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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VIII  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 26 May 2014: Lot 1036 

Lot 1036
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Lot 1036
Treasury 4, no. 455 (‘Gan Xuanwen’s Self-portrait’)

Flawless crystal, ink, and water-colours; with a concave lip and recessed flat hexagonal foot surrounded by a protruding flat foot rim of the same shape; painted on one main side with a river gorge surrounded by towering peaks with an open, thatched pavilion set on a rocky promontory, a distant temple beyond, the two narrow panels inscribed with a couplet in clerical script, the other main panel with a copy of a letter by Wang Xizhi 王羲之 in Wang’s draft script, followed by the signature Gan Xuan zuo 甘烜作 (‘Made by Gan Xuan’), with one illegible seal of the artist, the other two narrow panels with a branch of blossoming prunus and a rock with bamboo growing beside it
Gan Xuanwen 甘烜文, Lingnan school, 1810–1825
Height: 6.5 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.60/1.61 cm
Stopper: glass; vinyl collar

Hugh M. Moss Ltd (circa 1970)
Unrecorded collection
Hugh M. Moss Ltd (1987)

JICSBS, Spring 1991, p. 17, figs. 27–30
Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 291
Treasury 4, no. 455

Hong Kong Museum of Art, March–June 1994
National Museum, Singapore, November 1994–February 1995
Christie’s, London, 1999

The main inscription on the back panel here is a very successful in imitation of the style of the great calligraphy master Wang Xizhi. Wang’s letter, written in the middle of the fourth century from the capital to a relative by marriage in Chengdu, reads as follows:

去夏得足下致邛竹杖,皆至。此士人多有尊老者,皆即分布, 令知足下遠惠之至。

Last summer I received the walking sticks made from the bamboo of Qiong that Your Honour sent; all were superb. The gentlemen here are generally respectful of the aged; I quickly gave them out, thereby making known the excellence of Your Honour’s kindness from afar.

The indigenous people in the south-western Sichuan region of Qiong produced bamboo walking sticks that were prized by the Chinese. It seems that Wang distributed them to his friends so that they could present them to their aged parents and spread awareness of the relative’s generosity. A bottle by Gan dated 1814 and featuring the same letter is in the Marakovic collection.

The couplet written on two of the smaller panels of the narrow sides is in Gan’s precise clerical script:

It wants to rain, it’s about to clear,
enveloped in a mossy colour;
where the light from the mountains breaks off,
one can see houses where people live.

The lines are of unknown authorship They appear on a couple of hanging landscape scrolls of very different styles that have appeared recently at auction and are dated 1902 and 1988, suggesting either that the painters took their inscriptions from Gan or that they and Gan took the lines from the same source.
Chinese poets liked to situate their poems at a point of transition, where something is about to happen or has just happened; here the weather is poised between rain and clear skies. They also valued suggestive phrasing that seems somewhat illogical but whose meaning can be intuited from the context: here, the entire scene is ‘within’ the colour of moss, and light that somehow belongs to hills or is characterised as coming from hills ‘breaks off’, perhaps at folds in the mountains. By all of these techniques, the reader is obliged to re-imagine the situation and the views implied by the language, thereby participating in the construction of the poetic world.

This is another of the popular forms of crystal bottle used by Gan during his career. When he used it, he often filled minor panels with vignettes of symbolic plants (here, the bamboo and the prunus, both emblematic of the scholar).

The reddish tinge on the interior of this bottle is due to the colour of the snuff
that it once contained. The crystal here is unusually clear and free of flaws, allowing an uninterrupted view of the painting, which with its orange, snuff-filled background, gives the impression of an ancient painting on faded silk. The impression of an antique painting is so powerful that one is tempted to prefer it to the pristine condition of Sale 2, lot 149 and lot 1069 in the present auction. While the snuff may have discoloured certain of the washes over the centuries, the patina of time has more than compensated for the loss.


This is not the Sotheby’s sale catalogue. This is a product of Hugh Moss for the purposes of this website. For the catalogue details please refer to Sotheby’s website or request a copy of a printed sale catalogue from Sotheby’s.


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