Eastern Inspiration

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Eastern Inspiration

December 11, 2012
03:34pm
Photo by: Metropolitan Museum of Art

When asked if he gardens, Maxwell Hearn, head curator of the department of Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, admits, “As long-term residents of New York City, my wife and I struggle to keep some orchids blossoming on our windowsill.” But when it comes to the history of Chinese gardens, he knows his stuff. His current show, “Chinese Gardens: Pavilions, Studios, Retreats” (through January 6), consists of more than 60 paintings, ranging from the 11th through 17th centuries, as well as photographs, ceramics, and textiles. Aptly displayed throughout the eight galleries surrounding the Astor Court — itself based on a 17th-century scholars’ courtyard in Suzhou, China — the exhibition, through such works as Qian Xuan’s circa-1295 Wang Xizhi Watching Geese (above), explores the long history of gardens in China and their considerable influence on native painters (often garden designers themselves).  Hearn says such images were often interpreted “as portraits embodying something of the character of the garden’s owner.” And what might a gardener with limited space take away from the ancient Chinese approach to gardening? Space isn’t everything, of course. “Chinese urban gardens can be any size — a grain of sand and a drop of water makes a garden,” says Hearn, “and such gardens are typically walled so as to keep out the rest of the world. These interior worlds are densely symbolic: Rockeries evoke mountain peaks, tile floors become oceans, shrubs become forests. In this way, a small space can hold another universe.”  

 

This article was first published in Garden Design Winter 2012