The Lingnan School

difference in meaning between the Anglo-American and the Chinese un– derstanding of the word, however, is worth exploring. To the native En– glish speaker, describing someone as an amateur artist implies that the artist is not very good. In China the amateur artists were the most re– vered. Their nominally amateur sta– tus-in the sense of being non– professional-allowed them to deal directly with high artistic communi– cation witl,out any interference from the marketplace. Thus in the mature Chinese tradition of painting, under its Iiterati mode from the fourteenth century onwards, being a profes– sional painter in the literal sense of painting in order to earn a living was something one had to overcome in order to be considered a high art– ist. Overcoming it was far from im– possible, but involvement in the marketplace was perceived as a defi– nite obstacle to higher communica– tion in art. It was the amateurs, the Iiterati who were not dependent upon their paintings to earn a living, around whom the art form revolved and who tended to be the judge, jury, and executioners of this most sophisticated of Chinese arts. Even when their amateur status also coin– cided with the native English speakers meaning of the word and they were technically relatively un– skilled, scholar painters could over– come this through purity of spirit, a far higher language of communica– tion in Chinese art than mere technique. In this esoteric aesthetic, the high– est artists often aspired to the re– acquisition of the spontaneity of a child-the ultimate amateur and un– fettered artist. The aim was to achieve the spontaneity of the un– trained eye and hand but under the total control of the intellect. A cer– tain awkwardness in childrens paintings stems from having no pre– conceptions about how to view or depict the world around them and because of this it is an awkwardness that nonetheless appears somehow perfectly right or comfortable. One of my students once summed it up perfectly in relation to the leading exponent of this mode of expression in Chinese painting today, Fang Zhaoling, by exclaiming in wonder, Fig. 9. Inscription on crysral bottle signed 'presented by Chen Quan.' Fig. 10. Front of bonle in figure 9. 8 'She does everything so wrong, so right " This entirely comfortable awk– wardness was the feeling aspired to not only in depicting everyday real– ity but in the modes of depiction– in line, form, calof, and texture. This often led to considerable surface similarity between the works of the relatively untrained and those of the very highly trained; these may be particularly difficult to distinguish in a single work of art. The problem is compounded in relation to snuff bottles because the single work of art may also be suf– fering the constraints of being in a strange medium where the artist, however skilled in the usual me– dium, was still inhibited by painting backwards tl1rough a tiny hole in the top of a snuff bottle. This is one of the most difficult areas to under– stand in the esoteric world of Chi– nese paintings and is made the more difficult where an artist-sage might still be unable to express himself in a snuff bottle with the same control he would normally bring to a work on paper. The typical Lingnan scene in fig– ure 10, with its album leaf style and simple design and execution, could be either a sophisticated mature work or a rather stumbling early at– tempt. Despite haVing spent more than a decade immersed in this elu– sive quality in Chinese paintings, as both artist and as audience, I find this bottle rather difficult to judge. It is quite possible, given the cir– cumstances, mat the artist achieved a work which appears an1ateur in both the Western and the Chinese sense. If so, it would be an amusing para– dox, but quite possible in the eso– teric world of the high arts of China. The last of the Chen Quan bottles of which I have photographs (al– though I have a record of two others in my files, neither of which adds any vital information to what we al– ready know) is perhaps the most im– pressive of all the known Chen Quan bottles (figs. 11 and 12). It is not actually bener than the pine tree; merely more complex in its subject maner with perhaps a mar– ginally more exciting and subtle shape to the crystal bottle, and thereby outwardly more impressive. The signature does not actually