Rss Feed
Tweeter button
Facebook button

‘Chinese Gardens,’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

There is a gate, but it is always shut.

In the early fifth century, the Chinese poet Tao Yuanming, who called himself Tao Qian, Recluse Tao, thus described his life. Born into a politically illustrious family in decline, he felt compelled as a young man to enter government service. A mistake. The career felt like one long wrestling match with corruption.

Finally, at 40, fed up with bowing and scraping for crumbs, he ditched the job and took off for the country, where he stayed for good, reading, drinking, thinking, writing under five tall willows and raising chrysanthemums. He fretted at times that he had shirked his public duties, tarnished his name. But the garden felt good. Small and enclosed, it was the world in which his spirit opened.

To anyone strolling through the Chinese painting galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this summer, the world itself looks like a garden of infinite expansion. That’s the impression given by the 80 paintings and objects that make up the exhibition called “Chinese Gardens: Pavilions, Studios, Retreats.” Drawn from the museum’s deep holdings, it’s a show about paradises lost and found; about nature blooming and fading; about cosmological events transpiring in backyard bamboo groves.

The show, organized by Maxwell Hearn, the curator in charge of the Met’s department of Asian art, starts grandly enough, with a 17th-century panoramic painting of the single largest pleasure garden China had ever known. Called the Palace of the Nine Perfections, it is said to have existed near the present-day city of Xi’an, and to have covered so much ground that its many pavilions could be visited only by horseback — or by air if you were a Taoist deity and had taken the place for heaven.

Whatever the facts, the Met’s king-size picture — 18 feet long and pieced together from a dozen side-by-side hanging scrolls, is impressive. Much as it looks like a royal commission, though, it wasn’t. Painted by a professional urban artist named Yuang Jiang in 1691, it was probably made for a merchant who, too tied up in trade ever to leave town, wanted a piece of total-immersion pictorial real estate in his own home. That’s what he got, with lots of everything: acreage, kiosks, paths, bridges and mountains shaped like scholar’s rocks.

But Chinese taste in art, as in gardens, also ran to less is more. A lone pavilion in a misty setting had a mystique of its own, evident in the painting “The Pavilion of Prince Teng,” by Tang Di (1287-1355). The towerlike structure, erected for an emperor’s son in the seventh century and still extant many reconstructions later, was renowned not for the prince who gave it his name but for a poet who spent a night there.

Wang Bo (649-676), the Percy Bysshe Shelley of the Tang dynasty, stopped at the pavilion while on a trip to visit his father in what is now northern Vietnam. He was offered dinner; he accepted. At some point in the evening he composed the “Preface to the Pavilion of Prince Teng,” a meditation on the shortness of life and on tasks left undone. He soon resumed his journey and drowned while crossing the South China Sea.

His fame was instant and lasting: the “Preface” is one of the most popular poems in Chinese literature. Yet there’s nothing triumphalist about Tang Di’s painting of the pavilion. The building perches uncertainly over a foggy abyss. Its fine-lined architecture suggests some ethereal form of basketry, porous, fragile. The tone feels muted, lonely and probably romantic for a crowd of tourists paying a visit.

Of course not every pavilion was a celebrity landmark. Nor was the average garden a mini-Eden. It was more likely to be a homely affair, with high humidly, bad feng shui and bugs. At least some of these factors are evident in a 13th-century illustration of a verse from the “Odes of the State of Bin,” a Confucian classic detailing the seasonal rounds of natural life in the country:

In the sixth month the cricket shakes its wings

In the seventh month it is out in the grounds

In the eighth month it is under the roof

In the ninth month it is in the doorway

In the 10th month the cricket is under our bed.

The scene painted is as described in the text, as Pekinese-size crickets hop across a lawn, into the wide-open house, and settle under the bed of a solitary, restless-looking sleeper.

We usually think of Chinese garden-retreats as being dedicated to solitude, but they weren’t always. Tao Qian regularly invited his rural neighbors in for drinks. And some of the most significant developments in Chinese culture took place at buzzy garden parties.

A 1560 painting called “Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion,” by the Ming artist Qian Gu, records an alfresco affair that had taken place centuries earlier. The main event on that spring day was a poetry contest among scholars, during which so much wine flowed that it was hard for people to write. The exception was the calligrapher Wang Xizhi (307-365), who described the goings-on in an essay called the “Orchid Pavilion Preface.” For centuries, every Chinese schoolchild has learned to copy it.

Qian does a nice job with the scene in his painting, catching the madcap mood without resorting to shtick, and letting the garden itself, with its twisty dragon-tail trees, be the main character. It makes sense that he was good: he had a superior teacher in Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), a leading painter of the day and a garden designer par excellence.

Wen was born in Suzhou, a city of canals that remains a veritable museum of classical gardens, most from the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), a few earlier. The Met’s Astor Court, which serves as the exhibition’s de facto centerpiece, is modeled on a section of the city’s Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets, which dates from the Ming era (1368-1644). And Wen had a hand in the Garden of the Humble Administrator (or Inept Administrator, in the Met’s translation), a so-called backyard garden, meaning one behind and connected to a house. He had a studio there, and an album of his garden illustrations is at the Met. One of the pavilions he painted, the Hall of Distant Fragrance, still stands.

A visit to the Suzhou gardens is a stimulating but disorienting experience. You get a firsthand sense of the complex stop-and-start movement and expansion and contraction of space that classical garden design creates. You also see how manipulative and coercive the designs can be, based on rigid rules of ritual protocol and hierarchy.

Gardens are meditation aids, but they’re also power machines. Despite poetic glosses, garden and pavilion culture was the handiwork of an elitist society that wanted no contact with the larger world — that was, instead, in willed retreat from social realities.

What it was receptive to, in a fixated way, was nature. And the images in the show’s last few galleries add up to a compendium of natural forms: birds and fish; pines and peach trees; peonies in extravagant bloom; and lotuses, in contemporary photographs by the American artist Lois Conner, withered to black stems. Each element — painted on silk or porcelain, carved into lacquer or jade — carries a specific metaphysical meaning and psychic weight.

The metaphysics and emotions surrounding gardens are not so easy to parse. Gardens can be sites of renewal or of exile, of safety or grief. For Tao Qian, whatever his misgivings about dropping out of public life, a garden brought peace and fulfillment. In a 13th-century painting called “Returning Home,” we see him sailing across a lake in a skiff toward his beloved willows and his garden with its high walls. He opens his arms, elated. He’s where he belongs.

The painting of him was once attributed to the Southern Song artist Qian Xuan (1225-1305), whose story was very different from Tao’s. When the Song capital fell to Mongol invaders in 1276, Qian, cast adrift, never regained his moorings. Mourning the old regime, refusing to work for the new one, he burned his books, drank and peddled his paintings on the street. He seems not to have sought out a garden. Instead he painted one, flower by flower.

The Met owns one of his flower pictures, of a blossoming pear tree, inscribed with a poem. The painting isn’t on view now but is worth recalling in the context of the show. It’s a reminder of the garden without walls, the retreat into art, that Qian created. And the words of the poem, which refer to the pear tree — and, by implication, to a cherished world gone — as a lover, suggest a breadth of sorrow no wall could contain or keep out:

Behind the closed gate, on a rainy night, how she is filled with sadness,

How differently she looked bathed in golden rays of moonlight, before darkness fell.

“Chinese Gardens: Pavilions, Studios, Retreats” continues through Jan. 6 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org.

Speak Your Mind

*