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Discovering China - Chinese Gardens Celebrated in Art

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Published on Aug 25, 2012

For centuries, the traditional Chinese garden has been an idyllic paradise and a source of creative inspiration for scholars and artists.

In traditional Chinese culture, the garden is a place to discover one self. The garden serves as a place for self-cultivation, solitary contemplation, as well as for social or literary gatherings.

For the first time, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art displays its entire permanent collection of artwork celebrating these recurring themes in Chinese gardens.

[Mike Hearn, Met Museum Asian Art Department Head]:
"It introduces one thousand years of Chinese painting history, all focused on the theme of Chinese gardens, and how gardens have been an inspiration for artists throughout the centuries."

"Chinese Gardens—Pavilions, Studios, Retreats" features over 60 paintings—together with ceramics, carved bamboo, lacquer ware, metalwork, textiles, and photographs.

Met Museum Asian Art Department Head and curator of the exhibition, Mike Hearn talks about the key themes and elements in Chinese gardens.

[Mike Hearn, Met Museum Asian Art Department Head]:
"They initially were built to attract immortals. Immortals are another theme that percolates throughout garden history, as well as pavilions, which are always the focal point in gardens. Either you built a pavilion at a beautiful spot for the view or it became itself part of the view."

One of the highlights of the exhibition is "The Palace of Nine Perfections" by a 17th century artist. The splendor of the traditional Chinese garden is set in 12 hanging scrolls, presenting an imaginary landscape of a seventh-century palace.

[Mike Hearn, Met Museum Asian Art Department Head]:
"In 1689, the city of Yangzhou welcomed the Kangxi emperor on his second Southern Inspection Tour...this painting actually is a representation of how well the Yangzhou society entertained the emperor on his arrival."

The imperial garden is a source of inspiration of imaginary creations of what an immortal's dwelling place would look like.

[Mike Hearn, Met Museum Asian Art Department Head]:
"These gardens were often meant to evoke paradises. So this wonderful 18-foot wide panoramic of a Tang Dynasty garden was so vast that the emperor had to ride on horseback between different pavilions."

Hearn talks about retreat—a recurring theme in Chinese garden art.

[Mike Hearn, Met Museum Asian Art Department Head]:
"Reclusion, withdrawal from politics and the dusty world of commerce is a major theme. So we have a number of images that talk about, illustrates the idea of withdrawal into the landscapes, escaping either changing dynasties or commercial pressures."

He elaborates this theme with the bottle imagery.

[Mike Hearn, Met Museum Asian Art Department Head]:
"The bottle was a metaphor for a world you could escape into. You can make yourself small, go into a bottle, or go into a gourd, and find another universe there."

The Chinese character for bottle looks like a Han Dynasty bottle with a lid on it. Hearn explains how this becomes a way to find immortal happiness for the Taoist painter whose nickname was square bottle.

Every art piece tells a story—like the "Palace Banquet." This is a hanging scroll in ink and color on silk, dating back to the late 10th--11th century.

The painting depicts a narrative sequence of the rendezvous between Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty and his imperial consort Yang Guifei.

[Mike Hearn, Met Museum Asian Art Department Head]:
"The sad ending of the story is that so infatuated was the emperor with Yang Guifei that he neglected the affairs of the state. And An Lushan rebelled, forcing the emperor to flee. The palace guard refused to take the emperor to safety unless they put Yang Guifei to death."

Hearn explains the message behind the story in the painting.

[Mike Hearn, Met Museum Asian Art Department Head]:
"It reminds you to not be distracted, too distracted by what surrounds you or the state will come to harm and ultimately the dynasty may fall."

Another recurring theme focuses on how gardens serve a venue for literary gatherings. This is best illustrated in the "Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion"—a hand scroll in ink and color on paper.

It tells the story of the well-known calligrapher Wang Xizhi and his friends meeting at the Orchid Pavilion to hold a poetry competition. Cups of wine float downstream, as poets composed their verses by the meandering river.

[Mike Hearn, Met Museum Asian Art Department Head]:
"The legend of this extraordinary outdoor gathering was a inspiration for later garden designers who often love to create these winding waterways."

Till January 6th, 2013, Chinese art lovers will be able to feast their eyes on this collection of "Chinese Gardens—Pavilions, Studios, Retreats" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

By Margaret Trey, PhD

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