CLP 22: 1995 “Exploring the Zhi Garden in Zhang Hong’s Album.” Lecture LACMA

Exploring the Zhi Garden in Zhang Hong's Album

The present exhibition, by re-uniting (if only temporarily) the twenty leaves of Zhang Hong's 1627 "Zhi Garden" album after several decades of separation, not only allows us to see and admire this extraordinary work in its entirety, but also permits a detailed consideration of the program that underlies this set of paintings, how it "works" as a pictorial exposition of a great Chinese garden. It proves to be, in this respect, absolutely unique and nothing short of amazing.

The album appears to be unrecorded until recent times. The original separation of the leaves was done in the 1950s by a dealer who had acquired it; he kept the eight leaves he liked best and sold the other twelve to the Cambridge, Massachusetts collector Richard Hobart. The eight, after being included in an exhibition of Chinese landscape painting in 1954,[1] were purchased by Franco Vannotti in Lugano, Switzerland; the twelve owned by Hobart passed after his death into the hands of his daughter Mabel Brandon. More recently, the same dealer who was responsible for breaking up the album bought back eight of these leaves from Mrs. Brandon, who kept four of her favorites; the present writer acquired six of the eight from this dealer in a trade for other paintings; and the remaining two were sold to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The eight Vannotti leaves were purchased in the 1980s by the Museum für Ostiatische Kunst in Berlin. The twenty leaves are thus dispersed among four collections, public and private, in groups of eight, six, four, and two.

I have a dim memory of having seen the album while it was still all together, during my graduate student days, in the storage room of a museum that was considering it for purchase, and of not being much impressed with it. I was working hard during those years to understand and absorb traditional Chinese criteria of quality in their painting, and Zhang Hong's album did not seem to stand up well to orthodox Chinese standards for either "good" compositions or "good" brushwork. Quite a few more years would pass before I would come to realize that the same was true of much of the so-called Zen or Chan painting of the Song-Yuan period, and of other kinds of Chinese painting that were excluded by traditional connoisseurs and collectors from the orthodox canon of what the cultivated gentleman should appreciate. I came to recognize also that excellent artists could choose deliberately to employ "bad" brushwork and compositions, i.e. varieties that departed from the orthodox, in pursuit of certain ends and effects that they could not have achieved within the orthodoxy. In doing this they risked, and frequently suffered, critical disparagement. A good example is the great early Qing landscapist Gong Xian, whose mysterious visions depend in part on textural and light-and-shadow effects accomplished with the unorthodox technique of stippling. The resulting "bad brushwork" charge has attached to him down to recent times.

In Zhang Hong's case the effect being pursued, to which "strong" compositions and brushwork were necessarily sacrificed, was a kind of visual truthfulness. In an inscription on an album of "Scenes of Yue" that he painted in 1639, Zhang relates that when he went to the places in question, "about half did not agree with what I had heard. So when I returned home I got out some silk and used it to depict what I had seen, because relying on your ears is not as good as relying on your eyes."[2] The empirical, visual-exploration approach suggested in this statement, highly untraditional for a Chinese painter, is carried through in others of Zhang's works, and is the key also, as we will see, to the method of the Zhi Garden album.

Since Zhang Hong has not been much appreciated in Chinese writings on artists and paintings, we know little about him. The recent discovery of a notice on him in the local history of the county in which he lived, written around the time he painted the Zhi Garden album (the preface of the book is dated 1629), fills out somewhat his shadowy image.[3] According to this source, Zhang "read books," or studied toward the official examinations, while a boy--this information only confirms what was already indicated by the long, literate inscriptions on some of his paintings. But he was unsuccessful as a scholar, and turned to painting for his livelihood, attaining fame "all over the world." He lived in a hamlet on the east side of Hengqi County, located between the Shihu or Stone Lake and the Taihu or Great Lake west of Suzhou. His family was terribly impoverished, but he himself preserved his pride, remaining aloof from worldly concerns: when his shoes were broken, he didn't change them; when his clothes were dirty, he didn't bother to wash them. He cared for his parents, and after their deaths*********ation" have a conventional ring, but there is doubtless some truth in them.

The Zhi Garden album was done, probably on commission, for a certain Huishan Cizong, who is named in Zhang's inscription on the last leaf. The term Cizong means a man skilled in literary composition, and presumably was used to flatter the patron, who must have been the owner of the garden. He has not been identified, nor has the garden; the name Zhi Yuan or "Garden for Stopping" was used for several gardens of periods before and after the late Ming, but none can be matched with the one represented in Zhang's album.[4] It was obviously very extensive, and, judging from the canals seen in the paintings, was probably located in Suzhou. Whether Huishan Cizong approached Zhang Hong because he knew of the artist's special penchant for "depicting what he saw" instead of producing the usual series of conventional compositions, or whether the mode of representation was entirely the artist's choice, cannot be established. In any case, Zhang Hong undertook a project that had never been attempted before, judging at least from extant works: a series of paintings that would together provide a surprisingly comprehensive, integrated, and persuasively "accurate" pictorial account of the garden. (For the purpose of this essay I am ignoring the theoretical problem of how a painting can be "pictorially accurate"; what I mean by it will become apparent in what follows.) The Zhi Garden album stands as incomparably the best visual evidence we have for a major garden from the great age of gardens in China, only a few years before the designer Ji Cheng composed his Yuanye, "The Craft of Gardens," written between 1631 and 1634.[5]

This is a large claim, which depends on an understanding of how gardens had been represented prior to Zhang Hong's time. There were essentially three options, corresponding to the principal forms that Chinese paintings take. A single, comprehensive view of the garden could be presented in a hanging scroll, since the old convention of representing the terrain or scenery from an elevated vantage point allowed the artist to lay out the garden in map-like fashion within the space of his painting. In the handscroll or horizontal scroll, which one reads while rolling it from right to left, the painter typically provided a pictorial analogue to the more linear or discursive experience of entering the garden through a gate shown at the beginning of the scroll, walking leisurely through it and observing its principal features, and leaving through another gate at the end. Variations on this scheme are seen in a number of garden handscrolls, including those by two of Zhang Hong's contemporaries, Sun Kehong and Wu Bin.[6] In the third form, the album, the imagined experience was sequential: successive leaves would typically present designated and poetically named "scenes" in the garden--pavilions, ponds, rockeries--with the name of each inscribed on the leaf. An early example is a twelve-leaf album of scenes of the Shizi Lin or Lion Grove Garden ascribed to the late Yuan-early Ming master Xu Ben; another is the Zhuozheng Yuan ("Garden of the Awkward Politician") album by Wen Zhengming.[7] Fine as all these may be as paintings, their inadequacies in providing comprehensive and believable visual accounts of the gardens, because of problems of spatial disjuncture and conventionalization, are obvious.

Zhang Hong follows none of these schemes, not even that of the garden album. What he has in fact done can be introduced by asking how we might make a visual record of a garden that would convey enough information about it to allow an approximate reconstruction. Imagine that as a specialist in Chinese gardens, you are given a single wish by a genie from a lamp, and your wish is to return to some great late Ming garden with a camera and make a series of color photos or slides of it. You are permitted a free choice of vantage points, even unnaturally elevated ones that would today require a helicopter. But the genie has craftily put only a twenty-exposure roll of film in the camera. You would use your initial shot for an all-over or bird's-eye view, and for the remainder, would roam over the garden selecting views that together make up a more or less comprehensive portrayal of it, choosing angles of view that were especially revealing. You would make a point of interlocking the photos spatially by including in each some visually identifiable materials--buildings, striking clusters of trees or rocks--that appear also in others. To the same purpose, you would take care that the area covered in each of the photos could be identified within the bird's-eye view.

And that, in effect, is what Zhang Hong has done. To put it less anachronistically, it is as though he had gone around the garden holding up a rectangular frame and painting what appeared within it, from a fixed vantage point, without trying to arrange the visual materials into "good" compositions. He adopts a determinedly un-literary stance, not even writing identifying labels on the leaves, since, contrary to standard practice, they do not focus on particular designated "sights" or "scenes" of the garden. And he eschews "strong brushwork"--of which he was eminently capable, when he chose to play that game--in favor of a flexible system combining line drawing with a pointillist technique of applying ink and rich colors sensitively in rendering the sensory surfaces of the garden's components: water, rocks, blossoming trees.

The morning after I presented my newly-arrived-at understanding of how the Zhi Garden album "works" at a symposium on Chinese gardens held in San Francisco in 1990,[8] another of the participants, Dr. William Wu (a more serious student of Chinese gardens and their history than myself), phoned me to say: "Jim, I've decided that Zhang Hong doesn't really understand the Chinese garden." Later he expanded on this opinion in a seminar I gave on Chinese paintings of gardens. What he meant is that Zhang did not follow, and so presumably did not truly understand, the established practice of choosing designated "scenes" in a garden and focusing his paintings on these. Chinese gardens, as he argued, are organized around such named focal points, and to de-emphasize them so thoroughly in a representation of the garden seems to miss the point. But here, again, I would be inclined to counter-argue that Zhang Hong always knows what he is doing, and violated accepted practice in order to carry out his project of quasi-objective visual reporting.

It is virtually beyond question that Zhang was in some part inspired and encouraged in this project by certain European pictures that were to be seen in China in his time; a "View of Frankfort" from a series of engravings of cities of the world published in Cologne in the late 16th and early 17th century and brought to China by Jesuit missionaries appears to underlie the first leaf, the bird's-eye view. Others of Zhang Hong's paintings similarly betray clear adoptions from European pictorial art. But that is a matter I have argued at length elsewhere, and cannot repeat here, for reasons of space.[9] It is worth noting, however, that the only really comparable project in Chinese painting, a series of pictures in which a systematic attempt is made to overcome the spatial limitations of Chinese pictorial practice by making multiple representations of a single subject from different vantage points, is roughly contemporary with Zhang Hong's album, and is similarly the work of an artist otherwise known to have borrowed heavily from European pictorial sources. This is Wu Bin's handscroll, painted around 1610, made up of ten views of a fantastic scholar's rock that had just been acquired by his patron Mi Wanzhong.[10] The effect is of turning the rock in space and representing how it would look from each angle. Wu Bin, in this remarkable work, similarly broke the rules for how rocks should be represented and how ink applied to paper with the brush; and he, too, produced thereby a kind of masterpiece. It would seem reasonable to suppose that both projects, un-Chinese and seemingly empirical as they are, were inspired by some European model, perhaps a series of scientific or architectural illustrations that presented some subject from different angles; but no such model that the two artists might have seen has been identified.

It is time to begin our tour of the garden. There is no set order to the leaves that can be determined; the numbering proposed here provides an orderly progress into, through, and out of the garden. The bird's-eye view is obviously Leaf 1, with the title "Complete View of the Zhi Garden" inscribed on it, along with the artist's signature and seal. The scenes presented in all the other nineteen leaves, with perhaps one exception, can be located within this first leaf, as indicated in the diagram (fig. 1.) Leaf 2 also bears a title and the artist's seals; it draws us closer to the main entrance to the garden seen in the lower right corner of the bird's-eye view (hereafter BEV.) Looking over the dike with willow trees, on which figures are now visible, we see the wall of the garden, with the main gate at left and a smaller gate at right. In Leaf 3 we have moved over the wall and gaze down, across the tops of the tall, leafy trees that grow just inside it, to where a path from the gate crosses a plank bridge with a red railing; a low stone wall parallels it. In the lower right is a gatehouse, visible in the BEV but now seen to be occupied by two men, presumably the master and a guest, who will reappear in later leaves. Groves of tall bamboo grow on the shore of the pond and the waterway that stretches upward to the right.

To the left of this passage in the BEV are two large ponds, each with an open pavilion on the far shore. (Ji Cheng advises that about three parts in ten of the area of a garden should be given to ponds.) Leaf 4 presents the first of these ponds, taking care to include at right, smaller now, the bridge, low wall, and bamboo groves from the previous leaf. A tall rockery appears behind the far building; a small, rocky island with a tingzi or kiosk is in lower left; a roofed promenade or gallery lined with willows in upper left separates this pond from the next. In Leaf 5 this same gallery is again seen in upper left, but from the opposite side: we are now located at the far end of the second pond, looking back across it. In fact, we must be situated either in or just above the pavilion overlooking this pond; the two-level terrace with stone balustrade onto which the pavilion opens, clearly depicted in the BEV, is at the bottom of the picture, just within our range of vision. And the top of one of the two gate buildings that appeared in leaf 2, as well as in the BEV, is now visible in distance, above the willows and leafy trees that line the pond, along with the roof of another building seen in the BEV. We begin now to realize the complexity but also the logic of Zhang Hong's project: what he sees from any vantage point is what he portrays. Or that, at least, is the impression that the paintings convey; and the relative absence from them of familiar type-forms and compositional conventions encourages us to believe that we are really seeing the garden, more or less as it was, through his eyes.

For Leaf 6, we are above and slightly behind the pavilion that overlooks the first pond, looking down between it (at left) and the large rockery that was dimly seen over it in leaf 4. The host and guest appear again, seated at a table beside a cobblestone path that leads into a tunnel in the rockery and will emerge onto a terrace above, on which two barrel seats are set. A two-storey ge or belvedere in the lower right of this leaf faces onto a smaller pond, clogged with lotus or water-lilies. That pond and the open horizontal building beyond it are the subjects of Leaf 7, which reveals also two women in a boat, presumably picking lotus roots or water chestnuts. For the first time (apart from the BEV) the top of a pagoda is seen above; it will reappear in later leaves. Leaf 8 reverses the view across the same small pond, looking back over it (once more, with a terrace and railing at the bottom) to the open belvedere and the large rockery, which is seen now from still another angle.

The scene of Leaf 9 is not so easily locatable, but proves to be nearby: without changing position, still situated above the same building, we now look leftward, over what appears to be a lattised greenhouse and a bridge across the canal that bisects the garden, to another two-storey gate, the main entrance into the left section of the garden. To the right of this (above it in the BEV) is a clump of tall deciduous trees, and under them a thatched pavilion that evidently overlooks another pond, beyond the boundaries of this leaf. For Leaf 10 we have moved rightward (or upward, in terms of the BEV) and are looking over this same pond. Lining it at right are many thin trees, uniform in height, with leafage sprouting only at their tops; these appear at the uppermost edge of the garden in the BEV, to the left of the pagoda.

This pagoda is portrayed clearly, at last, in Leaf 11, surmounting a rocky knoll; below it to the right, drawn simply in the BEV and now in more detail, is a stone lantern. In the lower right are buildings that are hidden by trees in the BEV. Leaf 12 is another that is difficult to situate within the BEV, but must portray an area of rocks and leafy trees just beyond its limits in upper right; the pagoda appears dimly at the top. A servant is seen kneeling inside a roofed porch, waiting for guests, while another approaches below. The pond that appears in Leaf 13 is at the uppermost right corner of the BEV, on the edge of the garden; both the knoll in lower right, grown with vegetable-like stubby stalks, and the pavilion with terrace and railing at the back, are partially visible in the BEV.

For Leaf 14, we move over into the left portion of the garden, where the principal residential buildings are located, and look down into a courtyard with rocks and brightly blooming flowers under a canopy. The host and guest appear once more, inside the porch, with a boy servant gazing out over an elaborate balustrade. The buildings and trees are probably the same that appear in the upper left of Leaf 10; they are mostly concealed by trees in the BEV. Now, as in other leaves, we are given a privileged view behind and around the obstacles, permitted to penetrate the hidden parts of the garden in a series of small revelations. The building seen in Leaf 15 is just to the left of these, and appears to be the main audience hall, the "Great Hall" which every garden must have, according to Ji Cheng's treatise. The courtyard is now occupied, not by flowers and trellises, but by rocks and cypress trees, and the two men seated in the hall in earnest conversation wear scholar-officials' hats. From the areas of relaxation and pleasure-seeking we have entered the sterner one of formal visits, where the master of the garden receives fellow officials and exercises his status and power. But this lasts only for a single leaf: in Leaf 16 we move leftward again to look down into another courtyard with a rockery and servant women picking flowers. A two-storey pavilion opens onto this, its upper floor, where an antique bronze sppears on a table, shaded with a canopy propped out on poles. With more space we could analyze how the oblique angle of view and cut-off architectural elements impart a sense of immediacy and veracity.

If we now turn to look back, i.e. rightward in terms of the BEV, as we are doing in Leaf 17, we gaze down at an angle on the same large pavilion with two-level terrace and railings, overlooking the largest pond, that was our vantage point for Leaf 5. The trees around it are now blossoming, indicating seasonal change. The smaller pond behind it, and the tall, spindly trees, were featured in Leaf 10. Turning then to look downward, without changing position, we see in Leaf 18 the left edge of the large pond (in terms of the BEV) and another V-shaped division with tall bamboo that almost repeats the composition of Leaf 3.

Nearing the end of the tour we encounter the only painting, Leaf 19, in which no visual materials appear that can be clearly identified also in other leaves. It must represent the rear gate of the garden, behind the trees at the upper left of the BEV. We are looking back now from outside the garden, and so have returned to the world of practical affairs: a fisherman beside his net-raising apparatus, a boatman sculling his boat to transport a passenger with his luggage?--the image is unclear. The last, Leaf 20, is similarly a view from outside the garden, this time from across the canal, to balance Leaf 2. The central storeyed hall or lou, with master and guest seen for the last time in the open upstairs room, can just be discerned among the trees in the upper left of the BEV; appearing over the trees on the left side of the leaf is the pavilion with two-storeyed porch that was featured in Leaf 16. The season is now winter, in accordance with an old convention, probably originating in 12-leaf "months of the year" albums, of ending with a snowy landscape. That we have emerged from the ideal realm of the garden, from which all commerce is banned, is indicated again by a boatman in grass raincoat and hat poling his laden boat along the canal, and by a flag protruding from a rooftop at the bottom, indicating a wineshop or inn. The longest inscription is on this leaf, and includes the date, dedication, and signature.

A great deal more could be written about the album as a work of art, and, now that the mode of pictorial exposition is understood, about the design of the garden. But your tour guide has run out of space. ******orthodox scheme for his album--which even he himself was never, so far as we know, to repeat--that are to be thanked.

References in the text

[1]Sherman E. Lee, Chinese Landscape Painting, exhibition catalog, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1954, no. 82.

[2]For a longer treatment of the album and reproductions of four leaves, see Cahill, The Compelling Image, pp. 16-19. This chapter, along with the section on Zhang Hong in Cahill, The Distant Mountains, pp. 39-59, offer fuller discussions of this artist and his achievements, along with questions of his adoptions from European pictorial art and of "truth to optical experience," than can be given here.

[3]The book is titled Hengqi lu, compiled by Yao Ximeng, whose preface is dated 1629, ch. 3, pp. 15a-b. It is included in Zhongguo difangzhi jicheng, vol. 5, in a volume devoted to sub-county gazetteers. I am grateful to Joseph McDermott for calling it to my attention.

[4]Mr. Chen Congzhou, a leading Chinese specialist in the history of gardens, informed me that the Suzhou calligrapher Zhou Tianqiu (1514-1595), a disciple of Wen Zhengming, gave this name to his garden; and a garden in Yangzhou with this name was depicted in a handscroll by Yuan Jiang in the early 18th century (private collection, New York.)

[5]Ji Cheng, The Craft of Gardens, translated by Alison Hardie, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1988.

[6]Sun Kehong's painting "The Stone Table Garden," dated 1572, is in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; see James Cahill, The Distant Mountains: Chinese Painting of the Late Ming Dynasty, New York, 1982, colorplt. 7, pl. 25, and pp. 67-68. Wu Bin's 1615 depiction of "A Spring Party in the Shaoyuan," Mi Wanzhong's garden in Peking, is in the collection of Wango H. C. Weng, Lyme, New Hampshire; see his Gardens in Chinese Art, New York, China Institute, 1968, no. 9, fig. 13.

[7]The album ascribed to Xu Ben is in the National Palace Museum, Taipei; published as Xu Ben Shizilin tu, Peking and Shanghai, 1928. The Wen Zhengming album exists in two versions, which do not correspond in contents. For the 8-leaf album now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, dated 1551, see Roderick Whitfield et. al., In Pursuit of Antiquity, Princeton, N.J., 1969, no. 3, pp. 66-70. The other version, dated 1533, now whereabouts unknown, was published in Kate Kerby, ed., An Old Chinese Garden, Shanghai, ca. 1922.

[8]The two-day symposium, organized by the Society for Asian Art, took place at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on February 9-10, 1990

[9]See The Compelling Image, pp. 13-25, and fig. 1.20 and 1.22, which juxtapose the first leaf of Zhang Hong's album with the View of Frankfort from Braun and Hogenberg, Civitates Orbis Terrarum.

[10]Reproduced completely in Sotheby's New York auction catalog for December 6, 1989, "Fine Chinese Paintings," no. 39.

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