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Garden Empire or the Sublime Politics of the Chinese-Gothic Style

from Special Section on What Goethe Heard, edited by Mary Helen Dupree

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 May 2018

Chunjie Zhang
Affiliation:
University of California, Davis
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Summary

SOON AFTER THE Storming of the Bastille in Paris shocked all of Europe on July 14, 1789, the Bavarian prince-elector Karl Theodor expedited the project of an English Garden and hastily opened this people's park (Volkspark) with a prominent Chinese tower (chinesischer Turm). The tower in Munich resembles the one in the royal gardens at Kew near London, which was designed and built by the royal architect to George III, Sir William Chambers, in 1762 (fig. 1). A prominent landmark in the metropolitan area of Munich, the English Garden, like Kew Gardens, is one of the earliest public parks in Europe and is meant to express Karl Theodor's gesture of generously sharing his property and governance with his people. Indeed, before and after Karl Theodor, German princes had a series of “Chinese” structures erected in their gardens and parks: the Chinese village Mulang in Kassel Wilhelmshöhe (built in 1781), the China House in Sanssouci, Potsdam (1764), the Chinese palais in the Steinfurter Bagno near Münster (1787), and, most conspicuously, the Chinese garden kingdom (Gartenreich) in Dessau/Wörlitz (1795–97) built by Leopold III of Anhalt-Dessau after his visit to England.

Unlike the French renaissance garden's strict geometrical regularity, the irregular style is often considered to be the English garden style. Yet Chambers forcefully claims in his A Dissertation on Oriental Gardening (1772) that the irregularity is actually Chinese. Indeed, garden design was a politically contentious issue between the royalist Tory party, to which Chambers belonged, and the liberalist Whig party in England. Stephen Bending explains: “The English landscape garden, then, is a reflection both of Britain's cultural disposition and of correct—natural—government, for if regular gardens represent despotic interests, the ‘rational’ landscape garden is a reflection of a variegated—constitutional—regime.” This conjuncture of style and politics reminds me of John Dixon Hunt's argument that a garden is designed to represent, not to imitate, in a specific iconographical context. Hunt calls the garden a fiction or “third nature” because of its complex relationship with nature and culture. In this fiction of Europe's “Chinese” gardens, as I will show in the ensuing pages, the particular style of Chinese structures of William Chambers's design, which I call the Chinese-Gothic style, reveals a royal representation of empire and an accompanying aesthetics of sublimity in the eighteenth century.

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Goethe Yearbook 25
Publications of the Goethe Society of North America
, pp. 77 - 96
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2018

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