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photographer E-Yaji.
Snuff Bottles from the Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part I  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 28 May 2010: Lot 22 

Lot 22

Lot 22
Treasury 4, no. 662
HK$120,000

The Lull Before the Storm

Flawless crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a concave lip and concave foot; painted with a scene following the artist Ren Xiong, wrapped around the inside of the bottle and joined on one narrow side, depicting a garden with three crickets and eleven dragonflies among wild flowers and grasses, inscribed twice in draft script, once on the side with the crickets with ‘The most valuable quality in painting is depicting the spirit. I regret I have not been able to get it all’, followed by ‘Executed by Wang Xisan,’ with one seal of the artist, Xisan, in negative seal script, and again on the side with the dragonflies, ‘[Painted] in imitation of Ren Xiong’s [rendition of] the poetic ideas of Yao Xie, in the fourth month of the year bingwu,’ with two seals, cong (insects), preceding the inscription, and yin (seal), following it
Bottle: 1760–1880
Painting: Wang Xisan, Taiping zhuang, near Beijing, 1966
Height: 6.79 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.73/2.40 cm
Stopper: coral; vinyl collar

Lot 22 Provenance:
Unrecorded source (1972–1974)
Hugh Moss (1985)

Published:
JICSBS, Summer 1984, p. 22, fig. 3
Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 365
Treasury 4, no. 662

Exhibited:
Hong Kong Museum of Art,
March–June 1994
National Museum, Singapore, November 1994–February 1995
Christie’s, London, 1995

Lot 22 Commentary
So far, the art of inside-painting may be seen as a three-peaked mountain brush-rest, of a type that might sit on the scholar’s desk while he contemplates the delights of a painted bottle. The first peak represents the early nineteenth century progenitors of the art, Yiru jushi and Gan Xuanwen; the second, the finest painters of the Beijing school of Zhou Leyuan, including Zhou, its master, Ding Erzhong and, at his finest, Ma Shaoxuan; Wang Xisan, with his finest works from the golden years, is the third peak. If one had to choose representative works to sum up Wang at his finest, one could do no better than refer to the group of works from Hugh Moss’s original collection, sold to the Blochs in 1985 (all of which are in this sale – see also lots 31, 37, 44, 57, 94, 101, 104, 109, 117 and 124 and all published in Treasury 4 as nos. 656 – 667).

The art of inside painting was conceived as a way to link the high art of painting, including its poetic and calligraphic content, with the snuff bottles beloved of the influential minority of rulers and scholars, the high priests of the arts in China. None of the best and most influential artists in the medium ever lost sight of this source. It was not just a matter of transferring the arts of painting, calligraphy and poetry into the inside of a snuff bottle that mattered, that was easy enough for anyone who could master the techniques involved as we have seen in the past thirty years. It depended upon transferring the spirit of high Chinese art along with its techniques. That is the criterion by which we judge the great artists in the medium.

We revere the early masters, Yiru jushi, Gan Xuanwen, Zhou Leyuan, the early works of Ye Zhongsan, Ding Erzhong, Ma Shaoxuan at his best, and Ziyizi, because, regardless of their professional status, they were able to infuse their works with the lofty spirit of Chinese painting without allowing it to be trivialized by the medium. This is a very real danger in this art form, and one which few artists have been able to avoid falling foul of. A small bottle carries with it a built-in impression of insignificance. Multiply that small bottle by thousands and it is easy to dismiss the entire art form as of little relevance to serious Chinese art, a problem snuff-bottle enthusiasts have suffered at the hands of Chinese art experts for many years. By placing a painting inside a small bottle one automatically invites a level of aesthetic derision simply because of the medium. To overcome this, it is necessary to retain the highest standards of art. The slightest lapse into banality, decorativeness, or repetitious commercialism can be fatal and that is the great danger that faced lesser artists in this medium and, today, still faces the modern proliferation of painters. They are in danger of becoming masters of technique bereft of artistic direction, superb technicians with absolutely no idea of what turns high technique into high art. We have seen so many lesser artists fail to live up to the high standards set by the masters of the medium, and even seen the occasional master fall from grace, or, like Ma Shaoxuan, maintain a second personality as a minor, decorative artist throughout his career.

In his finest years, Wang Xisan represents the perfect harmonization of the high artistic tradition of China and the snuff bottle. In his masterpieces he transcends the medium and its inherent limitations, both physical and psychological, and creates great Chinese paintings. We have reiterated over and over again that the key to judging true mastery in this medium lies in the ability to mentally remove the bottle and view the painting on the same terms, and by the same criteria as one would view and judge a painting on paper or silk. Although all of Wang Xisan’s works from his golden years, which were coming to an end with this bottle, are masterly, the examples in the Bloch collection sum up that mastery perhaps better than any others.

Wang switched, in the early 1960s, from using the traditional bamboo pens of the medium to using tiny brushes, their heads turned at a right-angle to the handle. In this painting we can see his delight in the capacity to modulate a single line as one can with a brush on paper or silk. This linear dance is one of the cornerstones of Chinese painting, and was always a bit of a problem with only bamboo pens to work with. It was not an insoluble problem, as Ding Erzhong and Zhou Leyuan proved with their bamboo pen ‘brushwork,’ but it was always a problem. One had to rise above the nature of the instrument one was using. With the brush that Wang Xisan used, there was no hindrance to rise above. Once mastered, he could dance as freely inside a bottle as he could on paper. The long, bending and twisting leaves of the white wild flowers beyond the katydids show Wang’s brushwork at its most sublime where, with long, elegant, well-modulated strokes, we can see both the grassy leaves and the dance of the brush in perfect harmony. It is not just such techniques, however, that make this a masterpiece, it is how they are used.

Ren Xiong (1820–1857; other sources give 1856, or even 1864) was one of the ‘Four Rens’ of the late Qing dynasty, and one of the most original artists working in Suzhou and Shanghai in the nineteenth century. Around 1850 he met Yao Xie (1805–1864) in Ningbo. His association with this acclaimed literatus and collector of paintings not only gave him the opportunity to study Yao’s collection, but also to produce a series of one hundred and twenty illustrations for poems written by Yao. Inspired by this association, as represented by a painting he had seen, Wang added a new dimension to it by joining with Ren Xiong and Yao Xie and drawing on the same wellspring of inspiration to paint his own version of one of these paintings. But Wang has not approached this just as an exercise in transferring an existing painting into a snuff bottle, and here lies the great difference between him and so many of his followers, he has used Ren Xiong’s painting as a platform from which to reach greater heights in his own artistic evolution. We know this from his own description of the painting (JICSBS, Summer 1984, p. 22, fig. 3):

I painted two grass-and-insect paintings, being proud of myself. One of them was ‘Hundred Butterflies’ and the other is this bottle, painted in 1966. In order to master the crickets’ postures, I painted from tens of living crickets.

Not content with copying Ren Xiong’s painting, which he could so easily have done, Wang resorted to nature, as he so often did, in order to perfect it as his own work of art. Beyond all of this, he has also managed to imbue his painting with the lofty restraint that is characteristic of great Chinese paintings in general.

This was also one of the last bottles Wang painted during his ideal existence in the Taiping zhuang in Beijing. As he states in the same place, soon after painting this bottle he was ‘washed out of Beijing by the mighty torrent of the Cultural Revolution,’ and the wilderness years began for him. It has been said that Wang Xisan was the ‘founder and master of the modern school of artists.’ He may have been the master, but was not the founder. The Ye brothers, Xiaofeng and Bengqi founded the school in which Wang was trained. It was not until after his move to Hebei that he founded his own school, the Ji school, and assumed the formal role of teacher.

 

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Hugh Moss |