In the world of nature, the scent and beauty of flowers evolved to capture the attention of animals, which, for millennia, have included humans. In China, many gentlemen and scholars since antiquity have created untold numbers of works in literature and art on the subject of flowers. Whether singing the praises of the luxuriantly beautiful peony or the reclusively fragrant orchid, they have touched the hearts of many. Their works, when conveyed in the form of painting, not only reflect images from the natural world but also aesthetics and emotions of the human experience in nature.
In Chinese painting, flowers in nature often take the form of a close-up of blossoms on a branch or two. Similar to a slice of nature, they are known in Chinese as "broken-branch" flowers. Here they are called "cut blossoms"--not necessarily because they literally have been cut or broken, but in the sense of being cut off from the natural surroundings or the plant from which they come. This mode of representation flourished as early as the T'ang (618-907) and Sung (960-1279) period. For instance, the T'ang poet Han Wo (844-923) in "Already Cool" mentions it in the following lines; "Beyond the bluish-green railing droops a curtain of hydrangea; A screen of scarlet red is painted with 'broken branches'." By focusing on a small section instead the entire plant, the artist can fill the painting with detail while leaving the setting and rest of the plant to the imagination of the viewer. In other words, a work may be limited in size and scope but full of suggestion. Small works, such as fans or album leaves, are most often chosen for such representations. Manipulating the composition of a single branch of blossoms can thus suggest the world of beauty and refinement in mind and nature sought by Chinese artists for centuries.
As with some still-life paintings in the West, branches or stems with blossoms could also be cut or broken from a plant and placed within a vase, hence the term "vase flowers". Paintings of a vase or planter of flowers is similar to the "broken-branch" approach but sometimes even more varied, because the artist can arrange together the leaves, flowers, and fruit of different plants into almost unlimited ways. In fact, the arts of vase flower painting and flower arrangement often serve the same functions of decoration and aesthetic enrichment of the surroundings. While no painting can take the place of a flower, it can possess a sense of life extending long after the actual petals have wilted.
This exhibition from the Museum collection represents a display of "cut blossom" and "vase flower" works from later Chinese painting during the Ming (1368-1644) and Ch'ing (1644-1911) dynasties. While the focus is on flowers of the seasons, including the lotus, chrysanthemum, and orchid, others of symbolic importance--such as the regal peony representing prosperity--are found. In addition, actual decorative vases of artificial flowers from the Museum collection offer a three-dimensional glimpse into the world of "fragrant colors" in Chinese art.