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Chinese Gardens: Pavilions, Studios, Retreats

August 18, 2012–January 6, 2013

Gardens as Embodiments of Scholarly Ideals

Gardens have a long history in China, and famous gardens of the past, commemorated in painting and poetry, often provided inspiration to later garden designers. The quintessential recluse poet, Tao Yuanming (365–427), was typically depicted enjoying the pleasures of his rustic home; Wang Xizhi (303–361), the patriarch of Chinese calligraphy, was often envisioned either writing in his Orchid Pavilion or drawing inspiration for his cursive script from the graceful movements of his pet geese; and Wang Wei's (ca. 701–761) twenty poems about Wang Chuan, his country estate, served as a source of inspiration for long handscrolls that depict his villa. The twelfth-century official Li Jie combined literary and pictorial references to two Tang-dynasty garden estates in his depiction of his own imaginary retirement home, which he titled Fisherman's Lodge at Mount Xisai. Rather than attempt a realistic rendering of what this future retreat might look like, he adopted a blue-and-green palette and created a naive evocation of historical precedents to demonstrate his scholarly credentials and disdain for mere craftsmanship.

This amateur approach to painting continued among later literati, who increasingly relied on spare monochromatic sketches of buildings to convey their ideals of unadorned simplicity. Wen Zhengming's 1551 illustrations of the Garden of the Inept Administrator are a case in point. The actual garden, which survives in Suzhou today, is filled with elegant and substantial structures, but to judge from Wen's renderings, one would assume the architecture was quite humble. Wen's austere depictions were less about the actual garden than the rectitude and modesty of the owner.

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