T he Important Chinese Art auction presents a tightly curated sale including highlights from two renowned private collections, both of which rank amongst the most sought after within their categories, namely Jades from the De An Tang collection and Gardens of Pleasure – Erotic Art from the Bertholet collection.
The De An Tang is the only private collection of jade ever to have been exhibited in the Forbidden City, at the Yongshou Palace in 2004, and highlights include a magnificent Qianlong Khotan-green jade boulder gilt-inscribed with six imperial poems and a Ming dynasty large yellow jade figure of a camel from the Gerald Godfrey collection.
A magnificent and important gilt-inscribed Khotan-green jade ‘Tingxue Ge on Hanshan’ boulder Qing dynasty, Qianlong period
Snow fittingly comes from Heaven above.
Why does it fall to the bottom of the mountain stream?
Its source cannot be fathomed –
‘A thousand feet’ is but an approximation.
This three-bay-wide pavilion of white wood planks
Takes in all the beauty of the forests and springs:
Pearls and jades shattered and then restored to perfection;
Lutes and zithers sound without end.
Leaves in the stream abound even in winter;
Cliffside flowers blossom in anticipation of spring.
Greeting the eyes is a scene winding and profound;
Soothing to the ears is a silence only just begun.
Here I forget the famous sayings
And cannot regain my composure.
Fish soar amidst the clouds;
The sounding snow lies at the base of the canyon.
High and low are as if inverted,
Forming a remarkable scene such as this.
Descending from Hanshan,
One encounters the beauty of the empty valley.
Beyond the walls is the Fan Gardens,
Where one may rest at a waterside pavilion.
The colours of the peaks and the sounds of the springs
Give me the joy of reacquaintance.
The Buddhist laws all deny present and past;
Sound and image have no beginning or end.
I laugh as I write this line –
Such is chance and nothing more!
This snow is constant through the four seasons,
Descending from the sky into the base of the mountains.
Yet the snow that flutters about like fallen blossoms
Can only be appreciated in winter.
Even reality is sometimes lacking;
Even reputation is sometimes appealing.
For what do I push myself onwards?
For what do I restrain myself to a stop?
Having arrived at a place suitable for listening,
I am truly joyous to hear the sound of snowfall.
In the swirling white and howling wind,
There seems neither beginning nor end.
Having obtained this poem, I will now continue onwards
Although in this tranquility I have yet to wake fully.
Water droplets tumble into the sea;
Moisture sinks to the bottom.
This snow has been constant for a millennium –
Such is its nature indeed.
Not having ascended the riverside pavilion,
I already know the beauty that it contains.
Seated here and listening to the snow,
I am convinced that this scenery is supreme.
One who does not forget is first to worry;
One who loses oneself in wine is last to find joy.
In the all-encompassing white of this snowscape,
What is present, and what is beginning?
Understanding the causes for my encounter with this scene,
I continue in my slumber, trouble-free.
Snow that descends from a thousand feet above
Originates from the bottom of the mountain stream.
Such is the falsehood of reputation and illusion
Like those speaking of seizing the jade disc of Zhao.
How does one measure the dimension of a snowflake?
Reality is of course more beautiful than illusion.
Snowfall in reality sometimes stops;
Snowfall in illusion never ceases.
Yet now illusion seems superior to reality –
I feel joyous as I look upon it.
So I recall the Buddha’s words on nature of the universe:
The burning of grains is the beginning of poverty.
The mountain springs are unaware of this,
Only making gurgling sounds as they always do.
Snowflakes descend freely from heaven.
How do they reach the base of the mountain stream?
The snow of the Sound of Snowfall Pavilion
Blankets it completely and leaves no opening.
The reputation of this snow is superior to its substance –
An order more beautiful by comparison.
Therefore the people of the world
Alike have an endless desire for reputation.
Why do they care that something is untrue in substance,
If they are happy enough only to attain its reputation?
In silent contemplation in the riverside pavilion,
I engage in the investigation of things to arrive at insight.
Yet I do not issue any verbal complaints,
Finding it appropriate simply to brush this poem.
The act of physical love was an important part of the natural order in ancient China. Not only was it the duty of both men and women to maintain the ancestral line, sexual harmony was also regarded as a way of promoting health and vigour. Men of affluence and social standing enjoyed a high degree of sexual freedom, where forms of polygamy and concubinage had been recognised. Houses of pleasure catering to the predilections of an elite clientele flourished, and coupling of all sexualities and genders had been accepted to an extent. Such a climate stimulated the development of a courtesan subculture that would become celebrated by poets and scholars through the centuries. Erotic art would emerge as early as the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), an artform that would become widespread from the 10th century, coupled with the prosperity and growth of trading cities such as Suzhou and Hangzhou, and would reach its height during the late-Ming dynasty (1368-1644), where manifest expressions of erotic beauty remained a feature in literature or manuals.
Gardens of Pleasure – Erotic Art from the Bertholet Collection presents close to 20 works from the world's most important private collection of Chinese erotic art. These many treasures were brought together across a period of more than 40 years by Ferdinand M. Bertholet, an artist and passionate connoisseur who devoted decades of assiduous study to the subject. According to Bertholet: “All of these pieces come from a world which no longer exists; they are the work of expert hands which created them with love and care, and each tells its own story. They express a poetry that enriches human existence and brings the past to life.”
Indeed, through these astonishing works, we as voyeurs gaze into the most intimate spaces of a bygone world. These pieces offer an unparalleled view of sex in the ancient Middle Kingdom, drawing us in with tantalising tales that arouse a sense of fascination or, perhaps, curiosity. These paintings shed light on all aspects of eroticism and intimacy, from explicit scenes of physical love to details of garden interiors, fashions, adornments, and domesticity. It also offers insight into historical concepts of fantasy, beauty, and eroticism, which stand in contrast to the modern mindset.
The garden, celebrated in literature as synonymous with pleasure and leisure, was an extravagance only the upper class could afford, and so remained, in a sense, a place of mystery to the masses. Gardens repeatedly feature as backgrounds to ravenous lovemaking, showcasing entwined branches and even suggestive rock sculptures that echo the lovers’ embrace. They present the ideal setting for an erotic fantasy, flirting along the boundaries of the internal and the external, in spaces that are semi-covered and semi-exposed; the open air entices the lovers to yield to their most carnal desires, and yet the thin screens do little to preclude the prying eyes of the voyeur – a role that we as an audience are invited to play. The myriad open windows and public pavilions that populate the scenes add to the risk of discovery, possibly heightening the exhibitionist impulse.
For the affluent lady, the garden was also one of the few places where it was permissible to have social interactions. Examples from literature illustrate the way the garden is regarded as a haven for the young women of well-to-do families. In the 18th century novel Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong Lou Meng), Jia Yuanchun would, upon her first return home since becoming an Imperial concubine, pay a visit to the celebrated Daguanyuan (Grand View Garden). The garden is an oasis presented in opposition to the stifling intrigues of the Imperial Palace. In the garden, our heroine finds a calm and elegant sanctuary from the outside world. So much of the novel’s action occurs within the place that it underscores the importance of the garden and its association with ideas of liberation and release.
Within Gardens of Pleasure – Erotic Art from the Bertholet Collection, the theme of physical love is interlinked to a greater ideal of freedom, with many of the garden pieces within the present collection projecting a certain Taoist flourish. These gardens may be regarded as the shared domain of both the masculine and feminine, thus liberated from strictures of hierarchy or dominance. In this sense, the union of lovemaking creates a perfect balance in the sex structure.
“Erotic art also reflects that ancient Chinese pursuit of harmony between man and nature,” according to Bertholet.
But perhaps the arresting power of nature is none the more potent than in the exquisite Gardens of Pleasure album formerly in the collection of C.T. Loo (lot 3656), a collection that particularly captured Bertholet’s imagination and attention. The set of eight paintings is not only precious for their meticulous execution done in the style of the late Zhe School – but also provides insight into the social intricacies of the late Ming dynasty.
Take for instance the piece Love Games in a Flowering Garden from the series. In the foreground is a couple in pre-coital embrace, identified by their adornments as a gentleman of social standing and a married lady. The figures are naturalistically rendered with facial features that conform to the traditional ideal of beauty. The silky drapery, exquisite jewellery and tasteful interior design undoubtedly indicate an imperial context. A closer look at clues in the background suggest something provocative about the pairing. Magnolias and peonies deceptively bloom side by side within the painting, which is a fallacy considering how they flower separately throughout the seasons. A blue Taihu rock elegantly balances the piece, and in a moment of insinuation, mirrors the pair’s copulating outlines. The paintings are further enhanced by rich symbolism throughout the album.
Only hands skilled enough to serve the court could have painted these charming scenes with such great detail. The album of eight paintings is most likely to have been produced by a court painter at the Qing Imperial Academy of the Kangxi Emperor. It stands among the finest examples of Chinese erotic artworks. A masterpiece of the highest calibre, Gardens of Pleasure is closely related to an album by an identified court artist Xu Wen (active 1690-1722, d. 1724) from Suzhou. She was summoned to court to participate in the painting project for the Kangxi Emperor’s 60th birthday.
Another highlight from the selection is a complete album of ten paintings with poems by the Suzhou master Wang Sheng (lot 3657), who was active from the late 16th to early 17th centuries and famous for his portrayals of elegant ladies and courtiers at the end of the Ming dynasty. Meticulously painted with fine-tipped brushes, the slender figures are set against backdrops of naturalistically rendered gardens or pavilions highlighted by occasional bold brushstrokes. Painted with technical finesse, the album presents couples engaging in different stages of intimacy, from gentle wooing in full attire to depictions of lovemaking in various positions and settings. The last leaf of the illustration depicts a homoerotic scene and bears the signature of the artist. It is extremely rare to find signed and dated Chinese erotic works, and this is possibly the earliest surviving example by an identifiable artist.
Chinese erotic painting has been largely dismissed or undervalued as an artform, according to art historian James Cahill, because many of the works that have survived to date are typically poor-quality examples of the genre. Gardens of Pleasure and Love Poems by Wang Sheng prove to be the rare counterarguments to that fact, as the presumed imperial commission by the Kangxi Emperor and existence of a reliable artist signature, respectively, attest to the highest level of artistry expressed in these two albums. Indeed the works that make up the renowned Bertholet Collection are famous for their extraordinary quality and importance, many of which have been exhibited at prestigious art institutions such as the Rietberg Museum in Zürich, the Cernuschi Museum in Paris, The Barbican Art Gallery in London, The Museum of Asian Arts in Berlin, The British Museum, and the Berkeley Art Museum.
Gardens of Pleasure – Erotic Art from the Bertholet Collection presents a rare opportunity to experience and acquire masterpieces of the genre, a field in which often more attention is paid to the prurient nature of the subject matter than in the artistic mastery and visual poetry of the works. These are treasures of a distant heritage that decades ago put Bertholet on a “quest that [brought] a new discovery every day.” Perhaps these paintings might also prompt us to see the world anew.
The sale also includes an extremely rare and highly important Northern Wei limestone seated figure of a ‘pensive’ Matreiya formerly from the collections of Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Norman A. Kurland. Other highlights include an extremely rare miniature falangcai ‘boys’ double-gourd vase inscribed with a blue-enamel Qianlong mark, a superb and large blue and white ‘deer’ vase that is reminiscent of Castiglione’s masterwork, and an enchanting group of twenty-one white and green early wares formerly from the collection of Dr Carl Kempe.
Sir Run Run Shaw spent his professional life in the film and television industry, and he was a pioneer in the Chinese-language film industry. The Shaw Foundation Hong Kong, established in 1973 by philanthropist Mr Run Run Shaw, is dedicated to the development and global advancement of education, healthcare, scientific achievements and the arts. Under the guidance of visionaries Mr Run Run Shaw and his wife Mrs Mona Shaw, the Foundation has engaged and partnered with institutions, universities, hospitals and museums scattered across several continents, to bring to fruition more than 6,000 successful projects worldwide. In 2002, Mr and Mrs Shaw founded The Shaw Prize, an international award to honour individuals who achieve significant and distinguished advances in their respective fields. There are three categories to the Prize: Astronomy, Life Science and Medicine, and Mathematical Sciences, all awarded annually in Hong Kong. With a rich history of benevolence, The Shaw Foundation Hong Kong remains committed to furthering the aims of Mr and Mrs Shaw by continuing to focus widely on advancing societal progress and enhancing the quality of daily life for the betterment of society in general.
Old-World Charm from the Kempe Ceramics Collection
This enchanting group of ceramics, formerly in the collection of Dr Carl Kempe, displays an unmistakable old-world collecting flair. Dr Carl Kempe (1884-1967) was a Swedish industrialist, a noted tennis player, who won an Olympic medal, and an avid collector of Chinese art. His collection had two main strands: gold and silver wares and ceramics. The ceramic collection was representing the history of Chinese white wares practically in its entirety, but equally comprised many other types of stoneware and porcelain. It was housed in Kempe’s residence, Ekolsund Castle, a historic building northwest of Stockholm, recorded since the 14th century, that for centuries had served as a royal palace. The collection had largely been formed before the War, a hand-written catalogue had been compiled by Hans Öström already in the 1940s, followed by a printed catalogue written by Bo Gyllensvärd in 1964, when it comprised 900 items. The yellow Kempe labels with their distinctively designed CK logo are unmistakable.
Kempe clearly was not a collector of trophies but an inquisitive mind, whose aim was not only to assemble masterpieces and classics, but equally pieces that still required research. He readily lent to exhibitions, so that pieces from his collection were seen in two of the most important exhibitions of Chinese art of all times, at the Royal Academy of Art in London 1935/6 and at the Palazzo Ducale in Venice 1954; but also several times at the Oriental Ceramic Society in London, of which he was one of the early foreign members; as well as at the Nationalmuseum Stockholm in 1949, the Kunstindustrimuseet Copenhagen in 1950, the Musée Cernuschi Paris in 1956 and elsewhere. Sadly, many pieces included in these early exhibitions can no longer be identified, since the catalogues had few illustrations and only scant descriptions. After Kempe’s death, the collection remained for some time in the family, and a selection toured the United States, starting at Asia House Gallery, New York in 1971. Before eventually being dispersed, it was for some years on display at the East Asian Museum at Ulricehamn, Sweden. The ceramics were sold in 2008 in several highly successful auctions at Sotheby’s in London and Paris, where the prices achieved established a new level of values for Song and earlier stonewares.
Of this famous Kempe collection, these twenty-one white and green wares have remained together as part of a Chinese collection, a small but rather remarkable group that includes two dated vessels (lot 3698 of 977 and lot 3690 of 1089), two items inscribed guan, ‘official’ (lots 3688 and 3692), and several other conspicuous pieces. Noteworthy among the white wares is, for example, the small tripod water vessel with paw feet and lotus décor (lot 3692). It was previously attributed to the Xing kilns of Hebei, and predecessors of similar shape appear to have been made at both the Xing and Ding kilns: one without design, with a more bluish glaze, which leaves the lower part free, was excavated at Dingzhou city, Hebei (Zhongguo gu ciyao daxi. Zhongguo Dingyao/Series of China’s Ancient Porcelain Kiln Sites: Ding Kiln of China, Beijing, 2012, p. 274, fig. 11 bottom); another, also more bluish and plain, excavated in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, has been attributed to the Xing kilns (Zhongguo gu ciyao daxi. Zhongguo Xingyao/Series of China’s Ancient Porcelain Kiln Sites. Xing Kiln of China, Beijing, 2012, p. 375 top). Guan marks, although altogether rare, were also applied at both kiln centres and were remarkably widely distributed, having been found at Tang, Five Dynasties, Liao and Northern Song sites ranging in date from the late 9th to the 11th century. With its fine ivory-toned glaze and delicate lotus design, the present piece is, however, more likely to have been made in the Ding region.
Another Ding piece must be mentioned, the bowl with its charming, crisply moulded decoration of boys frolicking among peonies (lot 3695). Two pieces probably from the same mould are preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei (Dingzhou hua ci. Yuan zang Dingyaoxi baici tezhan/Decorated Porcelains of Dingzhou. White Ding wares from the collection of the National Palace Museum, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2014, nos II-108 and 109), and fragments with very similar motifs were excavated from the Jiancicun site, Dingyao (Zhongguo gu ciyao daxi. Zhongguo Dingyao/Series of China’s Ancient Porcelain Kiln Sites: Ding Kiln of China, Beijing, 2012, p. 289, fig. 62).
One of the earliest green wares in this group is an irresistibly modelled owl vessel, its surface textured by stamping, pricking and incising (lot 3691). It is a rare individually fashioned example from kilns in the Yue region of northern Zhejiang, which otherwise tended to produce in quantity. Gyllensvärd duly featured it in one of the very few large illustrations in his catalogue.
A similarly endearing aspect adheres to another small item, the little vessel with four tubular spouts, whose crackled glaze, however, identifies it as a serious Hangzhou guan product (lot 3703). Variously called a flower or an incense holder, it is in any case a classic Southern Song desk item signalling the exquisite taste of its owner.
Most of the pieces in this group are easy to attribute at our present state of knowledge, so we can correct Gyllensvärd’s misattribution of a celadon bowl to Korea, which would seem to be Chinese (lot 3706). Yet, continuous excavations and the discovery of ever new kiln sites in China raise intriguing new questions. Excavations in Henan province, for example, have brought to light several manufactories – including the imperial Ru kilns of Baofeng – that made wares of Jun type, with blue glazes, with copper-splashed blue glazes and with green glazes, besides the best-known workshops of these wares at Yuntai. What at first glance looks like a classic green Jun bowl in the collection, may well have been made at one of the kiln centres in Ru territory (lot 3699). The Donggou kilns located at Dayu to the east of Ruzhou city, north of Baofeng, yielded not only wares with Jun glazes, but also celadon, white wares, white wares with black painted designs, as well as biscuit-fired pieces and kiln furniture, among them a green-glazed ‘Jun’ bowl of very similar shape as the present piece, but slightly larger (Henan xinchu Song Jin mingyao ciqi tezhan [Special exhibition of porcelains recently excavated from famous Song and Jin kilns in Henan], Poly Art Museum, Beijing, 2009, p. 154 top), and pieces of similar glaze colour and with similar treatment of foot and base, both partially glazed, with a ring on the base wiped nearly free of glaze (Gugong Bowuyuan cang Zhongguo gudai yaozhi biaoben [Specimens from ancient Chinese kiln sites in the collection of the Palace Museum], vol. 1: Henan juan [Henan volume], Beijing, 2005, no. 470). A re-evaluation of his collection in the light of such new discoveries would most likely have pleased its former Swedish owner.