This exhibition explores the rich interactions between pictorial and garden arts in China across more than one thousand years. In the densely populated urban centers of China, enclosed gardens have long been an integral part of residential and palace architecture, serving as an extension of the living quarters. The preferred site for hosting literary gatherings, theatrical performances, and imaginary outings, gardens were often designed according to the same compositional principles used in painting; likewise, as idealized landscapes, they frequently drew inspiration from literary themes first envisioned by painters. Artists were called upon not only to design gardens but also, as gardens came to be identified with the tastes and personalities of their residents, to create idealized paintings of gardens that served as symbolic portraits reflective of the character of the owner.
This exhibition features more than sixty paintings as well as ceramics, carved bamboo, lacquerware, metalwork, textiles, and even several contemporary photographs, all drawn from the Metropolitan Museum's permanent collections, that illustrate how garden imagery has remained an abiding source of artistic inspiration and invention.
The exhibition opens with a spectacular eighteen-foot-wide vision of the Palace of Nine Perfections, painted in 1691 by the artist Yuan Jiang. Catering to the wealthy salt merchants living in the commercial center of Yangzhou, Yuan presents an imaginary panorama of a seventh-century palace so grand that the emperor had to ride on horseback between pavilions. Royal palaces have always been likened to Daoist paradises, and Yuan Jiang's vision plays on this theme, with fabulous halls and terraces set in a fantastic landscape that suggests the enchanted realm of the immortals. Meticulously rendered and sumptuously embellished with rich mineral colors, this screenlike set of scrolls would have decorated the main reception hall of a private mansion.
Juxtaposed with Yuan Jiang's fantasy are painted, woven, and carved red-lacquer works that depict auspicious or admonitory narratives set within palace gardens. The earliest of these is a rare painting (10th–11th century) of a tryst between the Tang emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–56) and his consort, Yang Guifei. Other works feature young boys at play, a subject that reflects the perennial wish for male offspring to carry on the imperial line. In each case, an ornate balustrade, an imposing garden rock or plant, or finely garbed figures indicate the palace setting.
Landscape in China has always had a human dimension. Consequently, architectural elements, particularly pavilions, are a quintessential feature of both Chinese landscape paintings and gardens. In gardens, pavilions identify prime vantage points from which to view the scenery; they also serve as focal points within landscape settings. In painting, meticulous "ruled-line" renderings of pavilions celebrate historical or literary structures or indicate the fabled dwelling of the immortals—particularly when set within an archaic blue-and-green landscape meant to evoke a so-called golden age. In Chinese lore, such paradises were imagined as the dwelling place of Daoist immortals. Mortals might stumble upon such magical habitations by losing their way, passing through a grotto, or crossing a stream. In such "lost horizons," time stands still and residents cease to age, while generations might pass in the human realm. In the garden, a moon gate or concealed passage might signal a similar entry point into an alternative universe.
Buddhist and Daoist temples were often located outside urban settings. Consequently, they sometimes functioned as sanctuaries or resorts where harried city dwellers might find spiritual and physical sustenance, partaking of simple vegetarian meals, meditation, lofty conversation, and strolls in the landscape. Summer Mountains features several such monastic retreats set within an awesome landscape. Painted by a court painter about 1050, the composition's orderly natural hierarchy, culminating with a towering central peak, was intended as a metaphor for the emperor presiding over a well-governed state. At the opposite extreme of such state-sponsored idylls was the ideal of the hermitage or rustic retreat as an expression of the desire to escape the pressures of politics or commerce. Set in remote corners of the landscape with no view of other dwellings, these imaginary havens embodied yearnings for quietude that were usually satisfied by a stroll in one's garden. But in times of political turmoil, images of rustic dwellings serene enough to attract a wild deer or a crane conveyed the wish for a sanctuary. The childlike naïveté of paintings such as Wang Meng's Simple Retreat reveal these visions to be unattainable fantasies.
One of the primary social functions of a Chinese garden was to serve as the setting for literary gatherings where like-minded friends might celebrate the season, enjoy music, or view rare antiquities, afterward composing poems to commemorate the event. Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden, attributed to the court artist Xie Huan, documents a historical event that took place in Beijing in 1437. On that occasion, nine of the most powerful officials in the realm gathered to enjoy painting, poetry, and other refined pursuits. Rather than be portrayed wielding emblems of political or military power, these men chose to emphasize their standing as scholar-gentlemen, highlighting the fact that, in China, status derived from one's command of cultural accomplishments. These same men were also responsible for calling a halt to Admiral Zheng He's voyages of exploration, thus underscoring their belief that inward-oriented self-examination was more important than outward-looking exploration. Surrounded by oceans and deserts, and countries whose cultures they regarded as inferior, they saw China as a great walled garden, sufficient unto itself.
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.
A favorite theme of traditional Chinese painters was the careful description of the various fish, birds, and other animals that typically inhabit imperial pleasure parks and private gardens. Rather than present these creatures in their natural habitats, Chinese artists celebrated the collecting of rare fish, fowl, or pets within these manmade microcosms. Thus tamed, these creatures were available for minute study and careful rendering by court painters, who made a specialty of "feathers and fur."
Paintings of landscapes and flowers constitute the two leading Chinese painting genres, and just as landscapists frequently recorded the changing of the seasons, flower painters observed the cycle of months through renderings of the annual round of blossoms. In addition to serving as seasonal markers, many plants have deep symbolic associations. For example, the pine, plum, and bamboo are known as the Three Friends of Winter. Pines and bamboo retain their green foliage through the winter, and the plum is among the first flowers to blossom in the spring. Consequently, these three garden elements have long served as emblems of moral rectitude, survival in the face of adversity, and the possibility of renewal. The Three Friends are not only frequently portrayed in painting but also are a favored motif in the decorative arts.
Another beloved plant is the lotus. Because it emerges from muddy waters to bloom unsullied, it has long been linked in Asia to Buddhist notions of purity and rebirth. In thirteenth-century China, naturalistic depictions of the lotus in different seasons also evoked the ephemeral nature of physical beauty. The American photographer Lois Conner has chronicled these changes in more recent times using a "banquet format" camera lens to create horizontal or vertical compositions that recall Chinese precedents. Her abstract images of dried and broken stalks and their reflections are almost calligraphic. In that sense, Conner's work is a meaningful extension of China's garden arts, which weave together the natural world, history, literature, and myth in a host of different decorative and pictorial art forms to create images that are as multitudinous and mutable as nature itself.