It’s the kind of small exhibition that’s winsome because everything about it is better than its dimensions suggest. Titled “Paintings of Zhi Garden by Zhang Hong: Revisiting a Seventeenth-Century Chinese Garden,” the show consists of 20 album-size sheets, known collectively as “Zhi Yuan Tu,” tucked away in an alcove in the lower level of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Ahmanson Gallery. Part of LACMA’s ever-enlightening “Masterpiece in Focus” series, most visitors bumble across it while browsing. Everybody who came in while I was there seemed to linger longer than they had planned, as if relaxed by unexpected charm.
The pictures record an extensive but understated garden retreat located in the fertile lower Yangzi. Its paths meander along edges of pond, stream and lake, through bamboo groves that embower pavilions and gazebos. Most open on water so visitors can take tea or contemplate the profundities of nature. One large structure is architecturally inward-turning, inviting solitary meditation on the depths of the self.
Painted in 1627 near the end of the cultural flowering of the Ming dynasty, the series marks a period when the merchant class did so well they were able to build estates rivaling those of the crumbling imperial court. According to a catalog essay by the respected art historian James Cahill, these pictures stand as “incomparably the best visual evidence we have for a major garden from the great age of gardens in China.”
This showing marks the first time the album has been shown together since it was dismantled by a dealer in the 1950s. That’s particularly significant since the reunion makes clear that these images are so inescapably interlaced as to be incomplete when separated.
Their creator, Zhang Hong, was born in 1577 and lived past his mid-70s. A professional painter popular with the newly rich bourgeoisie, he was nonetheless officially slotted among second-rank artists. His inescapable artistic originality and plebeian origins undoubtedly offended the establishment’s conventional literati painters.
Modern viewers tend to see him as a kind of Asian forerunner of French Impressionism with his light touch and association with a garden that, for us, evokes Monet’s Giverny.
The comparison is appropriately flattering but visually misleading. Zhang’s conceptual approach to the Zhi garden project was unique in the way he almost literally walks us through the place. The leitmotif image is a bird’s-eye topographic view that takes in the whole estate. Although the high angle seems physically impossible given the terrain, the panorama is as accurate as it is endearing.
Cued by some exceptionally good wall labels, viewers can imaginatively stroll the garden by cross-referencing between more specific mid-distance scenes and the map-like general view. (It’s a little like a poetic version of a subway map with little dots saying “You Are Here.”)
Thus a look at ink paintings in a museum also becomes a surprisingly convincing trip to a place three centuries back in time. One encounters a large lake, then seems to move to another view of it where a tiny boating scene appears. It’s not as if one is actually on the ground. You never get that close. It’s more like being a breeze wafting from a landmark of grotesquely formed limestone to a sweet scene of peonies sheltered under a canopy. You blow softly past a big structure where an official visit seems to be underway, down a solitary path arriving finally at a place where it’s winter. You realize it’s been a tour of the seasons of life as well as the grounds.
Zhang’s discreet distancing miniaturizes the world, setting things in perspective. We’re reminded of the traditional Chinese view that it’s not the individual who counts on this planet but their modest relation with the larger forces embodied in nature.
The exhibition was gracefully organized by LACMA curator June Li, who is the wife of The Times’ Foreign Editor, Simon Li.
* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., through July 21, closed Mondays, (213) 857-6000.