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Chinese Gardens: Pavilions, Studios, Retreats

August 18, 2012–January 6, 2013

Seasonal Blossoms and the Three Friends of Winter

Paintings of landscapes and flowers constitute the two leading Chinese painting genres, and just as landscapists frequently recorded the changing of the seasons, flower painters observed the cycle of months through renderings of the annual round of blossoms. In addition to serving as seasonal markers, many plants have deep symbolic associations. For example, the pine, plum, and bamboo are known as the Three Friends of Winter. Pines and bamboo retain their green foliage through the winter, and the plum is among the first flowers to blossom in the spring. Consequently, these three garden elements have long served as emblems of moral rectitude, survival in the face of adversity, and the possibility of renewal. The Three Friends are not only frequently portrayed in painting but also are a favored motif in the decorative arts.

Another beloved plant is the lotus. Because it emerges from muddy waters to bloom unsullied, it has long been linked in Asia to Buddhist notions of purity and rebirth. In thirteenth-century China, naturalistic depictions of the lotus in different seasons also evoked the ephemeral nature of physical beauty. The American photographer Lois Conner has chronicled these changes in more recent times using a "banquet format" camera lens to create horizontal or vertical compositions that recall Chinese precedents. Her abstract images of dried and broken stalks and their reflections are almost calligraphic. In that sense, Conner's work is a meaningful extension of China's garden arts, which weave together the natural world, history, literature, and myth in a host of different decorative and pictorial art forms to create images that are as multitudinous and mutable as nature itself.

Related Artworks

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  • Lotus and Water Birds
    Lotus and Water Birds

    Unidentified Artist

    Date: ca. 1300
    Accession Number: 1988.155a, b

  • Bamboo and Rocks
    Bamboo and Rocks

    Li Kan (Chinese, 1245–1320)

    Date: dated 1318
    Accession Number: 1973.120.7a, b

  • Wintry Plum (Han Mei)
    Wintry Plum (Han Mei)

    Ni Jing (Chinese, active late 14th century)

    Date: 14th century
    Accession Number: 1983.85

  • Bamboo in Wind
    Bamboo in Wind

    Xia Chang (Chinese, 1388–1470)

    Date: ca. 1460
    Accession Number: 1989.235.1

  • Bamboo and Rock
    Bamboo and Rock

    Deng Yu (Chinese, ca. 1300–after 1378)

    Date: ca. 1360–67
    Accession Number: 1991.438.1

  • Dragon Pine
    Dragon Pine

    Wu Boli (Chinese, active late 14th–early 15th century)

    Date: ca. 1400
    Accession Number: 1984.475.3

  • The Pure Whiteness of Winter
    The Pure Whiteness of Winter

    Xu Jing (Chinese, active first half 15th century)

    Date: dated 1441
    Accession Number: 1982.1.5

  • Garden Flowers
    Garden Flowers

    After Chen Chun (Chinese, 1483–1544)

    Date: dated 1540
    Accession Number: 1986.266.1a–u

  • Plate with Egrets and Lotus
    Plate with Egrets and Lotus

    Date: late 19th century
    Accession Number: 79.2.440