Ding Erzhong, dated 1899 sold with accompanying watercolour by Peter Suart 6.26cm high.
Treasury 4, no. 555
A Courtier's Abstract Dream
Glass, ink, and watercolours; with a concave lip and recessed convex foot surrounded by a protruding footrim; painted on one main side with a landscape consisting of various rocky outcrops set in an expanse of water, the foreground with an elaborate structure that may be the gateway to a temple set on the shore, with a group of four blossoming trees in the foreground, inscribed in draft script '[Executed by] Erzhong, [alias Shang]yu, for the elegant judgment of Xiaofang, the honourable surveillance commissioner', with one seal of the artist, Erzhong, in negative seal script, the other main side with two cranes on a rocky outcrop beside the trunk of an ancient pine tree with blossoming branches at its base and peonies growing in the foreground, inscribed in draft script 'Painted in the eleventh month of the year jihai by Erzhong', with one seal of the artist, Ding, in negative regular script
Ding Erzhong, eleventh month, 1899 Height: 6.26 Mouth/lip: 0.72/1.80 cm Stopper: tourmaline; vinyl collar Condition: Bottle: inner lip evenly and slightly ground presumably to remove minor chips; very minor wear and scratching, not visible to the naked eye except on the foot, where one longer scratch is visible. Painting: minor flaking of cinnabar red on cranes' crests; otherwise in studio condition
Exhibited: Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987 Creditanstalt, Vienna, MayJune 1993 Christie's, London, 1999
Commentary Rarely do we find a Ding Erzhong painting in studio condition, although many in the Bloch Collection come close. The only indication that this bottle was ever filled with snuff is to be found in the white peonies. With both Zhou Leyuan and Ding Erzhong, these flowers were often painted with the thinnest washes of white which were then bled with thicker white and a purplish-pink to give the impression of separate petals and variation in the colours. Where the thinnest washes were left, they are the weakest washes used in the medium and rarely survived many years of contact with snuff. It matters very little in the way we view our bottles today, empty of snuff and carefully cleaned out, since the very pale washes of white look no different from the frosted inner surface of the clear glass, but under magnification it is clear that these palest washes have been replaced by transparent glass. The extraordinary condition of this bottle allows us to see Ding at his height. Both sides are painted with masterpieces of their subjects which are breathtakingly fine in all the languages of Chinese painting, outer and inner.
The landscape is of his more mature, evolved style where abstract formal concerns dominate over pictorial ones, which we discussed under Treasury 4, nos. 542 and 546, and which is even more obvious here. Apart from his mature rock painting, with large and small rocks set off against each other in a formal dance, he has introduced another formal landscape element here in the flat plateaux, of even height, which he attaches to the rock formations on the far bank. Although they depict possible landscape elements, they are used primarily as an abstract foil for the sharply rising, boulder-like forms of the blue coloured rocks, echoed on the other side of these rocks by the horizontal distant mountains washed in grey ink. They allow Ding horizontal elements to balance against the thrusting diagonal forms of the rocks. Another indication of the abstract concerns that dominated Ding's landscape painting in his mid- and late career as a bottle-painter is to be found in the vermilion foliage on the trees, which is echoed as distant trees or shrubs, and even as the foliage on the rocky crags. It is the same colour for all of the foliage, and, indeed, for the solitary building by the lakeshore. Pictorially he might have varied his foliage for all the different trees and shrubs, but by simplifying it all to a single colour for abstract purposes, he signals his main concern. It is the same with the late Chinese landscape painter, Wang Jiqian (C. C. Wang, 1907-2003), who explained that he really had not painted landscapes for years, what he was painting was abstract form. To his audience they look like landscape paintings, but to him the landscape elements were merely a vehicle for the exploration of abstract form. Ding and C. C. Wang would have understood each other perfectly.
On the other main side is one of Ding's many compelling paintings of various symbolic elements including cranes. He painted these birds with enormous flair and skill and we would be tempted to call this his crane masterpiece, if only the others were not so brilliant!
Various symbolic messages are hidden in this design, as always. The cranes, rock and pine all represent longevity and the peonies, wealth (see under Treasury 4, no. 466), but the cranes also represent the attainment of a high position at court (see under Treasury 4, no. 498).
The rocky outcrop on which the cranes are set here, as always with this subject, represents an ideal. Natural rock sculptures of this kind exist in the wild, but whenever found in the post-Tang period, they were usually carried off to grace either the garden estates or the studios of the aesthetic elite. As such they were highly valued, indeed, as studio rock sculptures, they became the most highly valued form of sculptural art in China, losing their ranking only in the face of Western demand which placed its own hierarchy of value on Chinese arts and, during a period of cultural and political confusion in China, came close to swamping the traditional Chinese aesthetic values between the 1860s and 1950s. The rock aesthetic of the ancient tradition is beginning to reassert itself, allowing us to see in these artistic joint works between nature and humankind what the literati once saw in them. Anyone coming across a rock as compelling as the one depicted here would soon shoo away the cranes and cart it off to their home, but in an ideal world such as Ding and other literati painted, every rock could be a masterpiece, every pine a mature, natural sculpture in its own right, and every pair of cranes pose in an abstractly pleasing position, their vermilion crests ideally balancing the seal of the artist who painted them.