The exhibit, “Chinese Gardens: Pavilions, Studios, Retreats,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art features more than 60 paintings and textiles, ceramics and photographs of gardens and landscapes through the centuries.
The oldest work in the exhibit, which runs through January 6, is a scroll painting dating to 1050, and the latest pieces are contemporary photographs.
“Everything about the garden is a distillation and an intensification of what is there in nature. It is that emphasis that man draws inspiration and meaning from, that natural world, and reconfigures it in the garden, just as it is reconfigured in works of art,” said Maxwell Hearn, the head of the Asian art department at the museum and the curator of the exhibition.
The works are featured in eight themed galleries encircling The Astor Court, a Chinese garden modeled on a 17th century scholars’ courtyard in Suzhou, China.
Hearn described the exhibit as revisiting “the idea of Chinese gardens as an abiding theme, a source of inspiration in Chinese art.”
From a huge 18-foot-wide (six-meter-wide) 12-panel painting “The Palace of Nine Perfections,” by the artist Yuan Jiang in 1691 to monastic retreats set in a magnificent setting in “Summer Mountains” (ca. 1050), the works show how gardens provided sanctuary, solitude, peace and escape, as well as sites for meetings, literary gatherings and theater performances.
Like many of the works of art, which are all part of the museum’s permanent collection, “Summer Mountains” is a scroll, which was meant to be opened gradually.
“It (the painting) is all about travelers finding their way to these wonderful temples nestled at the foot of these towering mountains,” said Hearn. “But if you weren’t able to do that you unravel the scroll and have the same vicarious experience. That is exactly how these scrolls were described and used in the 11th century.”
The works of art show how gardens were gathering places for prominent people as well as peasants, and how they were more than rocks, plants and trees.
“They are emblems of the human condition and the human interaction with the natural world,” said Hearn. “There is this amazing cumulative effect of gardens as the source of ongoing connectivity with the culture that came before us.”