People gather around waterfalls and gardens. Drinking tea, they discuss poetry and spiritual matters and gaze at garden paintings, hoping to catch hidden allusions. In the gallery, elegant Chinese scrolls and paintings with delicate brush strokes quietly take their place beside colorful porcelain and jade. At sunset, the summer heat abates. Visitors stroll along a shaded path across hand-carved stone bridges, streams, elegant waterfalls and winding caves.
This scene is not an exotic retreat but an exhibit that opened Aug. 5 at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Here, China’s art and philosophy, long a fascination for many, is coming to life. “Chrysanthemums on the Eastern Hedge: Gardens and Plants in Chinese Art” features 55 paintings and objects from Chinese art from the 10th through 19th centuries. In China, gardens are themselves an art form.
The exhibit and the garden offer glimpses into the philosophy, art and culture of China by showcasing five plants — the plum, bamboo, orchid, lotus, and chrysanthemum — profoundly significant in Chinese art.
The exhibit was inspired by a famous 4th-century Chinese poet Tao Yuanming, aka Tao Qian. Tao Qian, who resigned from a government post to protest political corruption, returned to his beloved garden to plant chrysanthemums and write: “I built a cottage right in the realm of men… I picked a chrysanthemum by the eastern hedge …”
The exhibit’s title pays homage to the poet. According to June Li, curator and art historian, “Historically, culturally, a lot of Chinese people associate the chrysanthemum with this poet’s way of life and values — standing up for his principles by retreating to his own world … an oasis.”
Many paintings were obtained from an eminent private collector in New Hampshire. Other items in the exhibit were donated by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), various museums and private collectors.
Li joined The Huntington staff two years ago to help build the Chinese Garden. Previously, she was curator of Chinese art at LACMA for 18 years. “I’m not a botanist or horticulturist,” she says. “My job really is to provide the cultural, historical background.”
Li also helped assemble many beautiful objects for the exhibit. The collection includes the work of renowned 18th-century artist Jin Nong, whose trademark is plum blossoms. The idea was to use some of The Huntington collection too.
“The porcelain the Huntingtons owned was decorated with flowers,” explains Li. “We’ve also borrowed from private and public collections — porcelain, jades, books, tapestries, paintings with gardens, flowers and plants from the 16th and 17th centuries.
“The whole idea is to bring them together under the theme of plants. In China, plants and flowers symbolized certain things. Peonies symbolized wealth. The chrysanthemum had a lot of use in China. Believed to have curative powers, the plant was also used to cook, for tea and wine. At the same time, it is quite a hardy flower that grows late into autumn. It is associated with longevity.”
Chinese plants often represent seasons and ideals. The lotus, which often appears in Buddhist lore, is associated with purity: Its long stalks emerge from the muddy pond to hold untainted blossoms. The plum tree, which blooms in late winter, represents life’s transience and fortitude. The bamboo symbolizes the path to enlightenment.
A lecture series complements the exhibit. Highlights include a curator’s tour from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Aug. 16 ($15 for members and $20 for nonmembers. Call (626)-405-2128 for reservations.) Another curator’s tour is on Oct. 10, and a presentation about the craftsmen of the 16th- and 17th-century Ming dynasty is on Dec. 12.
Also in conjunction with the exhibit is a sneak preview of the first phase of the stunning Chinese Garden, a work in progress. Chinese gardens typically don’t have lawns but do have historical, literary, and cultural references.
According to Li, its purpose is “to celebrate the garden as a refuge but also as a place to gather, to create poetry together, chat, enjoy the summer breeze. Our garden will be both a refuge and a place for meeting friends.
“Building a Chinese garden is really an artistic endeavor,” Li continues. “Garden designers were painters and very often designed a garden to look like a painting, or vice versa, a painting to look like a garden.”
The Chinese-American community in San Marino has been supportive and donated generously. Building the garden is costly and requires many specialists, including architects and engineers working with The Huntington’s botanical staff. The Suzhou Institute of Landscape Architectural Design teamed up with Pasadena architect Bob Ray Offenhauser to fully develop and engineer the original conceptual designs of landscape architect Jin Chen. Another Chinese firm, Suzhou Garden Development Co., is involved with installing hand-carved stone bridges. They will work with Valley Crest Landscape Development to place 600 tons of traditional Tai Hu rocks around the lake.
Pavilions, covered walkways, a teashop and a teahouse should be complete by next year, followed by a summer garden. But the projected 12 acres will take years to complete.
The Huntington Library opened to the public in 1928. Much is known about its beautiful 150-acre gardens — the Japanese and rose gardens in particular are often used as locations for Hollywood movies — but less about its unique history.
Henry Huntington, a catalyst for California’s expansion, derived his wealth from railroads and utilities, which spurred California’s incredible growth at the turn of the 20th century.
A resident of San Marino, Huntington left the library, which operates partially on his trust fund, as a legacy to house his renowned collection of rare books and manuscripts. But the library also contains art galleries with paintings culled from the Huntingtons’ British and French collections. Huntington’s wife, Arabella, one of the wealthiest women of her generation, was also a prominent art collector. While her personal life was an enigma, she is credited with inspiring Henry’s love of collecting art.
Their interest in art, gardening and literary scholarship and mutual desire to benefit the community suggest Henry and Arabella wanted to be remembered by their contributions to San Marino.
The Chinese art exhibit and garden are true to the spirit of the Huntingtons, whose love of art and desire for intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic cultivation inspired the project. They are extraordinary gifts that continue the Huntington legacy.
“Chrysanthemums on the Eastern Hedge: Gardens and Plants in Chinese Art” can be seen through Jan. 7 in the West Hall of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. The Chinese Garden opens temporarily with the exhibit and closes in February for additional construction. Admission is free for members, $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, $10 for students, $6 for children 5 to 11, free for children under 5, and $11 per person for groups of 15 or more. Admission is free to all visitors the first Thursday of every month. Call (626) 405-2100, or visit www.huntington.org.