A touch of Ming in New York City; Metropolitan Museum's Chinese courtyard

An oasis of serenity has recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here. It is a reconstruction of a Ming-dynasty courtyard modeled on a present-day scholar's court in the Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets in Suzhou, China.

Although quite small -- roughly 59 feet by 40 -- it's a perfect jewel of a place, and the ideal spot to catch one's breath and to relax before proceeding on to the viewing of more art.

In particular, since it is adjacent to the also just- opened Douglas Dillon Galleries for Chinese Painting, the Astor Court is the best possible place in the American visitor to acclimate himself to Eastern ideas on life and art before moving on to the truly stunning Chinese paintings on view in those galleries.

I can think of no more pleasant way to approach an understanding of traditional Chinese attitudes toward art than by walking around this lovely garden court. It was originally conceived by Brooke Russell Astor, who had come to love the enclosed courtyards typical of Chinese buildings while a child in Peking. The idea of such a courtyard quickly developed into a joint Chinese and American venture (the first permanent cultural exchange, as a matter of fact, between the United States and the People's Republic of China) -- and a project that would at one point import 27 Chinese engineers and craftsmen trained in traditional crafts for its actual construction.

Preliminary discussions were held in 1977 between Prof. Wen Fong of Princeton University and Prof. Chen Tsung-chou, a leading Chinese architectural historian , to discuss the idea of creating a garden court in New York and to visit gardens in Suzhou. Their final choice of the courtyard of the Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets as their prototype was made on the basis of its elegance and appropriate size.

A tentative sketch was made by Princeton architect A. Perry Morgan. This was followed by more complete designs and a detailed model by Ming-cho Lee, under the direction of Arthur Rosenblatt. After further research into Ming-dynasty architectural details, and after Chinese experts had visited the Metropolitan to consult on the final design, a formal agreement to build was signed.

It was time, labor, expertise, and money well spent -- at least that was my reaction as I passed through its moon gate and caught my first glimpse of the garden court. A covered walkway along one side of the court provides a sequence of vantage points from which to view the garden. As with other architectural features in the garden, this corridor has a gray-tiled roof supported by columns of nanm wood, whose surfaces have been coated with clear wax to reveal the wood's color and grain.

Against the west wall is the Cold Spring Pavilion where a spring bubbles out of the rocks and flows into a pool to the left. Extending north and south are Tai-hu rocks, fantastically eroded and resembling mountains, which came from the bottom of Lake Tai near Suzhou. The surrounding walls are pierced by lattices windows (each of a different design to prevent the eye from becoming bored), and given a touch of green by the careful placement of Chinese grasses, bamboo, a banana tree, juniper, and pines.

The Ming furniture room, complete with tiled roof and a facade of shuttered doors and windows, is situated at the north end of the courtyard. Here the Metropolitan's collection of domestic hardwood furniture of the Ming period is displayed.

Lovely and refreshing as the Astor Court is, however, it serves, to my mind, mainly as a beautiful and gracious introduction to the 80 or so Chinese paintings that make up the introductory exhibition of the Douglas Dillon Galleries. This is truly a magnificent selection, chosen from the museum's holdings, to illustrate the evolution of Chinese painting over the past thousand years. I was particularly moved by the classic depiction of a tethered horse, "Night-Shining White," attibuted to the 8th-century court painter Han Kan, and by Ma Yuan's lovely album leaf of a "Scholar by a Waterfall."

But there are many other exquisite and powerful examples of Chinese painting and calligraphy (as well as a selection of Chinese jades and Buddhist sculptures) -- all adding up to a magnificent demonstration of what can be done with brush and black ink on paper, and with a few carving tools, if the mind is set it. And serving as a spectacular reminder that the Chinese developed a style of art as glorious and as sophisticated as any.

The Douglas Dillon Galleries will show the museum's collection of Chinese paintings on a rotating basis, and will also occasionally be used for special exhibitions from other collections.

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