Culture Desk: Exhibition Review: “Chinese Gardens: Pavilions, Studios, Retreats” At The Metropolitan Museum of Art, through January 6, 2013

by Bernie Langs

The great art historian, Lord Kenneth Clark, entitled two of his best essays, What is a Masterpiece? and Moments of Vision. If you would like to experience moments of greatly enhanced visual experience while gazing upon a trove of fabulous art, which boasts several masterpieces, head over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view “Chinese Gardens: Pavilions, Studios, Retreats.” This exhibition features more than sixty paintings as well as ceramics, carved bamboo, lacquerware, metalwork, and a handful of contemporary photographs, all drawn from the museum’s permanent collections. The Met notes that the exhibit “explores the rich interactions between pictorial and garden arts in China across more than one thousand years. In the densely populated urban centers of China, enclosed gardens have long been an integral part of residential and palace architecture, serving as an extension of the living quarters.” If you want to learn about the nuts and bolts of this exhibition, I suggest reading the excellent review by Holland Carter in the August 16th New York Times.

Qian Xuan, Chinese, ca. 1235–before 1307. Wang Xizhi Watching Geese. China, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), ca. 1295. Handscroll; ink, color, and gold on paper. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The rub of this review is that there are two ways (or a mixture of both) to experience this exhibition. One can look over the paintings and read the long descriptions next to each about what they represent and how they came to be in terms of both art and political or cultural history.

The other approach, which I adhered to, is to concentrate on the visual, and thus emotional experience of beholding these masterworks and just skim the placards. The basic subject matter of Chinese paintings, which is often views of nature, mountains, lakes, pavilions, gatherings of “Immortals” and so on, are familiar to me. Walking into the first gallery of “Chinese Gardens” took my breath away, and reading at length in the art’s presence seemed like a distraction. Visiting such a large exhibition is almost akin to a protracted sports event; one has to pace oneself so as not to become overwhelmed by the middle and run out of steam by the end. I found that reading the descriptions detracted from my energy. But if this style of art is new to you, I highly recommend reading at least some of the posted notes.

Yuan Jiang, active ca.1680–ca. 1730. The Palace of Nine Perfections, China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), dated 1691. Set of twelve hanging scrolls; ink and color on silk. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Certain works in the exhibition just grab you with their serenity, such as the calm majesty of “Returning Home Through the Snow” by Dai Jin. Others, such as Yuan Jiang’s masterpiece, “The Palace of Nine Perfections,” brings one to a new level of understanding of how art can teach one unique ways of perceiving physical and spiritual dimensions—simultaneously. A rare feat, indeed. In the 1990s, I read a lot of Chinese philosophy and though I can’t call back all that I learned from a school such as the Confucian, or from a system such as the Tao Te Ching, or an explanation of the experience of reality such as The Eight Levels of Consciousness (a favorite of mine), a show like this brings up the power and feeling evoked by each that remain in my subconscious. There is more to see on view here than just a beautifully crafted pavilion floating in the mist or a faraway mountain partially hidden by a thin cloud cover. One is viewing the depths of a civilization steeped in a long history of images that were carefully and slowly refined over the centuries to gel with their philosophies.

Many years ago, I attended a lecture by then Director Philippe de Montebello; he explained that the longer one looks at a work of art, the more one sees. He implored the audience to take their time with a painting, to let its meaning seep in. He said that he was once at The Frick Collection, where he stood for so long in front of a Velasquez painting that a security guard came over to check on him. Please visit “Chinese Gardens” and stand for a while in front of these fabulous works of art, which offer the viewer so much.

October 2012