Liu Songnian: "Three Sages Appreciating Antique"
3.11.2013. Works of art drifts past on the assembly line of my never-ending inventory. Photos taken. Numbers assigned. Associated scraps of paper recorded. My knowledge of history is thin. Unless a piece ranks as one of Jim's all-time favorites, its importance goes unassessed. It is just one of the flock to be tended by this sleepy shepherd. Then one day, it grabs me.
I didn't pay much of any attention to this painting until I was listing out names of Asian painters in our collection to see if they had Wikipedia articles. This "Liu Sung-nien" seemed to be an orphan. It wasn't till I was googling around in preparation for writing my own, that I realized I needed to use modern transliteraiton: "Liu Songnian." Ah! Not such nobody after all!
In the 12th century, while Catholic Europe busied itself with cathedrals and crusades, the Emperor Gaozong (after invasions and military defeats in the north) established a new seat of government at Hangzhou, just southwest of modern Shanghai. This became known as the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). Smarting from the loss of half his empire, Gaozong set about recapturing much of what he could of the cultural brilliance that had illuminated his father's court in the north. On the top of his list was re-establishing the Imperial Academy of Painting and re-hiring its painters.
The Southern Song empire was living under the constant threat of invasion, but the Academy painters stuck to tasteful and consoling themes: landscapes, birds, flowers and scenes from palace life. Another favorite theme was the scholar at leisure--depictions of the ideal scholar-gentleman, the official at ease in a lovely setting enjoying cultural pursuits. [Sickman and Soper]
It is in this tradition that Liu Songnian (1174–1224 CE) joined the Academy at the end of the 12th century, where he advanced from student to painter-in-attendance. He is now recognized as one of the four master painters of the Southern Song Dynasty. Our painting is about 800 years old.
It depicts the theme of the scholar-gentleman. Exhibited as "Testing of the Bell," the title is literally "Three Sages Appreciating Antique." The piece is about 12 x 15 inches and painted on silk, with calligraphy on three sides.
Jim purchased it in 1965 from William Clayton, a London art dealer. On the back of the mat was an undated newspaper article by poet and art historian Laurence Binyon,* who reviewed the painting when it was on exhibit at the Spink & Son gallery at some earlier date.**
The most interesting piece [in the gallery show] is a little picture called Testing the Bell.... I do not remember having seen this subject before, though it is likely to be a traditional motive [sic]. The subtle aroma of Chinese aestheticism is communicated in the listening attitude of the connoisseur, a sense of hush and of vibrating sound; and the grouping is made the occasion of an attractive design...
The picture does have an air of fussy sweetness: the sages make their assessment while the maker (?) looks eager for their favor.
I wish I had a better facility for creating excitement around works of art. I can't get much past the "Holy cow!" But I'm hoping that by sharing what we have, I'll encourage someone else.