|Lotusland: a Photographic Odyssey|
A. Knoll Publishers (hardback),
How much more ephemeral is the art of a garden, where you never tread the same path twice. Lotusland: a Photographic Odyssey attempts to provide a more permanent record of the spectacular gardens Ganna Walska built just outside Santa Barbara, Calif.
The operatic creation of the 20th century's foremost diva wannabe, Lotusland offers incredible vistas of flowers and fantastical plants. The writhing, tortured branches of a spiny, cactus-like plant called Euphorbia ingens clutch the walls of Walska's former home. Unlikely gardens of ferns and aloes resemble set designs for the next Jurassic Park -- or perhaps the landscape of some distant planet dominated by intellectual ants.
Uncounted varieties of flowering water plants float in dreamlike ponds. They call to mind tales of lotus-eaters on a different kind of Odyssey and remind the viewer that beauty can be a powerful drug.
Photographs spanning over a hundred years admirably capture the growth and flowering of Lotusland's beauty. Particularly stunning are the misty shots of the rose, palm and aloe gardens. Damp never looked so good.
The sacred lotus from which the garden takes its name proves similarly photogenic. The golden centers of each bloom seem to generate light. Translucent petals form coronas of fuchsia, rose, yellow and cream. Viewing these flowers through the eyes of Lotusland's photographers, you understand why Tibetans considered the lotus a symbol of the sun.
Compared to these lush visuals, the text of Lotusland seems pedestrian. But the narrative must compete not only with the splendor of the gardens but with the spectacular life of the woman who created them, Ganna Walska. Model for Margaret Nicol's roman a-clef, Enemy of the Ordinary, Walska's life may be impossible to confine between the covers of a book.
Walska's beauty and ambition acted like drug on at least five of her six husbands. The first four made her several fortunes. The last coerced her into buying the Santa Barbara property that became the abiding passion of her life. Walska's life reads like one of the operas she dreamed of singing. But the biographical sketch contained in Lotusland serves only to whet the appetite of social historians and to confuse those who know little about the corporate and musical celebrities of the early 20th century.
But no matter how rocky the text becomes, the pictures will keep you turning the pages and make you regret when this photographic odyssey reaches its end.
Jean Marie Ward
Editor's note: The novel Enemy of the Average reads likes like a fictional account of Walska's life. To learn more about the novel, click here.
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