WHEN is a garden not a garden?
When it’s a Chinese garden, and every bamboo and plum blossom, every craggy rock and pool of water takes on metaphysical meanings that are to be “read” by the cognoscenti. This becomes especially evident when the garden and its elements are depicted in art, as in the Huntington exhibition “Chrysanthemums on the Eastern Hedge: Gardens and Plants in Chinese Art,” through Jan. 7.
“The garden is a microcosm of the universe,” says June Li, the show’s organizer and the curator of the Huntington Chinese Garden, which is taking real-life shape a stroll away and is also open for a preview until February. “The painting is also a microcosm of the universe.”
Standing in front of several paintings, she points out the pengjing -- miniature presentations of a plant or rock in pots -- found in them. (The Japanese refer to these as “bonsai.”) “And in this case there’s a microcosm within a microcosm. This kind of reflection is very common in Chinese art.”
With the help of 55 paintings, ceramic pieces and other objects -- including part of a carved door frame -- from the 10th through the 19th century, the exhibition reveals some of the cultural meanings of plants and gardens for the Chinese. Because the Huntington’s holdings in Chinese art are sparse, the curator has borrowed most of these prime examples from private collectors, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Pacific Asia Museum. In fact, only three items are home-based: lidded ceramic jars, popularly imported as salon decoration in Henry Huntington’s time, and all sporting botanical motifs, some in a highly stylized form.
Whether their American owners knew it or not, these designs were not only pretty to look at, but they also carried auspicious meanings. Take the Ming Dynasty jar decorated with lotus flowers and cranes on a black background. The lotus suggests purity and forthrightness because the lotus flower rises from muddied waters, and also fertility because a lotus pod has many seeds; cranes, because they were thought to live for centuries, are a symbol of longevity -- all good things in the Confucian universe.
Li named the exhibition after a line by the celebrated poet Tao Yuanming (365-427), who himself wanted to rise from muddied waters. After resigning from the corruption of government, he happily retired to cultivate his own garden. “I built a cottage right in the realm of men / Yet there was no noise from wagon and horse ... ,” he wrote. “I picked a chrysanthemum by the eastern hedge.”
Famous gardens often belonged to retired government officials, says Richard Strassberg, a UCLA professor of Chinese who is writing a book on the cultural meaning of Chinese gardens. This was the class with the time, taste and money to build them. (Sometimes they’re referred to as scholars, but in classical China, scholars usually served a stint as civil servants.) “The gardens of the scholar class of the lower Yangtze River envisioned their gardens as a retreat from the real world,” Strassberg says. “They were based on nature but improved on nature.”
The gardens were social settings, an extension of the house, where the scholars entertained friends, drank tea, wrote poetry and played music. Looking closely at these paintings, one sees that those disporting themselves are men, with an occasional female servant. In traditional China, proper ladies were to stay indoors.
Some proud owners commissioned paintings of their gardens by famous artists. The Huntington exhibition includes two of the most famous from the late Ming Dynasty: a hand-scroll painting of Shao Garden by Wu Bin and four views of the Zhi Garden by Zhang Hong, from an original 20-leaf set. Viewers will recognize parallels to what can be found in the nearby Chinese Garden, such as ponds with meandering contours, unusual rocks and arched bridges. There are also elements yet to be built, such as pavilions and pagodas.
Fundamentally, the garden, as an ideal universe, was supposed to convey balance and harmony. Thus, writes Maggie Keswick, in a foreword to an English translation of “The Craft of Gardens” by Ming landscape architect Ji Cheng, “rocks, combined with streams and pools, form the basis of a garden’s plan.” Those hard, unmoving rocks are the yang, or masculine, element, “which must harmonize with the reflective, flowing yin of water.” Rocks also represent mountains, a key element in Chinese cosmology.
There’s also a more whimsical reason for rocks’ presence in Chinese gardens, Li says: “They’re eccentric, they’re fanciful, they allow you to fantasize. It’s like looking at clouds.”
Many of the rocks depicted in these paintings are from Tai Hu, or Lake Tai, near Suzhou in eastern China, and for centuries these rocks, with their misshapen, pockmarked forms, have been highly coveted. Here again, reality reflects art, for the Huntington has shipped about 600 tons of Tai Hu rock for its own Chinese Garden. The pond is lined with them, set in place by Suzhou craftsmen who spent two months here earlier this year. Three especially large, especially prized monoliths are still in storage, awaiting the completion of the rest of the garden before being set up.
One section of the exhibition focuses on “the language of plants.” For example, plum blossoms are perennially popular -- depicted in a manual by Song Boren (active 1250), in paintings by Hu Zhengyan (1584/5-1674) and Zhao Tong (1840-about 1900), and even on a porcelain brush pot and a jade ornament. Here we have something of a mixed metaphor, says Li, because plum blossoms connote the hopeful first signs of life in late winter, and the ephemerality of life as the petals quickly drop away.
Since she joined the Huntington two years ago, Li has been busily working on this show and making suggestions to the actual garden based on the research she has come across. “Here’s weeping willow and plum blossoms planted together,” says Li, gazing thoughtfully at the painting of the Shao garden. “We’re getting inspiration from these paintings as to the plantings, the compositions for ours.”
Then she points to flickering colors in a painted pond, Impressionistic suggestions of koi swimming about. “Just like our fish in the garden.”
‘Chrysanthemums on the Eastern Hedge’
Where: Library West Hall, the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino
When: 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. today through Sunday; closed Labor Day; regular hours resume Tuesday: noon to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Ends: Jan. 7
Price: $15; $12, seniors; $10, students; $6, ages 5 to 11; free, children younger than 5
Info: (626) 405-2100, www.huntington.org