Most of us, at one point or another, give some thought to where we'll spend our retirement years. In that sense, the man known as the Qianlong emperor, who ruled China during the apex of its imperial power in the 18th Century, was just like us.
In every other sense, of course, he wasn't. With his limitless resources-China's economy under his reign was far greater than that of either England or France-the Qianlong (pronounced chee'en-lohng) emperor, who reigned from 1736 to 1796, built a lavish retirement enclave within Beijing's Forbidden City; he envisioned it as a private paradise that would reflect his accomplishments, scholarship, and devotion to Buddhism.
Known as the Qianlong Garden, this 2-acre retirement compound, encompassing 27 pavilions and galleries, has been closed since China's last emperor left the Forbidden City in 1924. So, while millions of tourists have traipsed through what was once the Forbidden City and is now known as the Palace Museum, they have never seen the Qianlong emperor's garden within it, or almost any of the artworks it houses.
Now 90 objects from this sequestered compound have been selected for "The Emperor's Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City," a traveling exhibition on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 1.
The show features murals, paintings, calligraphy, furniture (including three thrones), a wealth of decorative arts, Buddhist icons, architectural elements and even garden rocks. (The Met has complemented the exhibition with two installations, from its own collection, of objects and paintings of the period.)
In Beijing, the Qianlong Garden differs in key ways from the rest of the Forbidden City. "What's so charming about the emperor's garden," says Maxwell K. Hearn, of the Met's Asian art department, "is that it is the one place in the entire Forbidden City that is not laid out symmetrically."
While the Forbidden City unfolds on a north-south axis in a symbolic reference to the North Star (the Chinese emperor was considered the guiding light-the North Star-of his domain), the pathway through the Qianlong Garden "twists and turns as it passes through rockeries and garden elements," says Hearn, the Douglas Dillon Curator for Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, who installed the show at the Met. (It originated at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., and will make its last stop at the Milwaukee Art Museum beginning in June.)
The artworks, which have never before left the Forbidden City, are travelling while the Qianlong Garden undergoes restoration by the Palace Museum and the World Monuments Fund, a non-profit organization that preserves endangered historic sites. Following the garden's projected opening to the public in 2019, the works "will never leave the Forbidden City" again, Hearn says. (For greater context, the exhibition includes photo-murals of the Qianlong Garden and a virtual-reality tour of its first fully-restored building. )
Some highlights, please. These, Hearn says, include a monumental screen with 16 double-sided panels: Depicted on one side are 16 Buddhist holy men, formed by white-jade inlays against a black lacquer background, akin to black-and-white rubbings; on the other side are flowers of the four seasons, painted in gold, also on black lacquer.
Also remarkable, the curator says, are the furnishings of the "Three Friends Bower," all decorated with motifs of the "three friends"-bamboo, pine and the plum blossom. "The first two stay green in winter, and the plum blossom is the first flowering tree in spring," Hearn says. "They're symbols of survival, of endurance, longevity and renewal."
The plum-tree symbol recurs in another panel that looks like a painting, but actually employs jade, lapis lazuli, malachite, and other materials to create the scene.
The panel comes from the Qianlong compound's sole already-restored building. "It's a magnificent example of how the Qianlong Emperor loved to use surprising media," Hearn says. "He liked to create illusions using unusual materials."
These "illusions" included the optical trickery of trompe l'oeil works-so realistic as to appear three-dimensional-inspired in part by missionary painters who introduced Western perspective to Chinese art. One large interior scene, for example, suggests that we are looking from an entryway into another room; it "would have originally filled an entire wall," Hearn says, offering "an expanded sense of space in what is really a very intimate building."
So many wonders. Yet ironically, the emperor who commissioned and gathered them together never used his private garden as planned. He remained in the official quarters, effectively continuing to rule, even after abdicating to his son.
But he "expressed the wish that the garden would be available for future generations," Hearn says. The restoration, he points out, "will bring Qianlong's wish to fulfillment."
Karin Lipson, a former arts writer and editor for Newsday, is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. Her last article in Promenade was on home and design exhibits at MoMA and the Met.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street; 212-535-7710; metmuseum.org. Through May 1