Berneaud might have readily subscribed, it seems, to Gaston Bachelard’s profound remark: “In its countless alveoli space contains compressed time. Time serves that purpose!”(4) He might have felt slightly at odds with it, however, because he knew and expressed that times can be experienced according to several different temporalities. In his narrative they belong either to everyday life, current or past, to political history, to family remembrances, to mythical narratives, to travel logs, or to the discourse of science.

The stillness of each landscape that these two travelers crossed contrasts strikingly, however, with the shifting horizons of temporality that the description of memories brought about by the sense of place experienced by the author presses upon the reader. One wonders whether landscape can only open to the imagination of motion when the traveler comes to a stop, and whether the same would apply to a visit to a landscape garden.

They arrived in Ermenonville on May 20, 1818, exactly thirty years after Jean-Jacques paid his first visit, and they spent three days there exploring the landscapes created by René Louis Gérardin. A ramble through the woods framing the four main, large landscape sceneries led visitors to the discovery of a stream of poetic landscape views of lesser dimensions. Gérardin had designed them to invite flights of imagination, and to allow the visitor’s mind to shuttle ceaselessly between present and past times. Places follow one another without any particular sense of order. Thiébaut de Berneaud discovered first, when entering through the south landscape facing the entrance of the house, the grotto of the Naiads, the bench to the memory of Gérardin, Rousseau’s tomb, the willow of the romance, Meyer’s tomb, the bench offered to family mothers, and the tomb of the young unknown lover. Each of these places stimulates a literary development that bears the marks of the sorrows and concerns of Thiébaut de Berneaud after the death of his wife. Picturesque sceneries bring about a fusion of some narrative that they imply and of personal memories, but there is no link between these successive narratives that would stem from the motion from one place to the other within this landscape garden. Thiébaut de Berneaud’s grief over the death of his wife and his sense of care for his daughter are solely responsible for the deep sense of unity that develops in the text, describing his reactions to the various landscape sceneries he discovered during these three days.

Furthermore, designers’ attention to the experience of motion in their gardens is open to interpretation. Gérardin took into account the physical experience of walking: he wanted visitors to walk along narrow paths that encouraged solitary meditation, and he set up many paths on sloped embankments, forcing visitors to go up and down and to keep changing directions, but he does not mention this among his poetic intentions. He only mentions motion of water and of merchants or folk people traveling across the landscape on a local road as a source of enjoyment for a visitor who admires the scenery from a fixed vantage point. He took great pains to inscribe well-framed views with poetic meaning, but the visitor’s motion is never imbued with signification. Even though the picturesque landscape at Ermenonville was designed to excite the imagination and aesthetic appreciation of visitors, motion in the landscape was not acknowledged as a meaningful part of the experience of place.

This may sound somewhat paradoxical. Yet even the celebrated path called the “Painters’ Walk” does not belie this remark. Thiébaut de Berneaud briefly alludes to his motion, and his impressions as he walks up and down along the path and treads on moss carpets, but his attention is driven to swiftly passing scenes that prevent any thought from developing: an exotic plant that he recognizes while walking, the song of a thrush overheard for a short moment, a rabbit and then a squirrel that cross the path in front of his eyes and disappear, nothing else.

The descriptions of his travels to Ermenonville by Thiébaut de Berneaud provide a typical account of the aesthetic of picturesque travel that was embraced by a large number of people in the nineteenth century. Even now, it heavily influences contemporary aesthetics of touristic travels, and its ceaseless quest for scenic views and unforgettable snapshots. Contemporary landscapes are scrutinized by tourists in search of cues about myth, history, present cultural concerns, or even objects of the natural sciences. All of these function as props for some personal fantasy that makes still views into poetic landscapes. Should we conclude that landscape design cannot be an art of motion, like the art of dance, despite the fact that one has to move in order to discover and appreciate landscapes?

During this symposium, interpretations of landscape design meant to trigger specific experiences when moving through a landscape will allow us to propose a critical re-examination of the picturesque aesthetic for landscape appreciation. They will also raise, either explicitly or in passing, questions about landscape design and the writing of garden or landscape history, because the picturesque aesthetic may be embodied both in designers' and historians' preconceptions in ways that have not been hitherto recognized. I do not want to further delay the pleasures of listening to the speakers, but I wanted to urge all of you to be ready to raise the most difficult questions.

1. Pierre Rameau, Abbregé de la nouvelle méthode dans l’Art d’ecrire ou de Tracer toutes sortes de Danses de Ville dédiée à son Altesse Sérénissime Mademoiselle de Baujaulais, et mise à jour par le Sr Rameau, Maître à Danser Ordinaire de la Maison de Sa Majesté Catholique, la Reine Seconde Douairière d’Espagne, Seconde partie contenant douze des plus belles Danses de Monsieur Pecour, compositeur de Ballets de l’Académie Royalle de Musique (Paris, 1725), Le passepied, pls. 18-25.

Pierre Rameau, Le Maitre a Danser, qui enseigne la maniere de faire tous les differens pas de Danse dans toute la regularite de l’Art, & de conduire les Bras à chaque pas. Enrichi de Figures en Taille-douce, servant de demonstration pour tous les differens mouvemens qu’il convient faire dans cet exercice. Par le Sieur Rameau, Maître à danser des Pages de Sa Majesté Catholique la Reine d’Espagne (Paris, 1725).

2. “Je commence par exposer trois principes généraux: sçavoir, la connoissance du terrain; l’usage que l’on doit faire des differentes lignes de la géometrie; et aussi du signe qui exprime la présence du corps.” He notes a little later, “La musique ne doit pas contenir plus de mesures qu’il n’y a de pas tracéz sur les differentes lignes.” Ramean, Le Maitre a Danser.

3. Henri Bergson, La Pensée et le mouvant (Paris, 1998), 161.

4.Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, with a new foreword by John Stilgoe (Boston, 1994; Paris, 1958), 8.

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