Contemplating Nature: Chinese and Korean Bird-and-Flower Paintings


Lotuses and BirdsPaintings Inspired by the resilience and beauty of nature’s flora and fauna, Chinese and Korean poets and artists have over the centuries imbued a variety of plants and animals with auspicious meanings and scholarly virtues. Flowers and plants associated with the four seasons and twelve months conveyed a sense of time and were also customary subjects. This installation presents a selection of later Chinese and Korean paintings that feature flowers, birds, fish, or insects as their principal subjects, complemented by an array of decorative objects graced with similar motifs. Tradition asserts that bird-and-flower subjects were popular in China as early as the Tang dynasty (618–907), but by the end of the Northern Song period (960–1127), this category of painting took on a clearly defined social relevance. Human values and principles, particularly those of the literati, were ascribed to noteworthy plants and animals. Because they thrive even in harsh conditions, plum blossoms and bamboo became symbols of the noble Confucian gentleman; chrysanthemums and geese alluded to tales of reclusive scholars; the lotus flower symbolized purity and an upright character; and peonies and butterflies represented wealth and happiness. Stylistic approaches to bird-and-flower subjects varied widely, from carefully delineated, naturalistic depictions to highly expressionistic renderings that demonstrated the literati artist’s virtuosity of the brush. Although literati painting was held in the highest regard during China’s Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties and Korea’s Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910), the expansive array of styles and techniques used to depict bird-and-flower subjects in art remained diverse throughout these later periods.

June 4, 2015 – November 29, 2015