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photographer E-Yaji.
Snuff Bottles from the Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part II  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 23 November 2010: Lot 18 

Lot 18


Lot 18
Treasury 4, no. 497

Prescient Ducks

Glass, ink, and watercolours; with a flat lip and recessed convex foot surrounded by a protruding, rounded footrim; painted on one main side with a herdboy wading in the shallows of a river atop his water buffalo with a country retreat visible on the far bank, the other main side with two ducks swimming beneath blossoming peach branches, inscribed in draft script ‘Painted at the capital in the eleventh month of the year xinmao by Zhou Leyuan’, with one seal of the artist, Yuan yin (‘seal of Yuan’), in negative seal script
Zhou Leyuan, Studio of Lotus-root Fragrance, Xuannan, Beijing, eleventh month, 1891
Height: 6.38 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.50/1.51 cm
Stopper: tourmaline; vinyl collar

Lot 18 Provenance:
Hugh M. Moss Ltd (1986)

Kleiner 1987, no. 267
Treasury 4, no. 497

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

Lot 18 Commentary
This is a subject otherwise unrecorded among Zhou’s works: two ducks and peach blossoms. The famous Song poet, Su Shi (1037–1101), wrote two quatrains about a painting from the earlier years of the dynasty. The poem is entitled ‘On an Evening View of a Spring River by Huichong’, and first quatrain begins, ‘Beyond the bamboo, peach blossoms, two or three branches; / Water in the springtime river turns warm, and the ducks are the first to know’. The subject is known elsewhere on snuff bottles, particularly on Yangzhou glass overlay bottles, where part of the second line is given as the title of the picture (Tsang 1998, p. 18, fig. 23).

The couplet can be interpreted in many ways. First, it is a typical Song dynasty way of complimenting an artist: the artist has managed to convey the sense that the ducks are aware of the warming of the water. Second, as a slight variation on that idea, the poet is supplementing the painting with information that is not directly shown pictorially (there is no point in simply stating what any simpleton can see in the picture). Third, it relates to the idea that Buddhist enlightenment or awareness is something that is experienced directly, not told through language or reasoning—and Huichong was, after all, a Buddhist monk. Finally, the line is now used to express the idea that insiders are naturally going to be the first to become aware of changed circumstances.

This is one of Zhou’s paintings where he leaves a good deal of left-over space, which in Chinese painting functions as a positive formal element rather than just as blank background. In the lower right-hand corner, beneath the swimming ducks, is Zhou’s characteristic grassy bank, defined by a coloured wash overlaid with energetic, short, tapering strokes of jet-black ink, but here they are done as subtly as he ever did them, with extraordinary control of the ink-tones and even of wet and dry brushwork, another important feature of Chinese painting and calligraphy.

Although the boy riding on his wading water buffalo is a common enough subject for Zhou, this is a unique version, with the boy and the animal in a broad river, on the far side of which a set of rather large buildings is seen behind the foliage. It is all painted with remarkable control and restraint, with lovely use of ink-tones, specially evident with the rooftops and the main subject of the boy and his water buffalo, where dark, wet and dry strokes are balanced superbly against the paler washes to give emphasis texturally as well as to depict. There is also a lovely touch in the addition of a tiny hint of grassy bank on the foreground shore. This is formally important in bringing to a conclusion the slightly V-shaped far bank, which points to the main subject, and the diagonal of the boy and water buffalo, with the beast’s head turned to look down into the lower right-hand corner. Without the bank of grass, the composition would be less satisfying, less complete. Zhou was a master of composition throughout his career, with a natural flair for balancing the various elements of his paintings so that they are both depictive and satisfying as abstract forms.


Easy link to this page: http://www.e-yaji.com/auction/photo.php?photo=887&exhibition=6&ee_lang=eng


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