The Lingnan School

identify Chen Quan. It simply says 'recorded bv Chen: which is to say that it was a Mr Chen who inscribed the bottle, regardless of who com– posed ule poem, which is again about the magical world contained within the snuff bottle (fig. 11). How– ever, the style and quality of the cal– ligraphy, the superb confidence of the landscape, which is every bit the equal of a Gan Xuanwen at his best, and the family name of the artist– all leave us in little doubt that it is by Chen Quan. The chances of an– other artist sharing the same family name and painting in the same style at the same time with similar confi– dence are fairly slim. Even if there was such an artist, there can be no question that he would have been known to Chen Quan, perhaps even have been a family member, and that since ule two were painting in an identical style, they would certainly have distinguished their works by the use of their other names. The front of this bottle bears a su– perbly constructed and executed Iit– erati painting that is as fine as any from the school (fig. 12). In typically simplified but totally mastered sryle, Chen has painted a scholar outside his country retreat in an idealized landscape. The few powerful lines of the small figure accentuate his im– portance in the overall composition, centering the picture and our atten– tion in approaching it. The figure is the qUintessence of the Iiterati con– cept that in painting less is more. With faultless economy of means, the artist has somehow managed to give the figure not only formal prominence in the painting, which is easy enough, but immense person– ality and presence as well, which is eA~remely difficult and borders on the magical with the use of so few lines. This delighiful figure then acts as a pivot for a perfectly achieved landscape with everything that is necessary but nothing to excess. There are just enough trees, and enough variery in them, to suggest the full range of nature, perfectly placed around a Simplified country house, again with just enough sepa– rate elements to suggest adequate compleXity without shOWing it in de– tail. The landscape is then graduated into the far and high distance by the Fig. 11. Inscription 'recorded by Chen' on reverse of crystal bottle. Fig. 12. Landscape on from of horde in figure 11. 9 clever use of varied ink tones and forms set against each other, again sufficient for the task but without a single superfluous element. It is a totally faultless and delighiful little painting and as fine as anything from the Lingnan School. Indeed, with its gentle and unassuming liter– ati mode of painting, the bottle in figure 12 is one of the masterpieces of inside-painted snuff bottles as a high art rather than as the surface– oriented, clever, technically depen– dent art it was to become. The achievement of this sort of essential simplicity, this inner spiritual quality in painting, was later to slip beyond the grasp of the vast majority of the artists who make up the mainstream of the art form from the late nine– teenth century to the present day. With very few exceptions, it is the lack of thiS subtle, inner quality which renders so much later and contemporary painting inside snuff bottles empty of meaning-regard– less of sometimes formidable levels of technical accomplishment. The scholar in a landscape and the pine tree attest to Chen Quan's preeminent place in the Lingnan School of literati artists and there– fore in the entire art form. Although very few of his works may have sur– vived, the scholar bottle alone would leave us in no doubt whatsoever of his ability as an artist. Other Anonymous Llngnan Artists A few groups of other early inside-painted snuff bottles appear to have Lingnan connections in style or subject matter. They are rarely signed and, if they are, only one art name appears on a single bottle, which is not particularly helpful in tracking down the true identity of the artist in question. One of the most intriguing groups consists of a single subject, which connects it to ti,e Lingnan School geographically. The bottles are all somewhat similar in palette and style, although the spiritual content is not as lofry as that of Gan Xuan– wen and Chen Quan, and the paint– ings are less sophisticated. The painterS appear to have set their sights more on topographical paint– ing than on high art, a feeling borne