PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT COLLECTION
This extraordinary set of the eighteen luohan, superbly carved in soapstone by Yang Yuxuan and other anonymous masters in the early Qing dynasty, appears to be unique. Preserved in exceptionally good condition, each of the eighteen figures is an outstanding work of art in itself, encapsulating the literati approach of artisans working with this versatile and beautiful material. The figure of Pindola, arguably the finest quality of the set, is signed, but the others all share similar characteristics including the size of the carvings, texture of the stone, and precise approach to the iconography of each of the luohan.
Yang Yuxuan, also known by the names Yang Ji, Xuan and Yu Rei, was a native of Zhangpu, Fujian province, and worked as a stone carver in the provincial capital of Fuzhou. His work was praised by one of his contemporaries, the Fujian official Zhou Lianggong, as follows: 'the excellence of his knife work is equivalent to that done by supernatural beings'. A description found in the district gazette of the Jianpu area of the Kangxi period states that ‘Yang Yuxuan is a capable carver of Shoushan stone. All his figures, birds and animals and his vessels are exquisite in the extreme. Collectors compete to engage him.’ Yang's repertoire included seal finials, figures, birds, animals and vessels. He is known for the delicate and intricate manner of carving and the carving technique known as bo yi (intentionally thin) is said to have been pioneered by him. The bo yi is a light surface carving where the artists cut the stone into blocks and only lightly carve the surface of the stone in order to preserve as much of the original material as possible. Although the carving remains 'skin-deep', the design can be very elaborate. Yang Yuxuan was a prolific carver but only a very small number of his works are signed. Traditionally, while literary artists, such as poets, writers and calligraphers, were highly venerated and were expected to sign their work, craftsmen such as Yang would generally not have carved their signature on a piece unless it was of particular importance.
Examples of Yang Yuxuan’s signed works are preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, suggesting that he was either given specific commissions by the Court, or that his works came to the attention of the Imperial family, either through tributes or gifts. A tianhuang figure of Pindola in the Palace Museum, Beijing (fig. 1), illustrated in Zhongguo Wenwu Qinghua Da Cidian. Jinyin yushi juan [Dictionary of selected Chinese relics: gold, silver, jade and stone], Shanghai, 1996, no. 241, is closely related to the signed figure of Pindola in the current set. The treatment of the physiognomy, folded robes, precise texture of the robes – all clearly stem from the same artistic tradition. Both share the same intricate approach to the treatment of the hair, which radiates out skilfully from the centre, and other similarities including the similar expressions on the face of the luohan and the tiger, and the precise posture of the tiger, depicted turning its head back and obediently gazing up to its master.
For another example of a signed work by Yang Yuxuan preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, see a soapstone figure of Avalokiteshvara illustrated in Yang Boda, Zhongguo Meishu Quanji. Diaosu Bian [The complete series on Chinese Art. Sculpture], Beijing, 1988, vol. 6: Yuan Ming Qing Diaosu [Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties], p. 143, pl. 154, and, pp. 44-45, where the author points out that the manner in which Yang Yuxuan carves the robes, and the cut of the knife itself, is exceptional, in that the cut is diagonal, as opposed to the perpendicular style of most Qing carvers, resulting in a more powerful, realistic effect.
For other signed figures of luohan by Yang Yuxuan, see the soapstone carving of a luohan figure by Yang Yuxuan, originally in the Spencer Churchill collection, Northwick Park, included in the Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong exhibition Arts from the Scholar's Studio, Fung Ping Shan Museum, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1986, cat. no. 45 (fig. 2) , where the treatment of the mark on the reverse precisely matches that on the figure of Pindola in the current set. See also a soapstone figure of Vajraputra from the Mi Yun Hall collection sold in these rooms, 2nd April 2016, lot 3686, a luohan from the Conner Prairie Museum, Indiana, sold at Bonhams Hong Kong, 25th May 2011, lot 366 and another luohan from the Q collection, sold at Bonhams Hong Kong, 25th May 2011, lot 273. Compare also a tianhuang figure of a lion by Yang Yuxuan from the collection of Wu Pu Xin, sold in these rooms, 7th October 2006, lot 916.
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