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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 10 

Lot 10

Lot 10
Treasury 2, no. 299

The Monkey King’s Agate Boat

Agate; extremely well hollowed, with a concave lip and recessed, slightly convex foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim; the natural markings in the stone augmented by low relief carving to create a continuous scene of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, in a boat, holding a fruiting peach branch over his shoulder and looking back at another large peach set on the stern of the boat, while a bat flies in a cloud of vapour in front
Official School, 1760–1850
Height: 6.14 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.75/2.00 cm
Stopper: coral; gilt-bronze collar chased with radiating lines

Lot 10 Provenance:
Hugh M. Moss Ltd
Alice B. McReynolds
Sotheby’s, New York, 16 April 1985, lot 109

Published:
Kleiner 1987, no. 164
JICSBS, Autumn 1997, p. 7
Treasury 2, no. 299

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

Lot 10 Commentary
This is another of the great masterpieces of ink-play agates. It could even be proposed for membership in the Eyeball Agate group (see Sale 1, lot 6; Treasury 2, no. 322) based on the delightful use of one black spot to provide the beautifully carved bat with one of his eyes, but it would rely for admission on a reasonably liberal selection committee.

It is superbly hollowed and finished. The slightly lazier recessed convex foot is so beautifully finished and is surrounded by such a well-defined and crisply carved footrim that without the existence of later, more careless examples, we would never see in this foot a hint of a decline in standards. This bottle is formally far more sophisticated than others like it. The profile is better rounded, even in the satisfying bulge of the narrow-side profile. The foot is better detailed and smaller, making it more harmonious to the overall form, and the neck is very slightly both waisted and flared. As an undecorated bottle it would be faultless, but by adding one of the most imaginative and best conceived and executed ink-play subjects in the entire medium, the artist has lifted the bottle far beyond mere technical competence.

The agate striations, close in appearance to the standard banded agate type, form a miraculous boat that we are tempted to see as a proper boat rather than the log boat one might expect of a monkey-immortal cavorting with the peaches of immortality.

The natural darker markings reveal quite clearly both gunwales and the sharply rising stern of the standard Chinese skiff or small boat. The boat is tilted slightly on a different picture plane to the monkey so that one gets a greater sense of three-dimensionality, but this is not unusual in the tradition of Chinese painting, with its standard manipulation of perspective to artistic ends. In any fully mature aesthetic culture, art governs perspective, not the other way round.

Formalized waves have been carved into the ground material, marking the progress of the boat through the water, and a stroke of sheer genius is exhibited by keeping the waves exquisitely separate from the dark hull of the boat, leaving a line of light between it and the shadows cast by the tops of the waves, suggesting undefined spray and rendering the boat appropriately ethereal and other-worldly for the vehicle of an immortal.

Here Sun Wukong carries a branch over his shoulder from which grows a peach and a clump of leaves; this, along with the tiger skin around his waist, identifies him as more than just any old monkey. Just for verisimilitude, since he is renowned for having stolen more than one peach from the garden, a second peach is carved in low relief on the stern of the boat, brilliantly interpreted from a darker patch of exactly the right shape to allow the fruit to be shown in full, sitting on the planking, with one part riper than the other, as peaches always appear. It is also finely rounded and perfectly finished.

From the peach on the branch on the monkey’s shoulder arises a swirl of vapour, a mystical emanation to emphasize, perhaps, the magical potency of the fruit. This cloud of colour rises to the neck and around the shoulders to disperse across the other main side and gives rise to one of the finest bats in a medium not short of these highly auspicious creatures. It is wholly carved in a stunning depiction full of movement, and beautifully observed. It is one of those rare bottles where each side is equally masterful, partly because it has been conceived as a continuous picture so that a choice between one side and the other becomes incidental in terms of the overall work of art. Although in low relief, the carving is perfectly rounded and convincing and goes far beyond the adumbration usual for such low relief work, where a few lines are cut into a simple raised plane of the right shape.

The bat adds to the symbolism for longevity implied by the peach the wish for happiness (the two characters for ‘bat’ and ‘happiness’ sharing the sound, fu to create the rebus). It also helps to tie the entire scene together formally as a continuous picture by interacting with the vapour as it emanates from the peach. As the bottle is turned, it acts powerfully, like the handscroll format in Chinese painting where both subject and energy are continuous. A bottle carved with two different subjects, even if of equal power, is more like an album painting where related paintings are dealt with as discreet entities of an overall work of art.

 

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