Nephrite of pebble material; well hollowed with an irregular flat lip; carved as a continuous rock formation with a flowering orchid growing from one crag 17401850 Height: 7.25 cm Mouth: 0.39 cm Stopper: jadeite, carved as a stalk Condition: some natural flaws in the stone, including two near the mouth of the bottle, are not subsequent damage but part of the material; some abrasions from use, only faintly visible on one flat side where the bottle has been put down frequently on a flat surface. Otherwise, workshop condition
Provenance: Sotheby's, New York, 1 July 1985, lot 218 Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (Hong Kong, 1985) Published: Kleiner 1987, no. 53 Galleries Lafayette 1990, p. 6, fig. 2 Treasury 1, no. 12 Exhibited: Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987 Galeries Lafayette, Paris, April 1990 Creditanstalt, Vienna, MayJune 1993
Commentary: This is a pebble bottle in both senses of the term (see discussion under Treasury 1, no. 62) and it is made from one of the most exciting pieces of pebble material in the snuff bottle world, with a skin-colour of vibrant and brilliant russet-brown colour. It is perhaps as red as it is possible to come with a pebble skin, and it speaks the artistic languages of colour and texture with an eloquence which is in a class of its own. The colour is entirely natural without any artificial staining and the form follows very closely the original shape of the pebble with only one shoulder where the skin has been removed to create a canvas for a discreet but symbolically meaningful orchid. This feature is so understated that it escaped detection when previously published.
The carving of the rock formation is achieved in such a way that the bottle doubles as a scholar's rock sculpture as well as being a snuff bottle with a rocky landscape subject and the setting for the orchid. The simply defined planes and crags of the rock are the perfect combination of simplicity and totally abstract power which is typical of the finest of Chinese landscape paintings, where abstraction and realism go hand in hand in a sophisticated exercise that combines both realms of meaning, standard to Chinese painting since at least the fourteenth century and only recently becoming standard to Western art (see Hugh Moss, 'A Unified Theory of Art', in Moss and He 1990, 1333).
The significance of the microcosmic rock and its place at the pinnacle of the Chinese high art of sculpture is discussed under Treasury 1, no. 118. The combination of the natural form and colours of the pebble and the artistically contrived carving of the rocks could not have been more perfectly achieved.
Apart from the symbolism of the orchid, representing the ethical qualities of the refined gentleman, there is another powerful symbol within the Chinese tradition which is subtly represented here. On the side with the more pronounced crags and gullies is a distinct cave, carved more deeply into the stone and of a lighter colour, within which can be seen further crags. The rock-cave in Chinese art represents the realm of the Immortals. Chinese myths include several stories where mortals have wandered into caves to emerge into a different realm of reality, that of the Immortals. Returning to their own world after what appears to them to be a short period of time, they find that generations have passed and they are far into the future. These stories are a metaphor for the timelessness of the mystic state of consciousness so highly valued by a culture where, by transcending the intellectual realm of reality and stepping into the trans-intellectual state, one steps off the stage of time. In Chinese culture it is this transformation in consciousness which represents immortality rather than the ability to live endlessly upon the stage of time.
With its combination of relative qualities, represented by the material, artistic conception and mastery of carving, and its mystical qualities, represented by the cave metaphor, this extraordinary carving becomes not only a perfect balance between abstraction and realism but between the reality of the senses as interpreted by the intellect and that of the mystic realm to which the Chinese have always aspired as the ultimate level of reality.