I feel very lucky to have had the experience in the past few days of traveling around Shanghai, China and experiencing some of the art and architecture of this ancient, and very modern culture.
One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to West Lake in Hangzhou. It’s a place well-chronicled in Chinese history. Poets and writers have long made West Lake home, and on a hillside along the walking trail is the home of an organization that practices the art of seal carving. If you are not familiar with Chinese seals, they are the personal stamps placed on artwork and letters. Chinese artwork is marked not only by the artist, but often tells a history of ownership through the seal marks. A visit to the studio on the hillside is also a welcome respite from the bustling tourist areas, given that the majority will not climb the steep stairs to get a look at Chinese seals.
Back in Shanghai at the Shanghai Museum, the painting collection included an image of West Lake in Hangzhou. I recognized it almost immediately from the Leifeng Pagoda, build in 975 A.D. It was a moment of revelation when I realized I had actually recognized a place depicted in Chinese artwork. The painting is by Li Song (1166-1243). Of course the Shanghai Museum also contains an excellent collection of Chinese seals.
At another city outside of Shanghai, the Suzhou Museum in Suzhou contains another collection of Chinese artifacts including fabrics, folk art and porcelain. What perhaps interested me most is the building designed by I.M. Pei. It is easy to see how the landscape inspired the building. While the layers of gray in Hangzhou (above) are in a different city, they are reminiscent of the gardens in the museum.
Suzhou is also home to a large walled garden, which like the museum aims to have everything human and natural co-exist in harmony. It reminded me of a decorating philosophy attributed to Bunny Mellon in a newspaper article. “Nothing should be noticed,” is the sentiment. An interior decorator I know in Dallas was somewhat aghast at that idea. “What do you mean?” he responded. “Everything should be noticed.” In a way he is right. Everything here is noticed, given some time, attention and some reflection. Its more a sense of noticing at once our place in the natural world, at a given moment as well as a brief place in time.