The ‘Cirque de Gavarnie’, perception, representations and meaning(s) of a landscape

Adélie Magne discusses the role representations can play in the shaping and meaning of particular landscapes. More specifically, she explores how this has been implemented upon the French landscape in the Pyrenees called ‘Le Cirque de Gavarnie’.

The Cirque de Gavarnie, situated in the central Pyrenees, is known for its landscapes that granted it the label of a “UNESCO World Heritage Site” in 1997. Nonetheless, for a long time it has been seen as an unwelcoming place. Considering the various portrayals of Gavarnie it is possible to see many evolutions in the way people perceive this place and thus maing us question the role representation can play in shaping meanings of particular landscapes (Daniels and Cosgrove, 1998). As a personal perception of a place does representation affect the general meaning of a place?  It is also interesting to consider how representations are built: are they the synthesis of the knowledge concerning a particular landscape or a way to improve our understanding?

I will focus on the role of representations of the site which potentially shaped the meaning of the space and discuss how representations are not static (a single snapshot fixing a particular meaning of the place) but rather a long process. Noting this, it will be interesting to consider how representation can be built in order to create an idealised meaning of a place as exemplified currently by the touristic activity in Gavarnie. Finally, focusing on the work of Franz Schrader, I will highlight representation is not always an a posteriori construction of nature but rather seems to be a way of knowing and understanding nature.


 Gavarnie’s representations have been subjected to major transformations, making it appear successively as Hades, then as an idyllic place. Before the beginning of “Pyreneism”, representations of mountain landscapes have shown this milieu as unwelcoming. This is mainly due to a lack of knowledge and the existence of various legends which turned history into nature (Eagleton, 1983). This scarcity of knowledge is exemplified in the first map of Gavarnie which soldiers drew in 1719. It features an imaginary lake, but also some naturalist’s textual representations which try to express feelings toward the wild colossal circus. We can refer here to Gustave Flaubert’s narrative where he represents Gavarnie as a majestic but mostly dangerous place. This viewpoint coincides with limited knowledge about mountains throughout the 19th century. The geological processes were not well understood meaning the representation of Gavarnie was fraught with mythical images which directly influenced the meaning of thie landscape. Flaubert compares a cluster of rocks (which were the result of a glacier) as a “battlefield of the mountains’ fight where those huge corpses were staying”. But, those representations, displaying an unknown and mythical world, triggered a vast infatuation for Gavarnie embodied by “Pyreneism”. The arrival of English aristocrats in particular, presents a first glimpse of the vast growth towards tourism in the area. This enthusiasm is directly linked to the evolution of Gavarnie’s representation. Gradually artists and authors represented Gavarnie as a pure place, where nature prevails but in its most beautiful way. Gavarnie is not a frightening place anymore because it is not represented as such.

 It is interesting to focus on the current representation of Gavarnie, because it is more a show than a window to the ‘real’ landscape. Today the site is mainly represented through pictures that embellish and make it appear as a place where one can revitalise themselves under the waters of the France’s biggest fall. But this picture of Gavarnie is produced in order to meet a touristic ambition. This is a purposely produced a vision that creates a particular understanding of the place. As Mitchell (1986) states, “there is no vision without purpose… the innocent eye is blind… the world is already clothed in our systems of representation”. That is why the text accompanying the pictures of Gavarnie is particularly important; it constitutes the key which ensures people understand the place in a particular way. The Midi-Pyrénées web site’s description of Gavarnie makes the circus appear as something magical, where it is possible to follow the footsteps of grand “Botanists, scientists … mountaineers in search of exploits or sensations”. Somehow, the landscape is commoditised, because through representation a particular meaning is created in order to match economical ends.


Beyond the meanings that can trigger representations, one should consider if representation is rather the synthesis of a priori knowledge, or a way to understand objectively a particular landscape. The work of Franz Schrader provides a good example; he aimed to gain knowledge about the site through representation, whereas other artists only reproduced their feelings toward the landscape (1982). The way he depicted Gavarnie expressed a change in the meaning of this landscape; he presented information about it, by both representing and feeling it. His first representation can be considered as a draft which was constructed through previous knowledge. Later, topographic and geomorphologic dimensions appeared in his paintings as he tried to find a new viewpoint that renders his feelings toward Gavarnie. But this was also a means to broaden his understanding of the site. Representation is not the application of a priori knowledge, but is a way to understand and give a landscape its “true meaning”. That is why, for Duncan and Ley (1997), physical experience of a place triggers cultural elaboration. Walking in a place and feeling it through the body is a more spontaneous way to experience the world than representation. But this procedure creates a more objective representation and portrayal of a landscape; it rids preconceptions thus moulding how the landscape is understood.

 Thus, “our experience of the natural world…is always mediated” (Wilson, 1992). Landscapes are a cultural object with multiple meanings and layers of representation that mediate, sometime purposely, the way we see the world. A landscape’s representation is not fixed, but presents a copy of what the landscape meant at a certain time. Therefore, a landscape’s meaning is doomed to evolve in accordance with knowledge and trends as well as the way human beings want to use the landscape to fulfil their goals. However, representation still does remain a personal, sensitive experience that can be a way to improve our knowledge of a particular milieu, and therefore see it as it really is.

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