Friday, March 23, 2007




It was a cold, blustery day in Washington, D.C., but the wind swept me right into spring -- into the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, where in a rush to meet the cherry blossoms, the Sackler has mounted a brilliant show celebrating the gardens of the Orient. In "East of Eden: Gardens in Asian Art," Feb. 24-May 13, 2007, the pleasures of the garden are strikingly shown in 65 works of art displayed in sumptuous surroundings.

For centuries, princes, potentates, rich merchants or anyone else with money and power strived to create the perfect garden. These were gardens meant for seclusion and meditation, gardens for passion and secret trysts, sensuous gardens that intoxicate with their beauty, spacious gardens for the hunt. And the artists of Persia, Iraq, Turkey, China, Japan and the Indian subcontinent made lasting images of those perfect gardens, although many of them were certainly imagined rather than experienced.

Women, solitary or in groups, are often depicted in the Asian garden. For women, whose movement out-of-doors was sometimes otherwise restricted or forbidden, the garden provided a fresh, natural setting where they were free to socialize and wander about.

At the Sackler, in manuscript paintings, hanging scrolls, ceramics, folding screens and textiles spanning almost nine centuries, the gardens speak to us of the immense affluence of royalty, the splendid visions of their architects and the intense desire to come as close to nature as humanly possible.

Mughal gouache miniatures are generously represented here. In the early 16th century, the Mughals came out of Persia with fast horses and a vast complement of artists, and had conquered most of India by the 1550s, leaving only a handful of independent rulers in the north.

Among my favorite wroks is an opaque watercolor-and-gold-on-paper illustration, Jahangir and Prince Khurram with Nur Jahan ("Nur meaning "delight). Jahan was to become Shah Jahan in the early 17th century. Here we see the future Mughal ruler with his wife Mumtas, who, not coincidentally, was an ardent garden enthusiast. A party is taking place on the lawn of an opulent garden, and a meal is spread out on a rug vibrant with floral images. In the background is a magnificent garden edifice -- the Mughals were famous for their architecture -- next to a grove of trees. Jahan and his party graciously dine while richly clad servants await their orders. The carefully manicured grounds were typical of the period, and were often punctuated with ornamental animals, especially peacocks, deer and antelopes.

In Lovers, another watercolor with gold on paper which dates to the late 1500s, we see the Mughal Prince Murad with his young wife Mirza. The garden here is probably located in the region of Kashmir, home to several famous Mughal gardens, including the legendary Shalimar. A bedspread and carpet are laid out on a verdant lawn, and the couple is seen in amorous embrace. Gardens were jealously guarded by walls and fences or by natural barriers to keep out the curious -- fortunate in this case.

The most famed garden of India, as you might expect, is in Agra at the Taj Mahal, the world-renowned structure that was built as the tomb of Shah Jahan’s wife, Mumtas. Jahan had promised to care for their 13 children, to never remarry and to build her a magnificent tomb. We don’t know how well he took care of the kids, but he certainly made good on the tomb. In Bird’s Eye View of the Taj Mahal at Agra, we see that the structure was originally surrounded by a vast garden, with the tomb in the exact center. The plantings on the Yamuna river’s far shore have since disappeared, but Bird’s Eye View is proof that the garden did exist. It is known as the Moonlight Garden, and at its south entrance gateway a Koran verse reads, "Enter thou my paradise."

The Moonlight Garden was divided into four symmetrical sections in a configuration, called chahar-bagh, typical of Indian and Persian gardens. Each section in a chahar-bagh layout is separated by a raised walkway which typically doubles as a water course. Several gouaches in the exhibition show chahar-bagh gardens. With true poetic symbolism, the four sections were said to represent wine, honey, milk and water. But this configuration arose from more practical reasons. It was dry in India. The canals were filled with water from diverted rivulets and springs, and the layout maximized use of this valuable commodity. (No such arrangement is to be found in images of Japanese and Chinese gardens, where water was plentiful.)

Not content to leave the garden outside, artisans would bring the garden themes inside as decorations for household objects. We see the chahar-bagh influence in a quatrefoil ceramic lobed spice box dating from the 1650s. The box is fashioned of gold and topped with a ruby finial that rests on enamel lilies and furling leaves. The sinuous and sensual lines of the design suggest the aphrodisiac function of the cardamom pods and stuffed betel leaves that the box was designed to contain.

A lot is going on in The Garden of Heavenly Creatures, an ink drawing with gold and color wash that is probably from the mid-16th-century Persian Safavid dynasty. At first glance, it’s a serene setting where exquisitely attired angels are entertaining their queen. But lest we forget, lulled by the beauty of the flowers and birds, nature can be a cruel and treacherous force. A demon stands at attention, and high in a corner of the heavenly garden, a snake swallows a baby chick as its distraught mother flutters helplessly. The garden is a blend of the abstract and the sensual, the earthy and the mystical.

Like their Indian and Persian counterparts, artists depicting Chinese and Japanese gardens make ample use of teahouses and gazebos, decorative walkways and stepping stones, elaborate fences and walls. But the gardens of Japan and China are less manicured and more natural. They show a liberal use of rocks, even boulders, plus sand and moss, as well as being set in watery landscapes. Japanese and Chinese gardens tend to be vast, encompassing long stretches of minimally landscaped areas, with hills or mountains in the distant background becoming an integral part of the garden design. Not exclusively reserved for the imperial courts, the gardens of Southeast Asia were often situated in sacred groves, around houses of learning, in the secluded mountain retreats of scholars where they were meant to inspire learning and meditation.

But not all Japanese gardens were so egalitarian. In many, fences, screens and walls enforced the mandatory separations dictated by local custom. Such boundaries are clearly demonstrated in Court Ladies among Cherry Trees. Within the garden fence, a group of aristocratic women have come to see the trees at their height of bloom, which stand in contrast against a green background. The ladies’ brightly colored garments let us know they are an important presence, their cherry-viewing activities noteworthy. Outside the garden their nondescript attendants sit leaning against the fence, taking a snooze. The two six-part folding screens gleam in gold impasto, achieved by the addition of ground seashells.

Gold was mined in Japan and was used liberally by Japanese artists during this time. In another example, a two-panel screen from the late 17th or early 18th century, flowering plants are arranged in asymmetrical fashion against a background of gold leaf, creating a luminous effect. Lilies, hollyhocks, clover and wisteria, a mix of wild and cultivated flowers, are pictured in varying stages of bloom. In reality these plants would not be found together in the same garden, but no matter.

Often, we feel as though we are in the garden, other times, as if we are looking out from inside. The persimmon tree in bloom on a three-panel screen appears to be just outside our window. The artist has carefully layered diluted pigments on leaves and tree trunk, suggesting the contrast between the brilliant red fruit at the end of autumn and the inevitability of winter. The screen is from the late 18th century Edo period.

The Tale of Utatane from the Muromachi period (1392-1568) is a good example of the Japanese tradition of storytelling with the aid of a handscroll. Here the artist provides us with a full view of a house and its garden by looking down from above at the roofless interior and the exterior spaces. By the 12th century, Japanese artists had perfected this manner of presentation, which allows us to appreciate the uninterrupted flow from indoors to veranda to outdoor gardens. In the Utatane scroll, a young princess inside her house can enjoy the gardens because the structure’s exterior panels have been moved aside. Within this peaceful setting, perhaps intoxicated by the sight and aroma of a cherry tree in full bloom, the princess appears ready for a nap.

A popular Chinese love story is played out in The Story of the Western Wing. A young scholar falls in love with Oriole, a beautiful maiden of higher rank. Interpreting a letter from the young woman as encouragement, he scales her garden wall. In this ink and color painting on silk, the youth is atop the wall and is about to drop down into a magnificent garden with banana trees, trellised vines and decorative rocks. An angry handmaiden is ready to give him a piece of her mind, while the object of his love sits to the side, seemingly amused. The date of the painting is unclear, though it was originally thought to be early 16th century, and subsequently from the 18th-19th century Qing dynasty.

In Japan, people took great pride in their gardens -- even identifying themselves by their garden. We sense that pride in the two versions of The Five Deer Hermitage, a small private Japanese estate located in Hebei Province. Evidently, the estate’s owner was so anxious to preserve the image of his property that he enlisted two prominent scholar-artists for the job. Their ink drawings on gold-flecked paper initially appear to be of two different properties. On close inspection, however, it’s clear they are both renderings of The Five Deer Hermitage -- the same buildings, the small island connected to the mainland by small bridges, the same basic outlines of the garden. Yet they differ in overall effect and in many details. Probably one or both artists created their drawings from memory or based on written or oral accounts, incorporating imaginary elements along the way. The idyllic settings created by the painters were said to have greatly pleased the property’s owner, no doubt in the same way a flattering portrait might please its sitter.

The beauty of the garden was also captured in ceramics and other materials. An exquisite example is a Japanese tea-ceremony water jar decorated with pale colored chrysanthemums and gold, suggesting a private garden setting. Tea mavens valued water from certain famous wells, and this water jar is in the shape of a wooden curb surrounding such a well. Autumn flowers predominate on a 17th-century, nine-inch-high inkstone case (suzuribako) on which pampas grass, asters and ague weed are presided over by a crescent moon.

From Jiangxi province comes a huge (more than 26 inches in diameter) Ming dynasty porcelain dish with cobalt under a colorless glaze. A garden with a stylized rock and distinctive flowers graces the dish center. Leaf and flower sprays circle the front and back cavetto. Pine, plum and bamboo on the back are, in Chinese tradition, "The Three Friends of Winter."

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.


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