Gardens, a passion shared in both China and Britain for centuries, are deeply rooted in both cultures. In C.18th England, the landscape architect Capability Brown established new trends with smooth-surfaced, undulating grass park-land, intermittently dotted with mature trees and occasional serpentine lakes. In China, classical gardens, consisting of walls, ponds, rocks, trees, flowers-beds and winding paths, date back even further, inherited from thousands of years of tradition.
Similarly, in both countries, these beautiful garden vistas, attracted artists keen to record them. The garden is an endless theme throughout Chinese art; the ancient traditional Chinese Shanshui (landscape) paintings, immortalizing these often-inaccessible utopias for future generations of artists and scholars. This ancient legacy has been reinterpreted by some of China’s leading contemporary artists, such as Zhan Wang’s ‘scholars’ rocks’, displayed in the Great Court of the British Museum in 2008 and Xu Bing, who transformed the John Madjeski Garden at V&A into an idealised landscape through his installation in 2013.
This November (17th-21st), an inspired audience will have an opportunity to see another such reinterpretation, with the exhibition of 20 oil paintings themed on Chinese Gardens by artist Liu Weidong at the Royal College of Art, in the UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange.
Liu Weidong grew up in Jiangnan, south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, where these private gardens were created for their literati and scholar owners, to nurture and encourage poetry, relief, sanctuary, pure delight and harmony between man and nature. Now in China, with an urban population of over 700 million following the breakneck speed of urbanization in the past 30 years, many of those small garden oases and the memories and mysteries associated with them, have disappeared. However, not all. As Liu Weidong said, “Luckily, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Classical Gardens of Suzhou are well preserved, which has provided me a possibility to restore my gardens-related memories today”. The gardens, more than a type of landscape, also embody the humanism and the spirit of ancient Chinese scholars and literati society. Being a scholar in art history and English literature makes Liu even closer to the essence of the Chinese gardens.
Liu Weidong’s Garden of Dreams paintings have a ghostly, surrealist appearance that paradoxically evokes feelings of calm and anxiety. The muted palette, occasionally enlivened by a dash of peach blossom pink, have a mysterious, haunting atmosphere – these walled gardens, void of anything animate, receptacles perhaps of hidden secrets and past misdemeanours, have become prisons to such hushed memories. Fusing Liu Weidong’s deep knowledge of both eastern and western art history – the Garden of Dreams series reflect this duality of source. From traditional Chinese ink painting and it’s classical imagery, to the flattened planes and monochrome colours of ‘synthetic cubism’ and the psychological ambiguity of surrealism, Liu Weidong’s work nevertheless has it’s own, unique pictorial language, that pose universal and metaphysical questions about the meaning of our lives.
Where: Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2EU
When: 17 November – 21 November 2015 – 10.00-18.00