Rocks have long been admired in China as an essential feature in gardens. By the early Song dynasty (960–1279), small ornamental rocks were also collected as accoutrements of the scholar's study, and the portrayal of rocks, often joined by an old tree or bamboo, became a favorite and enduring pictorial genre. Especially prized are stones that have been sculpted naturally by processes of erosion or that appear to have been shaped by nature even if they have been artfully enhanced by man. Pitted, hollowed out, and perforated, such rocks, which are often displayed on end, are seen as embodiments of the dynamic transformational processes of nature. By the Tang dynasty (618–907), four principal aesthetic criteria—thinness (shou), openness (tou), perforations (lou), and wrinkling (zhou)—had been identified for judging scholars' rocks as well as the larger examples featured in gardens. Besides these formal qualities, rocks were also admired for their resemblance to mountains or caves, particularly the magical peaks and subterranean paradises (grotto-heavens) believed to be inhabited by immortal beings. Some rocks were appreciated for their resemblance to animals, birds, human figures, or mythical creatures.
This exhibition features more than thirty scholars' rocks from the noted collection of the Richard Rosenblum family, ranging in size from desktop pieces to freestanding works of several feet in height. They are accompanied by about ninety paintings dating from the eleventh to the twentieth century, drawn primarily from the Museum's collection.
The exhibition features a series of images of fantastic rocks depicted in garden settings. Palace Banquet, by an anonymous court painter of the tenth or early eleventh century, depicts a palatial garden where rocks in the form of crouching animals serve as symbolic guardians to the imperial seraglio. This imposing large-scale image in color is juxtaposed with one section from The Classic of Filial Piety executed around 1085 by Li Gonglin (ca. 1041–1106), one of the progenitors of scholar-painting, which shows a rock and bamboo in a private garden. An actual scholar's rock in the form of a rearing tiger that is dated to the Song dynasty (960–1279) provides a striking foil to the feline-like painted rocks in Palace Banquet, while a rock sculpted in jade and inscribed by the Qing emperor Qianlong (r. 1736–95) echoes the scalloped form of the rock in The Classic of Filial Piety.
Paintings of fantastic rocks appear as early as the eighth century, when a single elegant specimen, always combined with an ornamental tree or flower, was used to suggest a garden setting. Rock-and-tree paintings soon developed into a separate pictorial genre in which the auspicious associations of fantastic rocks were linked to the symbolic meanings of certain plants—such as a pine tree (longevity), bamboo (moral purity), peonies and hollyhocks (wealth and high rank)—to create images that were appropriate gifts for birthdays, the New Year, and other special occasions.
By the seventeenth century, the aesthetic ideals of painting and scholars' rocks were almost indistinguishable. Assemblages of fantastic rocks in a garden, often arrayed in front of a white wall, as in The Astor Court, might be inspired by compositional formulas developed in painted landscapes; conversely, the texturing and fantastic forms of painted landscapes often resembled those of scholars' rocks more than actual scenery. The passion for fantastic rocks culminated at this time with numerous "portraits" of actual and imagined specimens.
With the rise of monumental landscape painting in the tenth and eleventh centuries, artists created images of mountains that recalled twisting plumes of smoke, upthrust spearheads, cumulo-nimbus clouds, or the triangular form of the ancient pictograph for mountain. These form-types were not only perpetuated in later landscape paintings, but also influenced scholars' taste in rocks. To illustrate this point, the exhibition features a group of early monumental landscape paintings together with later scholars' rocks whose forms recall the landscape formations depicted in the paintings.