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photographer E-Yaji.

The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part III  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 25 May 2011: Lot 18 

Lot 18

Lot 18
Treasury 4, no. 457

An inside-painted rock-crystal ‘landscape’ snuff bottle

(‘The Realm beyond Bodily Reality’)

Crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding rounded footrim; painted on one main side with a view along a river valley, with a sage and his attendant standing on a rocky ledge beneath a cliff, gazing out towards a distant fortified town with mountain peaks beyond, a small rustic bridge crossing the river in the foreground, signed in regular script in the upper left-hand corner, Gan Xuan, with one token seal of the artist, the two narrow sides painted with vignettes, one with bamboo, the other with peonies, both growing beside rocks, the other main side with an excerpt from Wang Xizhi’s ‘Lanting Preface’ in a mixture of regular and clerical script preceded by one token seal of the artist and followed by two further seals of the artist, Gan and Xuan, both in negative seal script
Gan Xuanwen, Lingnan, 1810–1825
Height: 5.5 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.55/1.50 cm
Stopper: tourmaline; vinyl collar

Lot 18 Provenance:
Arts of China (1986)

Kleiner 1987, no. 249
Galeries Lafayette 1990, p. 11
Treasury 4, no. 457

Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, October 1987
Galeries Lafayette, Paris, April 1990
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May–June 1993
Christie’s, London, 1999

Lot 18 Commentary
The excerpt here roughly equates to the following lines, from Lin Yutang’s translation:

Now when people gather together to surmise life itself, some sit and talk and unburden their thoughts in the intimacy of a room, and some, overcome by a sentiment, soar forth into a world beyond bodily realities. Although we select our pleasures according to our inclinations — some noisy and rowdy, and others quiet and sedate — yet when we have found that which pleases us we are all happy and contented.

The two clearly legible seals here, in combination with two token seals (which were never intended to be read as anything other than a visual representation of the idea for a seal), suggest two things. The first is that Gan used seals both as simple pictorial elements and as readable signatures. The two name-seals following the inscription, Gan and Xuan, are clearly legible, while the other seals were obviously never meant to be read.

This is one of the Lingnan paintings in the Bloch Collection that is in virtually studio condition, although it is possible that some of the colours may have faded a little. There is neither wear nor significant snuff discolouration. It allows us to see how Gan’s works might have looked the day they were painted. All the subtle gradations of wash, which have been engulfed by a snuff haze in most of his works, are clearly visible under magnification here. It becomes clear that what may appear as bare trees elsewhere may not have been bare when they were painted. Here there are very pale grey washes foliating the branches on many of the trees. We can also see the different tones of sepia wash used for distant mountains, the walled village and cliff-faces. Even the washes of blue and sepia with which he highlights the rocks are clearly visible, and the result is one of Gan’s finest paintings still visible in its original state, with the middle ground and distance particularly compelling and subtly painted. The walled town is an impressionistic delight. The figures here are out of proportion, being larger than they should for the position they occupy, but that is no problem in Chinese painting, where to paint something the way it looked on the surface was already recognized as a childish pursuit by the twelfth century. What mattered was spirit, the essence of a subject, and here we have another of Gan’s psychological self-portraits, on behalf of the scholar-class as a whole.

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