Chinese Masterpieces through the Ages
FROM THE PRIVATE COLLECTION OF THE LATE SIR JOSEPH HOTUNG
T he late Sir Joseph Hotung (1930-2021) was respected and revered in the art world for both his outstanding jade collection and his philanthropy. He embarked on a lifelong collector's journey following the chance purchase of a pair of Qing dynasty jade bowls in the late 1970s. In the following decades, with passion and perseverance, he managed to assemble a large collection of artworks from different periods and places, including a wide array of Western paintings and an exceptional ensemble of Chinese masterworks, demonstrating not only his eclectic interests but also his discerning taste.
The Personal Collection of Sir Joseph Hotung
Reflections on Sir Joseph Hotung’s Chinese Masterworks
The Bronze Age
Among the top lots of the Hong Kong Evening section is an exceptional silver-inlaid bronze corner-piece from the Warring States period. The fantastic beast, with two winged bodies conjoined at the corner sharing a single head framed by a pair of coiling horns, proudly exhibits its muscular haunches and majestic wings. Detailed with silvery fur and feathers which enhance the illusion of three-dimensionality, this piece epitomises the technical virtuosity of the period.
Endowed with an illustrious provenance, including the Stoclet collection, it was also widely exhibited in prestigious museums from as early as the 1920s, including the Musée Cernuschi, Musée de l'Orangerie and the Royal Academy of Arts.
Another highlight of the sale is a Han dynasty bronze chimera. Powerfully rendered with vitality and strength, it is a tour de force of Chinese bronzes at their peak. In addition to the prestigious Stoclet provenance, the sculpture’s publication and exhibition history can be traced back to as early as the first half of the 20th century, setting it apart from other archaic bronzes in private hands and even the most important museum examples.
This bronze animal, although not monumental in size, has a universal sculptural quality that carries it well beyond the confines of Chinese art. With its imaginative, fanciful physique and dynamic quasi-naturalistic bearing, it can hold a place in any history of world art. The basic image of a mighty but not ferocious animal, depicted in a state of utmost alertness that makes one expect an immediate jump or other rapid movement, expresses qualities valued in any animal sculpture and achieved rarely as strikingly as in this figure.
A Tang Guardian Lion
The Tang dynasty saw an unprecedented blossoming of the arts, resulting from political and military stability and a general openness to foreign trade. Lions were among the most prized tributary items presented to the Tang court by emissaries from the western regions of India and Central Asia. After receiving a lion as tribute from Samarkand in 635, Emperor Taizong (598-649) is recorded to have commissioned a poem in its honour from the court poet Yu Shinan (558-638). Lions were sent from Samarkand, Khotan and as far as the Arabian Peninsula.
This powerfully modelled lion is a magnificent legacy of the high Tang era, remarkable for its naturalistic rendering and its poised yet fierce posture. Its muscles ripple beneath the skin, exemplifying the beast’s vigorous and nimble nature; its ferocity is immediately evident through its piercing eyes and its gaping mouth, which reveals the animal’s teeth. This naturalistic modelling marks an important stylistic shift from the highly stylised and primitive depictions of lions of the preceding Northern Qi (550-577) and Sui (581-618) dynasties and displays the vitality and boldness of Tang sculptures.
Royal Protector from the Dali Kingdom
The superbly modelled 11th to 12th-century gilt-bronze figure of Avalokiteshvara in the collection is the only example in this form known to exist from the Dali Kingdom in southwest China. It exudes the calm confidence of the deity at its most sublime, the rich gilding giving the piece a captivating aura.
Gilt-bronze Buddhist figures such as the present Avalokiteshvara sculpture hold a unique place in the development of Chinese Buddhist sculptures. They are remarkable due to their independent idiosyncratic style, their grace and serenity, and their sheer size. What is known as Acuoye bodhisattvas are mostly standing figures of remarkable stylistic consistency. To find a seated sculpture is extremely rare and the present Guanyin appeals particularly due to its gentle, feminine facial features.
Yuan Dynasty Blue-and-white Porcelain
Vibrantly decorated with a dynamic scene of fishes, the Yuan dynasty blue-and-white jar in the late Sir Joseph Hotung collection is exceptional for its sheer size and fluent brushwork.
Fish among water plants represent one of the most powerful designs of Yuan blue-and-white porcelain. The porcelain painter responsible for the scene on the present jar admirably rendered the serene state of the four fat fishes, grouped in pairs, silently floating through water plants, seemingly at total ease in their surroundings. Even without the historic philosophical reading of this motif, the scene emanates an air of peace and contentment, transferring the viewer to the idyllic scenery of a lake in the Jiangnan region of south-eastern China, whose still surface is covered with large green lotus leaves and their ravishing white and pink flowers and whose clear waters are teeming with golden-orange and silvery-blue fish.
The aesthetic sensitivity and technical innovation of the Yuan dynasty potters are also evident in the blue-and-white charger in the present sale, featuring a single carp among dense aquatic vegetation within moulded decorative borders.
This dish is unique and was done with an attention to detail that is exceptional even among this rare group of relief-moulded dishes of the Yuan dynasty. Not only is its relief decoration extraordinarily crisp and detailed, but the popular fish design is here also rendered in a highly individual manner that knows few close comparisons. It is a masterpiece that combines the best and rarest Yuan blue-and-white styles.
Yongle Imperial Lacquer
The large Yongle-marked box and cover, painstakingly carved on the top and around the sides with dense and elegant floral designs, testify to the unparalleled technical excellence of lacquerware in the early Ming dynasty, when the most skilled craftsmen were recruited to produce wares for the imperial house. The large box and cover rank amongst the most desirable of lacquerwares and appear on the market for the first time in over two decades.
The present box with its superbly laid-out and executed lush floral design and impressive size is an exceptionally powerful work of art. Unlike porcelain, carved lacquer ware with its extremely labour-intensive production process, did not lend itself to production in large series and is altogether much rarer; but the carved lacquer craft underwent a similar development as the contemporary porcelain industry. Relentless court intervention and supervision in the Yongle period (1403-24) led to a dramatic increase in quality without stifling artistic ingenuity. Like with blue-and-white porcelain, artists at the Yongle court appear to have refined the designs which were sent to the workshops to manufacture. Many of these Yongle products seem to have been intended not to furnish the imperial palace but to serve as diplomatic gifts to foreign sovereigns. An important Ming document that records presents from the court of the Yongle Emperor to the Ashikaga Shogun of Japan, shows that between 1403 and 1407 the Chinese court sent 203 pieces of carved red lacquer to the Japanese ruler. As auspicious flowers symbolizing wealth and honour, peonies were the perfect design for such gifts.
A Purple Bloom from the Early Ming Dynasty
The narcissus bowl encapsulates the essence of early Ming dynasty Jun ware which derives its beauty and minimalist aesthetics from its simple yet robust form and inimitable luminous glaze. The result of the tonal variations and intensity of the glaze depends heavily on the firing, making each narcissus bowl a unique work of art. No two Jun vessels are alike and the uncertainty of the final outcome – as though created by nature – plays a vital role in their desirability. The thick opalescent blue on the interior of the present vessel merges with the red of the copper-bearing glaze on the outside, creating a dazzling variegated purplish effect in brilliant tones of mauve, lavender and plum. Creating such a captivating and exuberant colouration is undoubtedly an exceptional artistic achievement, making this narcissus bowl one of the most alluring and outstanding extant examples of its type.
The Portable Seat of Power
Folding horseshoe-back armchairs, perhaps the most highly sought after of all items of Ming furniture, are among the most striking and most highly celebrated designs created by Chinese carpenters. Conceived to be folded for easy transport, these portable chairs were naturally more prone to damage than other pieces of furniture; few, therefore, could withstand the test of time, making extant examples extremely precious.
Jiaoyi, the term for ‘folding chairs’ in Chinese, literally means ‘crossed chair’, with reference to their intersecting legs. The Chinese phrase diyi ba jiaoyi, ‘the first taking the jiaoyi’, which is still in use, implies the highest-ranking person of an assembly who sits in a prominent position.
The Artistry of Qi Baishi
The selection of fine Chinese paintings comprises works by ink artists from the late Qing dynasty through the modern era such as Fu Baoshi and Cheng Shifa. The star lot is Fruits and Flowers by Qi Baishi, a set of four hanging scrolls, each measuring a monumental 2.8 m in height. The complex intertwining branches and luscious fruits produce exuberant images of vitality, while the motifs are all auspicious symbols of health and fertility.