High Art in Low Places

Fig. 2. Yiru jushi (calligraphy), 1805. Fig. 1. Painted byYiru jushi (chrysanthemums), 1807. 6 6 T he art of painting inside a snuff bottle was probably first conceived of in Beijing shortly before 1800 by a Manchu artist, probably a courtier. The man who was its first serious practitioner, however, is known today mainly by his hao or sobriquet, Yiru jushi. He painted bottles between 1801 and 1811 and in turn inspired the circle of Gan Xuanwen, a group of scholar-artists in Lingnan, in southern China, who flourished from 1814 into the early 1820s in and around Guangzhou. The art of painting inside bottles then slipped into the shadows, leaving a nearly fifty-year gap when the only production seems to have been both commercial and decorative, the appeal resting entirely on novelty rather than art. Most of the commercial artists probably worked in Beijing, the snuff-taking capital of China even in the nineteenth century. In the late 1870s one artist, Zhou Leyuan, arose out of this school to recognize again the potential for art in the medium. He single-handedly revitalized the art, becoming its most influential and pivotal figure and one of its greatest artists. He then effectively created his own school in turn- of-the-century Beijing, inspiring a group of other artists to aspire to a similar level of talent, such as Ding Erzhong, Ma Shaoxuan, Ziyizi, Ye Zhongsan and many others. By rights that school should be named after him. It was his influence, transmitted into the modern era by the longevity of the sons of Ye Zhongsan and the skills and teaching of Wang Xisan who became their pupil in the late 1950s, that provided the continuity for the art form to become what it is today with hundreds of highly trained artists producing thousands of paintings every year at all levels of artistic intent and merit. It is not my intention here to talk about the history of the art, however; that is reasonably well established and was covered in detail in the fourth volume of the Bloch catalogues. 1 My focus here is the art, not the craft, of inside painting and those artists who have most intrigued me as a collector over the years. It is useful to define the scope of a collection and, largely eliminating post-1949 production, I have focused on those artists whom I believe represented a level of artistry which rose above the novelty of the medium and produced what qualifies independently as art. This definition immediately eliminates many artists and reduces the number of works by others to an occasional outstanding painting. My criteria for selecting what is art and what is not is based upon my own view of Chinese painting, refined through collecting and studying for several decades a broader range of both old and recent works from the Chinese ink-painting tradition. I have found that a useful initial process in judging the illustrations is to mentally remove them from their environment and view them as paintings. This eliminates the inherent tendency of the “ ship-in- a-bottle ” syndrome that inhibits an assessment of the quality of the ship! This approach also allows me to avoid reveling in quantity. I am grateful to Bonham ’ s Hong Kong for mounting an exhibition of a selection of favorite bottles from my personal collection. HIGH ART IN LOW PLACES, PART I Hugh M. Moss