For Students

Past Exhibitions: 2002

Flora and Fauna in Chinese Art

April 6-December 1, 2002
Chinese Gallery

Flora and Fauna
Ren Xiong / Jen Hsiung (1820-1857)
Tea Blossoms, Pine Branches and Mynah Bird
China, Qing / Ch'ing Period (1644-1911), 2nd quarter of 18th century
Hanging scroll, ink and colors on paper
Inscription and signature by the artist:
For the elegant Mr. Bao Ling / Pao Ling. Ren Xiong.
Museum Purchase, Gift of the Margaret Watson Parker Art Collection

Across the globe and from the beginnings of human history to our own times, the natural world around us has been an inexhaustible source of fascination and inspiration to artists. In Africa, India, and North America, today as countless centuries ago, animal and plant motifs decorate our pots, our clothing, our civic monuments and our private residences. Yet perhaps no other culture celebrates flora and fauna as much as traditional China, where birds and blossoms not only decorate luxury objects but are also the subject of serious works of art produced at the highest levels of patronage and artistry.

The enduring popularity of animal and plant imagery is due, in part, to a cultural habit of imbuing "ordinary" objects with multiple layers of meaning. Unlike a text-based iconography, the meanings of flora and fauna in China have accrued over centuries, and arise from many different sources and causes. Often the symbolism of a particular animal or plant is based on observation of its morphology or behavior: a pomegranate, for example, with its hundreds of seeds, has auspicious associations with fecundity. Other meanings derive from word play and homonyms. The Chinese word for "deer" sounds like the word for "income," so a perfect gift for a colleague about to be transferred to a new position would be a painting of a deer. Still other connotations are drawn from historical or literary associations.

This special installation brings together over fifty works in ceramics, stone, textiles, calligraphy and paintings made during the past two millennia. They reflect the concerns of their makers and original owners with matters spiritual and mundane, revealing interwoven strands of Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian ideas tempered by plain common sense. Collected in the West because of their fine craftsmanship and beauty, these objects were meant to inspire awe or laughter, or simply to convey good wishes and high hopes.

Most of the works in Flora and Fauna in Chinese Art are from the Museum's collection, but we are much indebted to anonymous private lenders for contributing several important works that complement our own holdings. A special thanks goes to Roslyn Hammers, graduate research assistant and newly minted Ph.D. in Chinese art history, for bringing the exhibition from the kernel of an idea to its fruition.

Maribeth Graybill
Senior Curator of Asian Art


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