Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Man Who Dreamed of Peace

He was born Abraham Kahn in 1860 in this house in Marmoutier, Bas-Rhin, Eastern France. Following the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by the German Empire, the family moved to Saint-Mihiel, in order to retain their French citizenship.

His father, and his grandfather, traded in cattle. From them, and from the close-knit Jewish community of his childhood, Abraham, who later took the name Albert, developed a strong moral compass and impressive negotiating skills that led him to become one of the leading philanthropists and leading bankers of his time.

At age 16, Albert moved to Paris, where he got a low level job at the Goudchaux Frères Bank, and, when not working, studied at the university under the rising philosopher scholar, Henri Bergson. They were to remain friends for the rest of their lives. Albert quickly rose among the ranks at Goudchaux, eventually setting up his own bank in 1898.

A supremely private man personally -- this is one of the few known photographs of him -- Albert Kahn soon turned his financial resources toward supporting ideas and programs that promoted respect and peace among peoples. He provided bursaries for students to travel and study abroad, in hopes that they would become influential in promoting peace and preventing war. If people were able to see how the world lived, if they learned from first-hand experience the common universal humanity of the world, then surely there would be no war.

 To this end, he launched an ambitious project in 1909 called "Les Archives de la Planète". Using the new photographic process developed by the Lumière Brothers (Autochrome Lumière), and hiring the geographer, Jean Brunhes, to head up the project, Kahn brought together photographers and sent them around the world to 60 countries on four continents:

“to gather a kind of inventory of the surface of the globe inhabited and developed by man as it presents itself at the start of the 20th order to fix once and for all the practices, the aspects and the modes of human activity, whose fatal disappearance is only a question of time."

The resulting collection of some 72,000 autochrome glass plates and thousands of reels of film, give an extraordinary record of the world between 1909 and 1931, among them a Paris flower seller...

 ...a group of Bosnian women...

...young African children...

...Indian Sadhus...

...a Mongolian woman...

...Japanese rice planters...

...There's even a glass plate of the Taj Mahal, taken from the exact spot where Matthew and I so recently stood!

Today, this remarkable archive is housed at the Albert-Kahn Musée et Jardins, a 4 hectare site that Kahn purchased in 1895 in Boulogne-Billancourt, just outside the city of Paris.

Over the years, working with the landscape architect, Achille Duchêne, Albert Kahn designed a garden that he called 'Les Jardins du Monde" ("Gardens of the World"). Holding to his philosophy of universal peace, the gardens contain plants from all over the world, loosely grouped into Japanese,  French, and English gardens, fruit orchards, ponds and pine forests. All this on about 10 acres in a bustling urban neighborhood!

Anchoring the garden in the centre, is this magnificent 19th century Palmarium, housing tropical plants. Like a miniature Kew Gardens! Formal French gardens lie in front of the main entrance.

To the right, rows of espaliered fruit trees lead to an elegant brick house, where Albert Kahn held meetings for his various foundations, and hosted luminaries of the arts and sciences, as well as European royalty, among them Anatole France, Rudyard Kipling, Einstein, Alexander I of Romania, Pierre I of Serbia, Andre Gide and Rodin. Following their gatherings, the group would leave the house and stroll through the gardens, continuing their discussions, always looking for some way to reconcile their differing views on the world. Perhaps "The Gardens of the World" themselves helped with their deliberations.

Behind the Palmarium, the landscape shifts. We were suddenly climbing a gently sloping footpath and entering a pine forest!

The land, originally totally flat, has been built up into rolling hills, huge boulders have been brought in, an entire forest planted, complete with a carpet of understory plants. Were it not for the voices of children in a nearby school, you would think you were lost in the Vosges region! A reminder for Albert Kahn, perhaps, of his Alsatian childhood.

Following a network of footpaths, and inhaling the strong fragrance of the newly sprouting pine needles, we emerged into a sweet green, marshy area with a still pond that, in a few months, will be a riot of waterlilies.

Completing our circuit, we found ourselves back in the Japanese garden, the largest area, a testament to the love Albert Kahn had for Japan, where he travelled often.

The day we were at the gardens, the cherry blossoms were still shimmering and shining in the breeze, and we learned an interesting fact from our lovely guide.

The visiting, busy bees look very carefully at the blossoms -- if the centre of the flower is still yellow, the bees dive right in. If the centre of the flower is red, they don't bother because the color red tells them that the pollen has already been plundered. Gotta love Mother Nature!

So many of my favorite flowers were in bloom, from this white camellia... this sweet variety of the Bleeding Hearts I have in my Inverness garden...

...and the always brave and pretty Wood Violet.

I wish I could report that Albert Kahn's life had a happy ending. Alas, with the financial crash of 1929, he lost his wealth and was ruined. His beautiful gardens were confiscated, and in 1936, the Prefecture of the Seine acquired the property. In a gesture of humanity that he must have appreciated, Albert Kahn was allowed to continue living there until his death in 1940. Happily for all of us, in 1968, the Conseil general of Hauts-de-Seine was granted ownership of the site and collections. And in 1986, the gardens were restored, and a museum set up to exhibit the collections. Today, visitors come from around the world to enjoy the gardens and to delve into the life of this remarkable man. There's not much peace in the world at the moment, but perhaps Albert Kahn would take some comfort in knowing that his vast "Archives de la Planète" and his truly lovely "Jardins du Monde" are safely preserved and available to anyone who wants to ponder the common universal humanity he tried so hard to promote.

À bientôt!


  1. Lovely, sweet story about a man and his beautiful garden. So needed right now. mxm

  2. What an amazing man and such lovely pictures x

  3. What a beautiful history! Thank you for sharing your experience and Mum is right - his vision and garden are sorely needed now.