Exhibitions/ Cultivated Landscapes

Cultivated Landscapes: Reflections of Nature in Chinese Painting with Selections from the Collection of Marie-Hélène and Guy Weill

September 10, 2002–February 9, 2003
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

In no other cultural tradition has landscape played a more important role in the arts than in that of China. This exhibition, consisting of more than seventy-five works drawn largely from the Museum's holdings and featuring selections from the renowned collection of Marie-Hélène and Guy Weill, explores the manifold uses of natural imagery in Chinese painting as a reflection of human beliefs and emotions. The exhibition begins in the tenth century, when landscape painting became an independent genre in China and images of life in reclusion took on a new immediacy as members of society dreamed of finding sanctuary from a disintegrating social order following the collapse of the Tang dynasty. It then moves through the next millennium of Chinese painting, revealing how select flowers and plants may symbolize moral virtues; landscapes celebrating the natural order might laud the well-governed state; wilderness hermitages can suggest political isolation or protest; and gardens may be emblems of an ideal world. One gallery in the exhibition is devoted to paintings given or promised to the Metropolitan Museum by New York collectors Marie-Hélène and Guy Weill and presents major works by masters of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Complementing the display of paintings is a choice group of objects that celebrate landscape and garden imagery in other media. Of special note is a splendid twelve-panel lacquer screen that depicts a garden scene in brilliant colors.

The exhibition is made possible by The Dillon Fund.

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Exhibition Objects

The exhibition begins with the tenth century, when landscape painting became an independent genre in China. During the chaotic Five Dynasties period (907–960), which followed the collapse of the Tang dynasty, images of life in reclusion took on a new immediacy as members of society dreamed of finding sanctuary from a disintegrating social order. The exhibition represents this period with two major works that present contrasting visions of nature: Palace Banquet, which depicts the palace garden as a metaphor for the well-ordered state, and Riverbank, which celebrates the ideal of reclusion in the wilderness as an alternative to political service in times of crisis.

During the early Song dynasty (960–1279), visions of the natural hierarchy became metaphors for the well-regulated state. At the same time, images of the private retreat proliferated among a new class of scholar-officials, who gained their status through a system of civil service examinations that rewarded intellectual achievement with official rank, and who extolled the virtues of self-cultivation—often in response to political setbacks or career disappointments. These men asserted their identity as literati through poetry, calligraphy, and their own form of "scholar-painting." Song scholar-artists worked in a calligraphic, monochrome style and painted old trees, bamboo, and rocks as emblems of their own moral rectitude and endurance.

Under the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), when many educated Chinese were barred from government service, the model of the Song literati retreat evolved into a full-blown alternative culture, as this disenfranchised elite transformed their estates into sites for literary gatherings and other cultural pursuits. These gatherings were frequently commemorated in paintings which, rather than presenting a realistic depiction of an actual place, conveyed the shared cultural ideals of this reclusive world through a symbolic shorthand in which a villa might be represented by a humble thatched hut. In Simple Retreat, by Wang Meng (ca. 1308–1385), the artist's naïve vision of a rustic hermitage employs an archaistic primitivism to convey his longing for the lost innocence of an idyllic golden age.

During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), when native Chinese rule was restored, court artists produced conservative images that revived the Song metaphor for the state as a well-ordered imperial garden, while the Yuan vision of the reclusive dwelling was perpetuated by Ming scholar-artists. By the sixteenth century, this educated class had grown so large that many talented scholars, unable to pursue a career in government service, became professional writers or painters, who were frequently called upon to create literary or pictorial portraits for a new class of wealthy landowners and merchants who sought to identify themselves with literati ideals. A common solution was to create idealized portraits that show the sitter within a garden setting.

Images of reclusion remained a potent political symbol under the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1911), as Ming loyalists envisioned China's natural landscape as both a place of refuge and a symbol of endurance in the face of foreign occupation. Other artists, who were less involved in the politics of dynastic change, created landscape images based almost exclusively on the styles and compositional types established by an orthodox canon of earlier masters. For this group of traditionalist artists—later known collectively as the Orthodox School—the goal of painting was not mimesis, but the revitalization of painting through the creative transformation of past models.

By the eighteenth century, urban gardens—such as the Daguan Garden described in the period's greatest novel, Dream of the Red Chamber (or Story of the Stone)—conveyed the prosperity and material splendor of Qing society at its zenith. Painters working in the commercial center of Yangzhou captured the era's love for extravagance in their dramatic depictions of garden flowers and plants, which could also be appreciated as emblems of virtue.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, images of flowers became increasingly colorful and calligraphic. With the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, landscape painting enjoyed a revival as the celebration of China's scenery was deemed both patriotic and politically correct. But during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), such images could also convey the artist's defiant individualism in the face of the intense political pressure and persecution.