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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 101 

Lot 101

 

Lot 101
Treasury 4, no. 660
HK$120,000

Fossilized Bird

Transparent agate, ink, and watercolours; with a concave lip and recessed, slightly convex foot surrounded by a protruding, flattened footrim; the natural markings in the stone edited to create an image on one main side of a bird perched on a gnarled branch; painted utilizing these natural markings, on one main side with two katydids on a rocky outcrop and two fan-tailed goldfish swimming in a pond below, with a cabbage and other flora growing nearby, and on the other with a tree overhanging a waterside pavilion set on stilts in the shallow waters, in which two scholars sit chatting at a window as they gaze out over lotuses, the bird of the original subject transformed into a large rock, above one end of which is seen the rooftop of another pavilion at this countryside retreat, inscribed in draft script ‘Executed by Wang Xisan at the capital’, with two seals of the artist, Xisan and Wang, both in negative seal script
Bottle: Official school, 1760–1870
Painting: Wang Xisan, Taiping zhuang, Beijing vicinity, 1964
Height: 5.8 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.73/1.95 cm
Stopper: coral; turquoise collar

Lot 101 Provenance:
Unrecorded source, Hong Kong, (1969–1973)
Hugh Moss (1985)

Published:
JICSBS, Summer 1984, p. 22, fig. 5
Treasury 4, no. 660

Exhibited:
Christie’s, London, 1999

Lot 101 Commentary
Undated as it may be, we know this was painted in 1964 from the artist’s own remarks about the bottle (JICSBS, Summer 1984, p. 22, fig. 5). In his own commentary he writes:

A skilled artist should draw his bottle in a clever manner appropriate to its qualities, composing a picture to make full use of flaws, in other words, to cover up flaws.
Here there were originally two black grains somewhat similar to a trunk, I used the flaws for drawing a pine and a rock.

Setting aside the fact that Wang refers to as ‘flaws’ markings that its original maker saw as distinctly positive, it is perhaps surprising that he did not use the existing bird. It is, independently, one of the most delightful birds in the medium and it seems strange to turn it into a rock. Indeed, in all the years it was in Hugh Moss’s collection, prior to the publication of Wang Xisan’s comments on the bottle, he saw the design as a bird on a foreground branch of the tree that hangs over the pavilion, which also works well. This radically changes the viewer’s perspective, since the bird looms so large in the foreground that the viewer is placed, if we are to rationalize the scene, up in the tree and very close to the perching bird. This reading sets up not only an intriguing tension between the extremely close foreground and the rapid recession into the distance of the rest of the tree and the pavilion, but integrates the original work of art with Wang’s painting. It must be said that Wang’s comments came as a bit of a surprise to Moss who still has trouble seeing the bird as a rock, but the artist is the artist and if he chose to fossilize the bird, who are we to argue? Having done so, however, Wang’s usual inventiveness is at play and we can see why he was so often attracted to fine, old, chalcedony or agate snuff bottles, quite apart from their ready availability in the 1960s.

On the side with the figures in a pavilion, we are looking at Wang’s rendition of the ideal country retreat for a scholar. With its pavilion set in stilts in a lotus pond, its windows open to the elements, we have seen this same idealized scene many times before in Chinese art, and a few times in this volume alone, but Wang’s approach is quite different from the others. Wang Xisan was an artist who learned to paint long before he took to painting snuff bottles, at a time when the orthodoxy of the Chinese tradition was no longer universally revered. During the twentieth century many different approaches to art were possible, and Wang would have been aware of Western teaching methods which had become a standard alternative to traditional methods in China since the 1930s and 1940s. Instead of using just the well-established lexicon of representative images that stood for the various elements of the landscape and which could be organized entirely from the mind in the privacy of the studio, Wang also learned to paint from nature. He was a keen observer of everything around him, as any great artist tends to be, and we know from his commentary on Treasury 4, no. 665 (lot 57 here), the painting of one hundred children, that he observed, sketched, and built up his own lexicon of forms directly from life. By combining these two approaches, Wang’s version of this subject is much more realistic and complex than traditional versions. His perspective is more rational, his architecture sound, his detailing of the scene reflects his close observation of how a building stands on stilts, how lotuses grow in a pond, and how a country residence would be laid out. The barely noticeable blue rooftops of another part of the country retreat, tucked away in the upper right-hand corner of the painting, is formally unnecessary since a little foliage would have performed the same formal function, but Wang knew instinctively that a country residence of this sort would not consist just of a waterside pavilion but have other living rooms, so he painted them in. The realism and closely observed detail arising out of his partly Western approach to art, permeates Wang’s works and it is his ability to combine the best of the Chinese tradition with what he has learned from the West, and from nature, that underlies his distinctive and impressive style.

For the meaning of the katydids, here representing insects in general, and fish in a pond, see Treasury 4, nos. 472 and 488 respectively.

 

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