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Press release

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

Exhibition dates: September 10, 2002 – February 9, 2003
Exhibition location: Galleries for Chinese painting and calligraphy, north wing, second floor

A major exhibition tracing the evolution of Chinese landscape painting over the last 1,000 years will open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 10. Featuring more than 75 works drawn largely from the Museum's permanent collection, Cultivated Landscapes: Reflections of Nature in Chinese Painting with Selections from the Collection of Marie-Hélène and Guy Weill will explore the manifold uses of natural imagery in Chinese painting as reflections of human beliefs and emotions. Encompassing landscapes and garden scenes dating from the Five Dynasties period (907-960) to the late 20th century, the exhibition will present examples in all pictorial formats: hanging scrolls, handscrolls, album leaves, and fans. A dozen important works by leading masters of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties from the Weill Collection – given or promised to the Museum – will be highlighted in the Frances Young Tang Gallery.

The exhibition is made possible by The Dillon Fund.

Maxwell K. Hearn, Curator in the Department of Asian Art, commented: "In no other cultural tradition has landscape played a more important role in the arts than in that of China. Because artistic creation in China implies self-cultivation and self-expression, natural imagery has long been read as a metaphor for the individual's values and beliefs. 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."

The exhibition begins with the 10th 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 such as Li Gonglin (ca. 1041-1106) 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 16th 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 18th 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 19th and early 20th 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.

Complementing the display of paintings will be a choice group of objects that celebrate landscape and garden imagery in other media. Of special note is a splendid 12-panel lacquer screen that depicts a garden scene using inlays of gold, silver, and mother-of-pearl.

An important component of the exhibition will be a gallery featuring works given or promised to the Metropolitan Museum from the New York collectors and longtime Museum supporters Marie-Hélène and Guy Weill. A fully illustrated scholarly catalogue of these works, Cultivated Landscapes: Chinese Paintings from the Collection of Marie-Hél lène and Guy Weill, will accompany the exhibition. Written by Maxwell K. Hearn, it will be published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, and will be for sale in the Metropolitan's book shop for $40.00. The exhibition catalogue is made possible by The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation.

The earliest work in the Weill Collection is a meditative landscape dated 1477 by Shen Zhou (1427-1509), the patriarch of the Wu School of painting, centered in the cosmopolitan city of Suzhou. Shen's preeminent follower, Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), is represented by a portrayal of a gentleman in his yet-to-be-built retirement garden. This quintessential embodiment of Ming literati values presents a vision of a rustic wilderness dwelling that reflects the literati preference for modest understatement over ostentation and opulence.

Outstanding pieces by early Qing loyalist and orthodox painters of the 17th and 18th centuries are the main focus of the Weill Collection, with important works by the Nanjing painter Liu Yu (act. ca. 1650-after 1711), the Anhui School masters Dai Benxiao (1621-1693) and Mei Qing (1624-1697), and the Yangzhou "eccentric" Li Fangying (1696-1755), as well as the two leading Orthodox School painters of the time – Wang Hui (1632-1717) and Wang Yuanqi (1642-1715). The display also includes selections from a rare 18th-century set of imperially commissioned rubbings of calligraphies in the palace collection, as well as noteworthy works by the 20th-century masters Zhang Daqian and C. C. Wang.

A variety of educational programs will be offered in conjunction with the exhibition, including a lecture by Maxwell K. Hearn on Friday, September 27, and a series of gallery talks.

The exhibition is organized by Maxwell K. Hearn. Michael Batista is the exhibition designer; Sophia Geronimus is the Graphics Designer; Zack Zanolli is the Lighting Designer.

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July 11, 2002

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