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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 50 

Lot 50

Lot 50
Treasury 4, no. 659

Drifting Incense Smoke

Transparent amber, ink, and watercolours; with a flat lip and recessed, convex, rounded-rectangular foot surrounded by a protruding, broad, flat footrim of the same shape; painted on one main side with a scholar seated in a boat beneath a mature pine tree in a garden with steps going down to the waters of a river, with distant mountains beyond, inscribed in draft script ‘Gazing at a Wintry River Alone,’ the other main side with a seated scholar meditating on a rocky plateau outside a circular doorway in a garden, with clumps of bamboo and his young attendant behind him, a volume of books at his side and an incense burner in front of him, the smoke from which is formed by a natural darker flaw in the amber, inscribed in cursive script ‘Executed by Wang Xisan in the eleventh month of the year kuimao at Taiping zhuang (Peaceful Hamlet) in the capital,’ preceded by a seal in negative script, Xiuzhen, ‘Cultivating [Daoist] realization', and followed by two seals of the artist, Xisan and Wang, both in negative seal script
Bottle: 1760–1880
Painting: Wang Xisan, Taiping zhuang, eleventh month, 1963
Height: 5.6 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.50/1.62 cm
Stopper: pearl; coral collar

Lot 50 Provenance:
Beijing Arts and Crafts Corporation (circa 1964)
Hugh Moss (1985)

Treasury 4, no. 659

Lot 50 Commentary:
Given the availability of fine old, undecorated bottles through the Beijing Arts and Crafts Corporation, which also dealt in snuff bottles and other artefacts, as the name implies, it is hardly surprising that an artist of Wang Xisan’s calibre should discover the joys of interpreting natural markings in existing bottles. Although artists had used natural markings in the materials to enhance their paintings from Zhou Leyuan onwards, no one else ever exploited the full potential of this idea as Wang Xisan has. This bottle is the epitome of this mode of painting. It is not only one of the most imaginative of all his adaptations, it is the subtlest. In this lovely transparent amber bottle is a long, curling wisp of darker colouring. Under magnification, this turns out to be a series of tiny, dark impurities caught up in the flowing resin from the tree before it solidified and swept into the present sinuous form by the flow of the resin. Wang has brilliantly built his entire painting around this single natural marking in the amber, turning it, with utter conviction, into the smoke which rises from the incense burner sitting in front of the meditating scholar. It is a touch which gives the painting a dimension that lifts it above mastery of painting techniques and infuses it with the sort of magic one expects of the finest ink-play agate bottles (see under Treasury 2, no. 274).

When Wang learned the art of painting inside bottles, he was taught the traditional method by the Ye brothers. The bottle was prepared by shaking ball-bearings along with corundum powder and water inside the bottle until the interior service was evenly abraded, or frosted. It would then hold the pigments securely. The painting was then done with bamboo pens, sharply bent at the end (see discussion under Treasury 4, no. 467).

This was the traditional way of painting inside a snuff bottle first developed we believe in Beijing around 1800 or just before (see Treasury 4, pp. 9–16), and passed on through the Beijing school of Zhou Leyuan, through the Ye brothers, to Wang Xisan. It was also the method used, apparently, by the early nineteenth-century Lingnan school. The first divergence from the use of bamboo pens as the preferred instrument of painting was under the modern Shandong school. Li Kechang and his fellow students of Zhang Wentang (1885–1966) and his eldest son Zhang Dunrui apparently devised a tiny brush that could be fitted to the end of the bamboo pen (these were also demonstrated to Moss in early 1974 when he visited Ye Bengqi in Beijing and the government brought in two leading artists from Shandong province to be interviewed as well).

Wang Xisan had met Li Kechang at some time early in the 1960s. Both he and Liu Shouben, his fellow student of the Ye brothers were impressed by the brushes demonstrated to them and they both adopted and subsequently improved on them. It is sometimes difficult to tell which marking is done by a brush and which by a bamboo pen, but by the mid-1960s it is quite obvious that Wang is not only using a brush, but using it to the same ends as he would use it on paper, for long, modulated lines of great expressiveness.

With the advent of Wang’s style of painting, the floodgates were open for dozens of artists without his aesthetic sensibility to paint chocolate-box images, ad nauseam, of international celebrities and their poodles, thus reducing a once noble art form to a commercial mish-mash of airport images.


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