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.

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