17401880 sold with accompanying watercolour by Peter Suart 7.36cm high (stopper with rhinoceros-horn collar).
Treasury 2, no. 256
The Rainbow Crystal Moon
Crystal; with a slightly concave lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding convex footrim; carved on one main and two narrow sides with the moon reflected in turbulent waves, the other main side incised with a clerical-script inscription within a rounded-rectangular panel The Rustic Crystal Master, 17401880 Height: 7.36 cm Mouth/lip: 0.72/2.21 cm Stopper: glass; rhinoceros-horn collar Condition: workshop condition Illustration: watercolour by Peter Suart
Provenance: Christie's, London, 12 October 1987, lot 350 Published: Treasury 2, no. 256
Commentary This is a magnificent example from the core works of the mysterious Rustic Crystal Master. A large flawed area, which includes a broad patch of the iridescence created by light refraction off tiny pockets of air in fractures within the crystal, has inspired the artist to an unusually simple subject consisting of nothing more than the moon, dominating a large area of the one-sided subject, reflected in turbulent waves.
The subject wraps around onto the narrow sides, but the reverse is incised only with a rounded-rectangular panel to accommodate a poetic inscription, in the same way that leftover space was inscribed in literati painting.
The poem seems to be the source of inspiration for the 'painting' on the other side. The second line is the fourth line of a lyric by Hong Zikui (11761236); the first line might have been composed by the designer of the bottle to match it. This does not mean he moved as easily within literati circles as did Lu Dong, the Yangzhou lacquerer (see Tsang, Moss, and Ribeiro 1986, p. 102), for he did not have to be a serious poet to pull this off, just as the engraver did not have to be a major calligrapher to manage twelve clerical-style characters.
The poem reads:
[Cultivate] a bearing [akin to] the vast sea and sky; A spirit [similar to] the light breezes and a clear moon.
The Rustic Crystal Master's works seem to follow quite closely the pattern of those of the Master of the Rocks, suggesting a commonality in the evolution of a workshop. The same can be seen with other identifiable if still anonymous craftsmen at Suzhou, Yangzhou and elsewhere. A broad range of wares is varied in both quality and artistic inspiration, presumably as commercial factors dictated either the amount of individual attention a single carver devoted to each work or the quantity of personal supervision afforded to workshop efforts. With both masters, there is a body of high quality works where the individual hand of the master can be clearly seen, regardless of the extent to which it was actually involved in production from start to finish. These are the most rewarding works and set the standard for our appreciation of the school as a whole. Among them the occasional masterpiece stands out above the rest, usually not because of any greater technical supremacy but as in all great art, because of inspired use of material and artistic interpretation.
There is nothing about this bottle that sets it technically apart from others by the same hand. The formal integrity, carving style, finish and material are all equal to the usual standard set by the Rustic Crystal Master. What sets it apart is the inspired use of the material with its striking natural flaws and iridescence and the highly imaginative conception. The excitement of the iridescent effect in crystal is difficult to capture adequately on film. It is fleeting enough in the hand, as light flashes briefly and spectacularly off a fortuitous angle in the moving object. It can be seen, however, in the upper left-hand segment of the moon and is extremely unusual in having a considerable area of evenly striated iridescence of varying colours, giving a rainbow-like effect which is magically apt for a reflection of light caught in flying spray. The other, icier, flaws in the material also act as flying spray, best seen in the neck area where they are less confused in the illustration by surface relief and the reflection of light.
There is one further possible level of interpretation which adds still further to the magic. In Chinese folklore the moon is thought to be inhabited, one such inhabitant being the hare who produces the elixir of immortality, grinding patiently away at the appropriate drugs with a pestle in a large mortar. Because of this the moon is sometimes conceived of as an alternative landscape setting to the earth with mountains and trees, rivers and lakes, even dwellings and individuals. With the brown discolouration of a third of the orb, the iridescent rainbow, and the mountain-peak-like shapes of flaws in the upper orb, such a landscape springs into focus. With or without this interpretation, however, the simplification of the two elements of the moon and the water in which it is reflected are masterly. Choosing to make no concession to the reality of an image reflected in choppy water, the artist has simply superimposed the moon on the water with a crisp circular outline unperturbed by the waves. Since the waves completely surround the moon it can only be read as a reflection but it is presented as the moon itself surrounded by waves. There is even a halo-effect to the whole thing as the pattern of waves emanates from the circle, spreading out from it, an effect one might get by dropping a sphere into choppy water rather than by reflecting it. All of this ambiguity adds to the magic and intrigue of the work of art.
The stopper is an unusual type of glass that imitates tourmaline rather effectively. Indeed, it is difficult to distinguish it from the more precious stone until a close examination reveals the swirling internal patterns of coloured glass and trapped air bubbles.
In common with so many of the works of this school, the bottle is well hollowed, following the outer contours very closely, but is not thinly hollowed.