The Art of Paint­ing Snuff Bot­tles

A big world is de­picted in­side small, inch-sized snuff bot­tles. View­ers mar­vel at th­ese ex­quis­ite works with won­der.

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Wu Li Edited by Scott Bray

Clear and translu­cent, snuff bot­tles used to be a sym­bol of so­cial sta­tus and ap­pear­ance. They were given by em­per­ors as presents, en­joyed by no­bil­ity as lux­u­ries and pre­sented as spe­cial gifts on im­por­tant so­cial oc­ca­sions. Of all the pocket-sized works of art that in­volve more than one tra­di­tional Chi­nese craft, snuff bot­tles are un­doubt­edly best known for their di­ver­sity of ma­te­ri­als used, de­sign and ex­quis­ite work­man­ship.

Chi­nese “in­side paint­ing” first ap­peared in snuff bot­tles, which were painted with land­scapes, fig­ures and bustling street life on the in­side. In that by­gone era, such paint­ings were called “works of spir­its,” for they were be­lieved to be too com­pli­cated to be cre­ated by hu­man hands. Oth­ers be­lieved that in or­der to cre­ate such a paint­ing, the pain­ter must be ly­ing on the ground. In truth, the snuff bot­tle is held in the pain­ter’s hand as the work is cre­ated.

In­side paint­ing as a craft came to be dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty (1644–1911) over 200 years ago. Its emer­gence is in­sep­a­ra­ble from the pro­duc­tion of trans­par­ent glass and the skills and tech­nol­ogy to cre­ate hol­low cav­i­ties. Glass, crys­tal, cit­rine, am­ber, and trans­par­ent and light- coloured agate are all ma­te­ri­als com­monly used in mak­ing in­side-painted snuff bot­tles. Re­gard­less of their value, all th­ese ma­te­ri­als are clear and trans­par­ent. By pol­ish­ing the in­side

wall with grains of iron sand or emery pow­der mixed with wa­ter, ar­ti­sans pro­duce a frosted sur­face sim­i­lar to rice paper that is per­fect for paint­ing— even with re­fracted light, the paint­ings aren’t af­fected at all. When com­pleted, the painted an­i­mals and birds look very vivid, and the girls un­de­ni­ably grace­ful.

Su­perb crafts­man­ship is re­quired for in­side paint­ing. To paint in­side a small snuff bot­tle, the artist must use a spe­cially-made pen or brush with a fine hook-shaped tip. The brush is dipped in paint, and strokes are made on the in­side wall in re­verse. An artist must have very solid paint­ing skills— the small mouth of the bot­tle and its nar­row in­te­rior cav­ity make it dif­fi­cult to freely move the brush, let alone ac­tu­ally see where the brush is go­ing. This type of paint­ing ne­ces­si­tates a bold, yet cau­tious hand. Skilled in­side paint­ing artists seem to have an in­nate tal­ent for giv­ing full play to their bold imag­i­na­tion while be­ing metic­u­lous in their work’s de­tails. With such tra­di­tional Chi­nese art sub­jects as fig­ures, land­scape, flow­ers and birds all com­ing to life in­side the hum­bleyet- ex­quis­ite snuff bot­tle that hardly takes up half a palm, it is no won­der that th­ese in­side paint­ings fre­quently im­press peo­ple with their el­e­gance.

Ten years ago, in­side paint­ing was in­cluded on the na­tional in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage list. This tra­di­tional art form has de­vel­oped even more through the ef­forts of in­her­i­tors of the craft in Bei­jing, He­bei, Shan­dong, and Guang­dong. No longer are in­side paint­ings seen in snuff bot­tles alone. They also ap­pear in teapots, tea cad­dies, pen hold­ers, screens, oc­tagon vases, scent bot­tles, ash­trays and crys­tal balls. Skilled crafts­men from var­i­ous re­gions of China, cre­ate all kinds of paint­ings and cal­lig­ra­phy on th­ese small ob­jects. In­side paint­ing has be­come a bright pearl in the his­tory of Chi­nese arts and crafts.

The Bei­jing School Masters of In­side Paint­ing

The ori­gin of in­side-painted snuff bot­tles re­mains a mys­tery. Sto­ries have it that a young Chi­nese pain­ter from the south of the Five Ridges named Gan Juwen in­vented this art­form.

Of course, there is also an­other story. In the later years of the Qian­long pe­riod (reign: 1736–1795) of the Qing Dy­nasty, there was a poor scholar in Bei­jing who stayed at an old tem­ple. He lived in poverty but was ad­dicted to snuff. Look­ing to quell his crav­ings, he turned to a used snuff bot­tle, scrap­ing its in­ner wall. As a re­sult, some lines were left on the in­side wall. Later, when a tem­ple monk found the bot­tle, he was in­spired by the lines and be­gan to paint in­side the bot­tle with a curved bam­boo stick in his spare time. In so do­ing, the monk cre­ated the first in­side-painted snuff bot­tle.

The story of the monk made the craft in­ex­orably linked with Bei­jing. In 1696, Em­peror Kangxi (reign: 1662–1723), him­self a snuff en­thu­si­ast, es­tab­lished the first glass fac­tory in China to pro­duce snuff bot­tles, which were given as gifts to his min­is­ters and for­eign am­bas­sadors. Dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Qian­long, am­ber, co­ral, agate, crys­tal and bam­boo root were used in ad­di­tion to glass and porce­lain to make snuff bot­tles. At the end of the Qian­long pe­riod, in­side paint­ing helped pro­mote snuff bot­tle pro­duc­tion to a level so high that it was known world­wide as an in­cred­i­ble and divine art. Be­tween the late Qing Dy­nasty and the early Repub­lic of China pe­riod (around 1890 to 1945), the pro­duc­tion of in­side painted-snuff bot­tles reached its peak in Bei­jing. At that time, there ap­peared a group of in­side paint­ing masters ap­peared, the most prom­i­nent be­ing Zhou Leyuan, Ding Erzhong (1868–1935), Ma Shaox­uan and Ye Zhongsan (1875–1945). The works of th­ese folk ar­ti­sans rep­re­sented the charm of Bei­jing-school in­side paint­ing in its early devel­op­ment.

Of its nu­mer­ous masters, Ye Zhongsan was recog­nised as the “founder” of the Bei­jing school. His paint­ings are char­ac­terised by sim­ple de­sign, bright colours and a dis­tinc­tive style that caters to both pop­u­lar and high art tastes. Ye’s paint­ings in­clude land­scapes, in­sects, fish and fig­ures. He was par­tic­u­larly good at de­pict­ing fig­ures from Chi­nese lit­er­ary clas­sics and his­tor­i­cal sto­ries. He of­ten based his paint­ings on char­ac­ters from such Chi­nese clas­sics as The Ro­mance of the Three King­doms, A Dream of Red Man­sions, Strange Sto­ries from a Chi­nese Stu­dio and The In­vesti­ture of the Gods. All the fig­ures in Ye’s paint­ings, re­gard­less of gen­der or age, are de­picted to have a short, round face and a cres­centshaped mouth to show their ra­di­ance. In or­der to not ap­pear too dull, clothes are usu­ally painted in heavy or light colours to bring out their hue. When de­pict­ing leaves and grass, Ye of­ten dipped his blunt-tipped wil­low pen into a very bright green paint, tak­ing great care to paint the leaves or grass as cir­cu­lar at the edge and hol­low in the cen­tre, grad­u­ally form­ing his own dis­tinc­tive style. Ye’s de­scen­dants Ye Xiaofeng and Ye Bengqi in­her­ited the fam­ily pro­fes­sion, lay­ing a foun­da­tion for the for­ma­tion and devel­op­ment of the in­side paint­ing schools of Bei­jing and He­bei.

The mas­ter Zhou Leyuan de­voted much of his time and en­ergy to de­pict­ing the moun­tains and rivers in the re­gions south of the Yangtze River. A three-part com­po­si­tion is fre­quently ba­sis of Zhou’s paint­ings: river­banks lined with wil­lows in the fore­ground, the river‘s wa­ters at the cen­tre and dis­tant moun­tains mak­ing up the paint­ing’s back­ground. When in the fore­ground, Zhou’s moun­tains and rocks were painted to high­light their shades and tex­ture, a tech­nique com­monly seen in tra­di­tional Chi­nese land­scape paint­ings.

De­spite oc­ca­sion­ally be­ing rather colour­ful, Zhou’s paint­ings usu­ally fo­cused on the use of a sin­gle colour. Among the Palace Mu­seum’s col­lec­tion are many of Zhou’s snuff bot­tles. One par­tic­u­lar round bot­tle is no taller than 4.1 cen­time­tres (cm), with a mere 2.3 cm max­i­mum di­am­e­ter. Its en­tire in­te­rior is com­posed of two scenes, “The Re­turn of a Fish­er­man” and “A House by the River­bank,” both metic­u­lously printed on the in­side wall of that small bot­tle.

Among the masters of in­side paint­ing, the dis­tinc­tive style of Ma Shaox­uan is eas­ily recog­nis­able. Ma’s paint­ings cover

a wide range of sub­jects, with a fo­cus on works of Chi­nese cal­lig­ra­phy, an­tiques and fig­ures. Ma’s de­pic­tion of paper paint­ings and cal­lig­ra­phy in par­tic­u­lar are sec­ond to none among the masters of in­side paint­ing. He fre­quently painted reg­u­lar script cal­lig­ra­phy works by fa­mous cal­lig­ra­phers Wang Xizhi (AD 303–361) and Ouyang Xun (AD 557–641), some of which used poetic lines in the hand­writ­ing style of Wang and Ouyang, while oth­ers are di­rectly quoted from Wang’s Lant­ing xu (“preface to the po­ems col­lected from the Or­chid Pavil­ion”) and Ji­ucheng­gong li­quan­ming (“tablet in­scrip­tion of the Sweet Spring in Ji­ucheng Palace”) by Ouyang.

De­spite pos­sess­ing their own and dis­tinc­tive in­di­vid­ual styles, the masters of the Bei­jing school have much in com­mon. Most in­te­rior paint­ing artists of the Bei­jing school used bam­boo or wil­low pens un­til the 1960s, which de­ter­mined the char­ac­ter­is­tics of their paint­ings. Paint­ings cre­ated with bam­boo pens show stiff lines and round con­clud­ing strokes, while brush paint­ings take on heav­ier colours and look more el­e­gant. Paint­ings of the Bei­jing school are in strik­ing con­trast with those of the Shan­dong school, whih fea­ture del­i­cate strokes and bright colours from soft-hair brushes.

The Dis­tinc­tive He­bei School Style

Heng­shui, He­bei, home to the He­bei school of in­side paint­ing was named “Home of Chi­nese in­side paint­ing” by the Min­istry of Cul­ture. Wang Xisan, founder of the He­bei school, be­gan learn­ing in­side paint­ing from Ye Xiaofeng and Ye Bengqi as an ap­pren­tice of the Ye fam­ily in 1958.

While in­her­it­ing the sim­ple and el­e­gant style fo Ye, Wang also used the tra­di­tional del­i­cate and smooth del­i­cate tech­niques of Shan­dong school painters. Tex­ture-high­light­ing, brush­ing, dot­ting, pol­ish­ing, sketch­ing, ris­ing and other tech­niques in tra­di­tional Chi­nese paint­ing also find their way into Wang’s paint­ing. Th­ese tech­niques are given fullest play by Wang as he de­picts dif­fer­ent ob­jects— the tex­tures of rocks and moun­tains are shown through light ink strokes, while dis­play­ing pro­gres­sive shades and dot­ting clothes with paint.

In 1980, a Cana­dian col­lec­tor asked Wang Xisan to cre­ate a por­trait of Je­sus for him. Af­ter Wang fin­ished the work us­ing tra­di­tional Chi­nese paint­ing tech­niques, he found him­self un­sat­is­fied with the re­sult. A novel idea then oc­curred to him to make an­other at­tempt us­ing oil paints, but to his dis­may the oils did not hold well to the in­side wall and his brush was not par­tic­u­larly suited to the task ei­ther. Af­ter over a year of re­peated ex­per­i­ments, Wang fi­nally mas­tered the tech­niques of in­side oil paint­ing in 1981, break­ing the tra­di­tion of us­ing only ink to com­plete in­side paint­ings and bring­ing the dis­ci­pline to a higher level in de­sign, form and spirit. What Wang ac­com­plished has been called an in­no­va­tion in “com­bin­ing Chi­nese and West­ern tech­niques.”

Wang’s con­tri­bu­tion to in­side paint­ing lies not only in pro­mot­ing the art to an un­prece­dented level, but in his found­ing of the He­bei school. The He­bei school has formed a dis­tinc­tive style in terms of its metic­u­lous paint­ing tech­niques and ex­quis­ite de­sign, char­ac­terised by its pro­found mean­ing, rhyth­mic vi­tal­ity, del­i­cate com­po­si­tion and rich and el­e­gant colours, as well as the com­bi­na­tion of paint­ing and writ­ing.

The style of a paint­ing is de­ter­mined by the tool. Bam­boo and wil­low pens with a hook-shaped tip were pri­mar­ily used by the Ye masters. The Bam­boo pens were of­ten used to de­pict rocks and lines, while wil­low pens were for high­light­ing shades and colour­ing. In 1958, Xue Jing­wan, a pain­ter of the Shan­dong school, im­proved the tra­di­tional bam­boo pen by ty­ing a small brush to the tip to en­hance its fi­nal ef­fect. But the tip of the bam­boo pen was too fine to hold the brush for long, the brush of­ten fell off or broke dur­ing paint­ing. Af­ter notic­ing cut­ting wire, Wang Xisan was in­spired and in­vented a brush with a me­tal han­dle. The han­dle could bent and turned out to be more flex­i­ble, solid and durable than those pre­vi­ously used by Shan­dong artists. This met­al­han­dled brush be­came a tool typ­i­cal of He­bei school painters.

Nowa­days, in spite of us­ing the same tool for paint­ing, both old artists and young painters alike within the He­bei school are ac­tive in break­ing the lim­i­ta­tions of in­side paint­ing, show­ing

their dis­tinc­tive styles and ex­e­cut­ing their own artis­tic con­cepts. It is a field in which a galaxy of tal­ents has ap­peared . Wang Guanyu is known for a bold and un­re­strained style, creat­ing mag­nif­i­cent and poetic works such as San­quan tu— qi­wang (“three dogs—ex­pec­ta­tion”), Bai­jun tu (“one hun­dred fine horses”) and Shaolu tu (“deer hunt­ing”). Dong Xue is known for his solid paint­ing and light colours, whose rep­re­sen­ta­tive works in­clude Deng Xiaop­ing Xiaox­i­ang (“por­trait of Deng Xiaop­ing”) and Sida ming­dan xiaox­i­ang (“por­trait of four fa­mous Pek­ing Opera per­form­ers”), im­mac­u­lately com­posed and full of tex­ture. Zhang Ru­cai holds his own in fig­ure paint­ings. His por­traits of ladies have smooth, pleas­ing lines, de­pict­ing quiet and el­e­gant women. The fig­ures in his rep­re­sen­ta­tive paint­ing Ting Qin (“lis­ten­ing to the zither play­ing”) are del­i­cately and vividly de­picted. The art of in­side paint­ing is mar­vel­lously dis­played within a small snuff bot­tle.

The Devel­op­ment and Con­tin­u­ance of the Tian­jin School

Af­ter in­side paint­ing first ap­peared in Bei­jing, it was not long be­fore it also came to Tian­jin. As tra­di­tional Chi­nese paint­ing de­vel­oped in Tian­jin as a school, in­side paint­ing also formed its own dis­tinc­tive style there. Tian­jin­style Chi­nese paint­ings high­light the cul­tural char­ac­ter of mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary Tian­jin while striv­ing to re­pro­duce the essence of tra­di­tional art and cul­ture. So­cial life and artis­tic taste are both im­por­tant. In this re­gard, Tian­jin’s in­side paint­ings are no dif­fer­ent, yet they also show re­gional char­ac­ter­is­tics, ab­sorb­ing use­ful lo­cal el­e­ments while ap­peal­ing to both re­fined and pop­u­lar taste.

Wang Xin­nian, a mas­ter of arts and crafts, has en­gaged in in­side paint­ing for more than 30 years. He is an in­her­i­tor of the in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage that is in­side paint­ing. Wang’s bot­tle paint­ings are char­ac­terised by their elab­o­rate colour­ing, ex­quis­ite de­sign, and el­e­gant style. He com­bines tra­di­tional Chi­nese paint­ing tech­niques with more mod­ern oil paint­ing, cul­mi­nat­ing in a style derived from var­i­ous kinds of paint­ings. Wang ex­cels in de­pict­ing an­i­mals. In re­cent years, Wang has been ac­tively par­tic­i­pat­ing in all kinds of ac­tiv­i­ties pop­u­lar­is­ing snuff bot­tle paint­ing, ex­plain­ing the­o­ries and demon­strat­ing the tech­niques used in dif­fer­ent forms of paint­ing.

To carry the ex­tra­or­di­nary art of in­side paint­ing for­ward, He­bei school mas­ter Wang Xisan, with the help of his son Wang You­san, es­tab­lished the “Xisan In­dus­trial Art Sec­ondary Vo­ca­tional School” and the “Ex­hi­bi­tion Cen­tre of Chi­nese In­side Paint­ing,” while con­tribut­ing to the artis­tic stan­dards and devel­op­ment of the He­bei school of in­side paint­ing. Sim­i­lar ef­forts are also be­ing made in Bei­jing.

Con­ven­tion­ally, in­side paint­ing is known as an art that fea­tures del­i­cate­ness, metic­u­lous­ness, exquisite­ness and pop­u­lar styles. But new con­cepts have been ap­pear­ing. A mas­ter in the field named Liu Yizi first put for­ward the idea of “new in­side paint­ing” in a He­bei In­side Paint­ing Train­ing Class or­gan­ised in 1994, em­pha­sis­ing that the tra­di­tional art should be in­ter­preted from a mod­ern artis­tic per­spec­tive, chang­ing the present di­rect copy­ing and vul­gar at­ti­tude to­ward art cre­ation through a free and cre­ative spirit.

Over 20 years later, the con­cept of new in­side paint­ing has seen wide ac­cep­tance. Painters have also been qui­etly chang­ing ideas and tech­niques. By com­bin­ing Chi­nese and West­ern styles and in­te­grat­ing an­cient and mod­ern el­e­ments in their art, artists have in­tro­duced ab­strac­tion, trans­for­ma­tion, ex­ag­ger­a­tion, and other tech­niques to their works, bring­ing new vi­tal­ity to the form. This vi­tal­ity is bloom­ing in in­side paint­ings across China.

Pho­tos by Zhang Xin

Liu Shouben, a mas­ter of the Bei­jing School of paint­ing in­sides of snuff bot­tles

Snuff bot­tles with var­i­ous paint­ings de­signs

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.