Wang Xisan, dated 1967 (the bottle 1760-1857) 6.49cm high.
Treasury 4, no. 663
水晶內畫鼻煙壺 壺：1760～1857 內畫：王習三， 1967年'
The Key to Freedom
Flawless crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim; the foot incised in clerical script with the four character hall mark Xingyouheng tang (Hall of Constancy); painted on one main side with a scholar in a boat being punted by a boatman towards a country retreat among trees, another country residence visible among the trees further up river, with misty hills beyond, the other main side with two magpies on the branches of a maple growing from behind a convoluted rock, inscribed 'Executed in the eleventh month of the year dingwei', with one seal of the artist, Xisan, in negative seal script
Bottle: 17601857 Painting: Wang Xisan, Yang village, Hebei province, winter, 1967 Height: 6.49 cm Mouth/lip: 0.78/1.82 cm Stopper: stained quartz; gilt-bronze collar Condition: two miniscule chips in the outer lipso small they are unmeasurablecompletely insignificant; otherwise, perfect. Painting: studio condition
Provenance: Unrecorded source, Hong Kong, (19721974) Hugh Moss (1985) Published: JICSBS, December 1977, p. 21, fig. 31 Kleiner 1995, no. 434 Treasury 4, no. 663 Exhibited: British Museum, London, JuneNovember 1995 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, JulyNovember 1997 Christie's, London, 1999
Commentary: When Wang Xisan was caught up in the red tide of the Cultural Revolution, he was sent back to his native place, Yang village, in Hebei province, where he was forced, at first, to do farm labour. His banishment took place on 24th August 1966 and he still harbours bitter memories of that date. He had taken with him from Beijing three blank bottles, rolled up and hidden in his bedding. He was put to work doing manual labour in the fields, earning for his country and himself a tiny fraction of what he used to earn as a painter of snuff bottles. He pointed out to the commune management that if he was allowed to paint, he could earn for the commune far more money than he could by pulling weeds and planting crops. Some considered him a braggart with his high-faluting ideas, and the commune management was suspicious that he was merely trying to find a way to visit Beijing and Tianjin occasionally, but he convinced them to let him at least show them what he could do. He would work during the long day-time hours on the commune, and paint by lantern light at night. He finished his three bottles and with permission from the commune and his uncle as his guarantor, he was allowed to go to Tianjin to sell them, which he did easily. On the strength of the three bottles he had painted, which he was able to sell for what was, to them, a great deal of money, he was gradually allowed to give up farming and resume his art so that he could enrich the commune.
We know that in January 1967 Wang was briefly allowed to return to Beijing pending an appeal of his exiled status. He was forbidden to paint snuff bottles during his stay in the capital, being put to work instead making souvenir badges of the Chairman. His appeal failed, and by November 1967 he was back in Hebei. We also know that by the following June of 1968, he had sufficiently convinced the cadres that he was allowed to take his first student, his nephew Wang Baichuan.
The present bottle was painted in the winter of 1967 and must have been done after his return to Hebei. Wang recalls that he took three old bottles with him into exile, hidden in his bedding. One he painted with a picture of geese, another with a black bear, and the third he does not recall, but this was not one of them. It was probably a blank he acquired during his appeal in Beijing and painted as soon as he returned to Hebei, knowing that he must come to terms with his cadres if he was to continue his art. Its superb quality represents the key to freedom for Wang to return to his beloved art on a regular basis, even if still in exile.
At this time, Wang's painting remained lofty and pure. He had not begun to teach a lot of students, which can sap creative energy in an artist, and he had not yet been appointed to a number of committees and political bodies, nor had he been put under commercial pressure by his status and position. Not only that, but he had to prove himself to his commune members by painting masterpieces that would be readily saleable. These various factors maintained his art at a very high level throughout the rest of the 1960s and into the 1970s.
Apart from the lovely bottle used here, which was once a plain crystal bottle belonging to the fifth Prince Ding (see Treasury 1, no. 150, and Treasury 2, nos. 359364), the painting is a masterly work in its own right. It combines all of the qualities of a great Chinese painting, and exhibits Wang's masterly brushwork as discussed under Treasury 4, no. 662 (lot 22 here). The painting may have been inspired by Zhang Daqian (18991983) who painted a series of works during the mid-century of birds on the branches of red-leafed maple trees. They were so distinctive that they inspired other artists of the day, and it is likely that Wang had seen such paintings, although the composition and style are entirely his own and it is possible that he arrived at a similar sort of image independently.