The Lingnan School

Fig. 4. Front and reverse of crystal bottle painted with leaning pine, signed Qiuyan, and poem, signed Chen Quan. found in Ding Erzhong, one of the acknowledged high masters of the later Beijing School founded by Zhou Leyuan. Despite the fact that he is currently widely viewed as the greatest of all snuff bottle interior painters, he is barely noted in the context of late Qing and early Re– publican artists on a broader stage. None of Chen Quan's snuff bottles are dated, but we may assume that they are from the same sort of period range as those of Gan Xuan– wen, covering perhaps the first two or three decades of the nineteenth century. His few known bottles fol– low the same pattern as those of Gan Xuanwen. Crystal is standard, with faceted or paneled shapes pre– dominating. All are either in ink or in ink and a limited palette of sub– dued colors, and several of them could quite easily be mistaken at first glance for the works of Gan Xuanwen himself. There can be little doubt that they were all produced under the same stylistic influence at the same time. Since Chen Quan's bottles are un– dated, no attempt is made to put his works in chronological order, al– though a few comments will be made as to their relative maturity within the small body of his extant works. Awell-made crystal bottle, with faceted panels typical of the Lingnan School, contains one of Chen Quans most impressive paintings (fig. 4) It is of the same subject as Gan Xuan– wen's pine tree of 1815, which! illus– trated in 'Part I," but is far simpler in conception. Although the com– position is the same, with a single pine leaning over to one side and acting as an umbrella for a signa– ture, there is no rock or ground plane, and the configuration of the branches is less complicated. It is easy enough to imagine, however, one or the other artist responding in his own style to his friend's com– position. The two were friends, pi– oneering a new art form-perhaps one should say a new medium for an old art form-and it is likely that they would have exchanged ideas and seen each other's works before they were distributed to friends, or perhaps sold, although there is no direct indication of commercialism creeping in with any of the earlier painters of snuff bottles. The pine in figure 4 is very, con– fidently painted, with the lines, dots, and washes from which Iiterati painting is built. The brushwork is sure and powerful. In lacking the detail and complexity of Gan Xuan– wen's version it does not necessarily lack anything of substance. One aim of the Iiterati painter was to reduce languages to the minimum. The goal was an infinity of meaning ex– pressed through the greatest pos– sible economy of means. The greater the economy of means, the more important the language of confi– dence became in painting. Confi– dence is a vital language in any high art form, as in any other form of communication, for if we do not be– lieve in ourselves, we cannot expect others to do so, and if they do not, then what we are communicating carries no weight. Viewed from this perspective, the little bottle is a powerful painting and one of Chen Quans finest works. Particularly im– pressive is the small group of tian texture dots which have been added to the trunk and branches. With a few carefully and, with a high artist, also spontaneously placed dots, an additional level is added to the over– all painting that lifts it tenfold in ex– citement. With perhaps no more than a dozen dots, Chen has added a whole new dimension of meaning to the brushwork dance of his painting. It is the use of such elements as 6 these that distinguishes the high art– ists from the mere craftsmen in Chi– nese painting-and painting on or in snuff bottles is no exception. The elements themselves are common to high, medium, and low art and to mere craft, if such a thing exists at all, but how the artist dances with them distinguishes the one from the other. The signature beneath the tree is Qiuyan and that follOWing the poem on the reverse, Chen Quan. The poem conforms to many of the early school of inside-painted bottles in referring to the wonders of snuff and the bottles that contain it and to the magical world the artist is capable of creating inside so small a space. The confidence in both painting and calligraphy in this bot– tle suggests that this is one of Chen's mature works. It is certainly one of his best. The same subject, although not as confidently painted and a trifle worn through use, also has the signature Qiuyan beneath the pine (fig. 5) The first bottle was inscribed in neatly printed regular script, the script found in a dictionary, whereas this one is in draft script, which is more difficult to write elegantly and a better yardstick of Iiterati cal– Iigraphic depth (fig. 6). The line whid1 might have contained a date has been obliterated, either by use or when the original owner, to whom it may have been personally inscribed, parted with it, but the sig– nature Chen Quan is just visible at