A Bagatelle of Dwarfs

photo: 17 dwarfs, chateau, never promised you a rose garden

Doris Haidvogl's 'I never promised you a rose garden' - 17 aluminum zwergs, around the pool behind the 'château.'

2000 of Them Are a Happy Excess

Paris:- Friday, 7. April 2000:- This has been a week with an improving forecast. On Monday good weather for Friday was a 'maybe' - starting with a dismal Wednesday - and Friday's 'maybe' started turning real late on Thursday afternoon.

Wednesday had been a 'maybe' too that didn't turn out. I needed a better-than-'maybe' for the adventure of a visit to the 2000 gnomes at Bagatelle. Even if you take the bus 43 from the métro at Pont de Neuilly, it doesn't pass the front door of the garden, which is in the Bois de Boulogne.

No, for Bagatelle, there is going to be a bit of walking just to get to it. It's worth it after arriving, but not if soaked.

After the ride through the clean but boring streets of Neuilly past the semi-luxo cut-stone apartments, after the long walk on the bumpy path along Bagatelle's wall; the day's bright sky has brought out a fair crowd of garden gnome fans - which the single, tiny ticket window is slow to handle.

Entry to the garden is 10 francs and there's no options - except free entry for the unemployed and for those over sixty - and no entry at all for dogs.

Just inside, turn left in the direction of the Radio France-Info signs held by gnomes, and the 2000 gnomes in Bagatelle starts. At the 'château' you can get a 30-franc entry to see the inside gnomes, here, and in the Trianon building - but many - thousands! - gnomesphoto: 100s of dwarfs on steps are in the garden and on view for the simple entry charge.

Let's get one thing straight before you zap to some other page. Garden gnomes are not necessarily pure kitsch.

A tiny fraction of a set of steps covered with dwarfs - more dwarfs than...

In early 1998, a Metropole reader, writing from Antarctica, asked me to look for a gnome which is a replica of an ancestor of his - which was last seen in garden of the Château de Suresnes sometime around 1715.

I went to Suresnes and found the public park where the chateau used to be. The gnome was gone. Apparently it had been brought to France when one of Bavaria's Ludwigs was on the run, and Louis XIV told Ludwig - 'Louis' in French; sort of like Louis to Louis - he could use one of the king's places at Compiègne.

But Ludwig didn't like Compiègne because it was too far away from the fun of Versailles, so Ludwig invited himself to the Château de Suresnes.

Ludwig didn't like it much either, so he got himself invited to the snazzier château at Saint-Cloud, which is not far away. This is as much as I know about Ludwig's free-rent trip in France. But his secretary returned to Munich, where he built a 'Villa Suresnes,' and it is still supposed to be there.

The question is, did the secretary take the Metropole reader's ancestor-gnome with him? The reader has now turned up as 'unknown' by the postoffice in Antarctica, so I have fired off a query to Munich, to try and find out if there are any gnomes at the villa in Schwabing.

Meanwhile, here I am in Bagatelle under a very blue sky and mild temperatures, surrounded by colorful gardenphoto: presence panchounette, dwarf,©francois fernandez gnomes. In the château's entrance, there is a stone gnome - and this is different from the usual garden variety.

I feel like I'm on the track. This château has its specific rooms, and a copy of the big gnome by Valerio Cioli is here. The original is in the Boboli garden in Florence.

The boss 'Dwarf! Dwarf!' Painted plastic, 2.3 metres high. Collection Ben, ©François Fernandez

In the 'boudoir,' costumes by J.C. de Castelbajac, ordered by the artists, Pierre and Gilles. In the dining room, Zeho gnomes are dining. In the game room, three gnomes by Stark; Attila, Saint-Esprit and Napoléon.

People who are gnome experts in France are called 'nanologues.' France is just coming on-line in the business of gnome fandom - so it has a lot of catching up to do because Alexander had gnomes, Egypt had gnomes, Africa still has gnomes - so gnomes were around a long time before they became kitsch.

In fact, the word 'kitsch' was probably invented just for gnomes. Romans had them; they had their Renaissance, they had a grotesque period, they became baroque, they were court favorites, they were treated by Vélasquez, Goya, Swift and the Grimm brothers; gnomes reigned in Europe from the end of the 15th century to the beginning of the 18th - all before they got to kitsch.

Gnomes also have curious personalities. These little people are not your ordinary citizens. They do mysterious stuff underground, they play around, they are malicious - or slightly evil; dangerous characters. Gnomes drink wine in excess.

People kidnap gnomes. People make assassinated gnomes. The 1969 astronaut gnome was a flop. Bild Zeitung had a contest to create an archetypical gnome, and its readers sent in their own creations instead.

Thomas Mann peopled a garden with gnomes in his 'Felix Krull.' Doctor Aron in Austria has a collectionphoto: dwarf wedding on rafts with 10,000 figures and George Harrison has some gnomes in one of his many caves under his personal garden-sized Matterhorn.

There are anti-gnomists. The Nazis banned them and the communists only allowed them to be exported from eastern Europe.

Dwarf wedding party, on rafts - on pond in Bagatelle's park.

The arrival of plastic in 1960 drove the artisanal gnome makers out of business. The big makers of ceramic gnomes are Heissner in Germany and Zeho in Austria. Erenwein at Marmoutier is the only manufacturer of the ceramic ones in France.

All the same, gnomes are doing okay thanks to Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' and Disney's 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,' both of which came out in 1937. Lately gnomes have found new creators in the modern art world, which in turn has launched a wave of nanomania.

Are gnomes 'art,' is a good question. One has it that any decorative 'art' in the hands of ordinary folks is a good thing. As kitschy as gnomes may be, they do have symbolism attached to them - as well as erase boredom, if they are sufficiently outrageous.

Who do you know who is indifferent to nains, gnomes, garden dwarfs, gartenzwergen? Most people do not checkphoto: pile of dwarfs the box labelled 'no opinion.' If you have a serious garden and you put a gnome in it, it's not the same, is it?

An unrooted stump, covered with cheeky dwarfs. Is Bagatelle making fun of itself?

Take this Bagatelle itself. This is a fancy place - at the moment a bit shipwrecked from the storm - but the gnomes make it, what? - unserious? This garden is controlled nature and here are these gnomes saying it is out of control.

I can imagine heated debates in Paris' parks circles. The purists cry for gnome-free pure gardens. The doubters, after a visit to Bagatelle, see that gnomes add a unforeseen dimension. They really do.

The bottom line is that there is no other park in Paris at the moment that is as interesting as the Bagatelle gardens. Ignore the stupid poster - in Metropole last week - and get yourself ready to pay a long visit.

If you are a couple and one of you is violently opposed to dwarfs, just park one of yourselves on the terrace of the garden's restaurant for a three-hour pause.

As far as 'nanomania' goes, I checked out the sizeable spring fleamarket that's currently on near where I live. It has all kinds of trash and maybe a few treasures, but I only saw one gnome. In metal, antique, a set of three - perhaps intended as a bush-surround.

2000 Nains à Bagatelle
Parc de Bagatelle, in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris 16. Métro: Pont de Neuilly and bus 43; or métro Porte Maillot and bus 244. Open from 11:00 to 18:00 daily except Tuesdays. Exhibition continues until Sunday, 23. July. Entry to park: 10 francs. The gnomes in the park are included in the park entry fee. Exhibition entry, to visit the displays in the Château and the Trianon: 30 francs; children six to 15, 15 francs.

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