Carved by Nature

Released July 27, 2004

The Peabody Essex Museum presents Carved by Nature: Untamed Traditions in Chinese Decorative Art, an exhibition of more than 40 artworks including furniture, sculpture, decorative objects, and paintings, that celebrate the aesthetics of pure organic forms created from old gnarled trees and tree roots. It runs through June 22, 2005.

Objects made from naturally contorted wood have been appreciated in China for millennia. These organic forms appealed to Buddhists and Daoists seeking to convey an attitude of humility and an affinity with nature. The untamed character of the objects could be seen as a symbol of the rejection of opulence, in favor of beauty beyond human control. In later centuries, scholar-aesthetes found the rustic features of the gnarled wood reminiscent of ancient trees that symbolized the wisdom of sages. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), fantastic wood forms appealed to the flamboyant tastes of the period, and many wealthy Chinese collectors surrounded themselves with furnishings of twisted wood.

Nancy Berliner and Bruce MacLaren of the Peabody Essex Museum’s Department of Chinese Art have brought together these extraordinary objects and paintings along with a selection of contemporary works by American artist Richard Rosenblum. Rosenblum’s evocative computer-generated montages of trees reflect a variety of sources, including Chinese scholars’ rocks and sculptural forms made of gnarled wood.

At the heart of this exhibition is an appreciation for discovering beauty in unexpected places or things. Akin to the collecting of strange rocks - a popular pastime among many Chinese connoisseurs there was a passion for aesthetically pleasing yet contorted forms of wood in China. In some of the objects, little is done to enhance the natural beauty of the gnarled wood. In others, an artist has worked the hollows and knotted grains to bring out certain imagery - often mountainous landscapes, figures, or animals?but with remarkably little evidence of human intervention. Most of the works in Carved byNature date from the Qing dynasty. Roots and knotted branches are still used in China today to create furniture and sculptural pieces.

Manifestation of the divine

Natural wood forms that resembled beings from the Chinese pantheon, including Buddhist and folk deities, were especially prized in Chinese decorative art. The irregular, organic appearance of the figures suggests they transcend the human realm and instead emanate from the larger cosmos. Similarly, objects for ritual use were made from gnarled wood rather than from luxurious materials to express their divine character. Originating in India in the sixth century B.C.E., Buddhism entered China beginning in the first century C.E. and affected many aspects of Chinese culture, including tea drinking and the use of the chair. Sacred texts were imported, and Buddhist virtues were transmitted in painting and sculpture.

Scholarly objects

During the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and throughout the Qing (1644-1911), the intellectual elite of southern China greatly appreciated formations of rocks and trees that they considered guai (strange). Their rustic appearance was emblematic of reverence for the natural world. Scholars furnished their studios with brush pots, inkstone holders, staffs, and other accessories made from rustic wood.


As early as the Tang dynasty (618-907), paintings depict Buddhist monks and holy men with rootwood chairs and tables. The character of the furniture selected for this exhibition expresses respect for the ways of nature and a rejection of opulence. During the Ming dynasty, such furnishings reflected humble, scholarly attitudes. In the Qing dynasty, they became extravagant in design. Paintings of this period also depict lavishly dressed young women or wealthy merchants, as well as monks and priests, seated on rootwood furniture.

Utilitarian objects

Although the twisted and knotted grain of root and burl woods would have rendered them useless for many purposes, artisans and scholars were able to use these forms for baskets, brush holders, and staffs. In Buddhist and Daoist imagery, monks, priests, and sages are often portrayed carrying canes or walking staffs of natural, unrefined wood. These sticks were used on journeys over difficult roads to ward off evil spirits, warn small animals away from the path, or serve as weapons against bandits. Staffs also acquired symbolic meanings, including magical powers and the upright thinking of a wise man, in contrast to the natural crookedness of the stick he carried.

Richard Rosenblum

Richard Rosenblum (1940-2000), an American sculptor and digital artist who worked in Newton Center, Mass., was deeply influenced by the Chinese appreciation for “untamed” natural forms. He admired the forms and the deep space - the “worlds within worlds” - created by layers of cavities in Chinese scholars’ rocks and wooden objects. Rosenblum called his digital images computer montages. In Gothic Woods, he used a single photograph of a tree, scanned, digitally replicated, and enhanced to construct the pillars of a cathedral. The figure at the center of the piece is entirely computer-generated.


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