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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part III  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 25 May 2011: Lot 38 

Lot 38

 

Lot 38
Treasury 1, no. 121

A white nephrite pebble-material ‘Mi Fu’ snuff bottle

(‘The “Dragons and Mi Fu” Suzhou Jade’)

Nephrite of pebble material; very well hollowed, with a concave foot surrounded by a flat footrim; carved on one side with a rocky landscape scene with Mi Fu bowing respectfully to a perforated rock formation beneath a pine tree growing from a rocky crag, while his attendant stands behind him holding a long-handled fan above his head, all beneath swirling cloud formations, the other side carved with a dragon and a chi dragon emerging from swirling clouds
Suzhou, 1700–1780
Height: 5.61 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.65/1.99 cm
Stopper: coral; vinyl collar

Lot 38 Provenance:
Drouot (Millon Jutheau), Paris, 2 July 1984, lot 113
Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (London, 1984)
Paula J. Hallett
Sotheby’s New York, 27 June 1986, lot 52

Published:
Kleiner 1987, no. 38
Treasury 1, no. 121

Exhibited:
Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May–June 1993

Lot 38 Commentary
This masterly and restrained carving is typical of the transition between the first and second phase of Suzhou carving discussed in Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 21, and in Treasury 1 under no. 124. Of the white pebble material beloved of the early Qing Suzhou carvers and with the same restrained and understated decorative style, it has, nonetheless, features of the fully evolved, classic style in the serrated rockwork. The perforated rock to which Mi Fu bows respectfully is as fine as any known in the medium and has a rather similar feeling to that on the other early Suzhou carving of Treasury 1, no. 118. This combination of stylistic and material elements suggests a date during the eighteenth century, and perhaps from the first half of the Qianlong reign at the latest, although it could be from earlier in the eighteenth century. We are just beginning to understand the evolution of Suzhou style and dating must still be tentative and fairly broadly based. Another feature that suggests an early eighteenth-century date is the thin, pale yellowish-russet skin from the original pebble that was not used overtly as a specific decorative detail. As a rule, the more fully evolved Suzhou carving style tended to use every nuance of colour specifically and obviously, whereas here the patch of colour is used very subtly, being readable as an abstract continuation of the cloud formation in which the two dragons frolic, but appearing on the surface to have no specific pictorial meaning.

The use of a chi dragon raises an interesting possibility because the vast majority of wares with chi dragons as principal decoration were made at or for the court, where the subject was perhaps the single most popular one from the Qianlong period. They appear occasionally as the main decoration on other Suzhou wares of the eighteenth century (see, for instance, Watt 1980, no. 217, which is dated to the Kangxi period), but appear to have been far more popular at Suzhou in the late Ming and the early Qing period. The beasts are not the principal decoration here, but they are prominent, and perhaps their inclusion as a significant element of design on an eighteenth-century snuff bottle might indicate that the bottle was intended for a northern patron and possibly even for the court. It is known that Suzhou jade-carving was popular at court. One of the two recorded imperial jade manufactories of the Qianlong reign was situated at Suzhou and administered by the Imperial Silk Manufactory (see Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, p. 53). The Qianlong emperor is recorded as having objected to the frilly and sometimes vulgar style of Suzhou (see Yang 1992), but the existence of an imperial facility at Suzhou and the emperor’s obvious attempts to correct what he perceived as a vulgar style indicate beyond a doubt that a great deal of carving was executed at Suzhou for the court. Perhaps a bottle such as this represents the as-yet barely identified imperial production at Suzhou through the Silk Manufactory, although any such attribution must be wholly speculative at present.

The subject here is the same as that on the classic black-and-white Suzhou bottle in the J & J Collection (see Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 24). Mi Fu, or Mi Fei as his name is sometimes pronounced, was a Northern Song literatus who lived from 1051 to 1107. He was an immensely influential figure aesthetically, a painter, calligrapher, and poet—and an avid collector of rock-sculptures as high art. Among his treasures was a perforated Taihu rock(a rock from Lake Tai, where the movement of water over the aeons helped to form and smooth the distinctive and highly valued rocks that have a series of holes in them like Swiss cheese). On this much-prized specimen he inscribed the eulogizing phrase Dongtian yipin (‘A first-rate cave heaven’), a cave heaven representing the paradisaical realm inhabited by the immortals in Chinese folklore. Whenever he had time to admire this rock, he would solemnly put on his court robes and bow reverently to it, addressing it as his elder brother, as a mark of considerable respect. The subject of Mi Fu bowing to a Taihu rock also implies that the object it decorates is considered to be of the finest quality. There is nothing about this superbly made and delightfully understated masterpiece that would inhibit such an interpretation as a secondary level of meaning for the subject.

These highly prized rocks were valued by the influential minority partly because of their naturalness and because they were the ideal combination of nature and the human hand which need be involved to no greater extent than in isolating it from nature and setting it upon a stand after a little polishing, perhaps. But once that idea was embodied in the rock as a subject, an equally important rock-sculpture could be created by the human hand as long as it appeared to be natural and, indeed, many of the most natural-looking stones were edited considerably before being placed on their stands or in the garden as works of art. Thus, a carving or painting of a rock, if sufficiently well done and embodying the inner languages of art as defined by the culture for various art forms, could acquire the same depth of meaning as a natural formation. Nowhere in the realm of Chinese sculpture is a more convincingly natural and exciting perforated rock depicted than here, and one suspects that if Mi Fu himself could see it, he would, again, don his court robes and bow low before it.

 

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