The Lingnan School

THE LlNGNAN SCHOOL OF SNUFF BOTTLE INTERIOR PAINTERS INTRODUCTION AND PART I: GAN XUANWEN Hugh Moss Introduction The name Lingnan refers to a re– gion south of the Five'Peaks, the five famous mountains which shape the overall geomancy of China. It is roughly equivalent to modern-day Guangdong province, and its social center has always been the city of Guangzhou or Canton, as it is better known in the West. The key figure in the Lingnan School is Gan Xuanwen. He was not the only painter of snuff bottles from the early period with definite connections to Lingnan, but he was one of the most consistent and prolific. There are two further reasons for concentrating on Gan's works as a foundation for our study of the Ling– nan School. He was the first great popularizer of the art of painting on the inside surfaces of snuff bottles and possibly even its inventor. Nothing is known in inside-painted snuff bottles that is a likely candidate for an earlier date, Secondly, he was a literatus-a scholar, painter, and calligrapher who represented the highest aesthetic of China. In short, he was the Ding Erzhong of his day. Our usual perception of the art of interior painting is that it was a com– mercial art with the occasional painter transcending the deeply based craft barriers of China to paint eXCiting, artistic works. Ding Erzhong has been previously the only known exception, a literatus who engaged in this miniature art form. Other than him, we perceive Zhou Leyuan on a regular basis and only a handful of others on an occa– sional basis, all from the turn-of-the– century Beijing School, as producing art that could be taken seriously in the context of the painting and cal– ligraphy of the influential minority of the late Qing dynasty. If the whole art form was in fact invented and popularized by a liter– atus, we are dealing with a quite dif– ferent situation: what we have is a high art form that in Beijing and Shandong at the turn of the century was adopted by a large number of craftsmen working commercially. This may seem an insignificant shift in emphasis, but it is one that lends massive endorsement to the trend of recent years of seeing snuff borrles not simply as a separate, rather minor art, but as representing a very wide range of Chinese fine art with the capaCity for artistic com– munication of the highest order. Gan Xuanwen was also the first lit– eratus who can be positively identi– fied as becoming so engrossed in the upper-class habit of snuffing and its related paraphernalia that he ac– tually produced borrles himself, as an extension of the high arts of painting and calligraphy at which he was already adept. There are many earlier patrons of the art recorded, including not a few emperors, who were within the ranks of the influen– tial minority, but no artist earlier than Gan Xuanwen comes to mind as haVing directly linked the aes– thetic aristocracy with the snuff bot– tle by unqueStiOned personal production. Gan Xuanwen, it must be admit– ted, was not China's leading South– ern artist in the nineteenth century. Indeed, he seems to have stirred the imagination of the art world so little that, a century or so after his death, he is not even noted in the Zhong– guo{Meishujia Renming Cidian (Dictionary of Famous Chinese Artists)-the first work for which one reaches to check the biograph– ical detail of a Chinese painter, cal– ligrapher, or seal-carver. Ding 4 Erzhong merits a short entry; Gan has none. In fact, apart from his snuff borrle output, he would be un– known except for a single painting that survives in the collection of the Art Gallery of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (see figure 6, begin– ning on page 15). It is a long hand– scroll, in the rather sorry condition of so much Guangdong painting and calligraphy caused by the ravages of the local climate, But it does provide us with some valuable information and establish Gan as a literatus and a highly accomplished painter and cal– ligrapher, even if not a famous one. The high quality of the painting is remarked upon by a contemporary of Gan's who added a colophon to blank paper mounted together with the painting: I have seen quite a number of works by Guangdong painters, some of considerable fame, but judging from this work, I think Qingshan [another name for Gan Xuanwen] is the best. Acharmingly conceited flourish ends the commentary: Those with discernment will know that this is not just my opinion. It was the existence of this hand– scroll that finally led to Gans inclu– sion in a biographical source, the Guangdong Huaren tu (Records of Guangdong Painters), produced by Xie Wenyong in 1986 (fig. 1). All of the information therein is drawn from the inscriptions and seals on the handscroll and its additional colophons. There seems little doubt that but for his snuff borrles Gan Xuanwen would have indefinitely remained in almost complete obscurity- it is difficult to establish a major artistic reputation on the