Like all connoisseurs in imperial China, the 17th-century playwright Li Yu took very seriously the art of displaying fine pieces: “Displaying objects in the correct way is as essential as promoting talented people to a high position” [1]. He recorded his views on every aspect of elegant living, ranging from architecture to the arrangement of items on the desk. Some of his views are baroque and may have been controversial at the time. He had a taste for opulent visual effects such as irregular polygons of wallpaper patched together to imitate the surface of cracked porcelain. Such inventions would probably have been termed su (vulgar) Wen Zhenheng, gentleman scholar and author of the Treaty of superfluous things [2]. But all agreed that providing a worthy environment for treasured objects was an important part of a collector’s activity. In particular, finding a display stand was a way to participate in the creation of the work of art, considered as a continuous process that could span several centuries, and imply the collector as well as the artist.

The Yongzheng emperor (r. 1723-1735) commissioned the famous set of painted scrolls known as Guwan tu (Playful things) to serve as a visual catalogue of imperial collections. Several of the scrolls are still extant, and hardly any piece is depicted without a stand. Some antique bronze vessels are fitted with wooden stands (and covers) of more recent manufacture. Indeed regular commissions of stands are recorded in the imperial archives. Genre paintings, illustrations of novels and depictions of the hundred antiques confirm the extensive use of display stands in the classical Chinese living environment, not necessarily in an imperial context.

 

 

Display stands as a brief history of Chinese furniture and taste:

Beauty and practicality were combined in stands. They provided stability to meiping vases and rocks of elaborate forms, some of which defy gravity. Even though the stand was not meant to distract the viewer from the contemplation of the object, it could complement it by a continuity of style, or by deliberate contrast between materials (through the association of a hardwood stand to a bamboo object, for instance).

The best display stands share all the characteristics of antique Chinese furniture. The craftsmanship obeys the same rules: it is based on mortise-and-tenon joinery, with minimal use of glue, if any. Wooden stands can therefore serve as witnesses of the artistic evolution of Chinese furniture.

The materials are just as refined in stands as in full-scale pieces of furniture. The rarest tropical hardwoods, such as huanghuali, come from slowly-growing trees. The small scale of stands makes them natural candidates for the use of finely-grained but small pieces of wood. When tropical woods started to be imported in large quantities in China in the late Ming dynasty, the taste of the literati was dominated by the purity of simple geometric shapes. The patterns of the highly-figured grain of huanghuali was termed ke ai gui mian (adorable demon faces) by Ming scholars. In some Ming-style stands, the grain of the wood is the only ornament of the piece, which lends them a surrealist quality. Their appeal therefore reaches far beyond the culture in which they were produced. On the other hand, stands made during the Qianlong era of the Qing dynasty (1736-1796) combine dramatic effects such as asymmetry and contrast between essences of wood, to ornaments that range from archaic patterns inspired by antique bronzes and jades to symbols treated realistically.

Moreover, the distinction between furniture and stands is ultimately conventional. The two categories are almost merged by the existence of miniature tables, which can be considered as self-sufficient works of art, or as stands. There is a continuum of scales between the corner-legged stands and the smallest kang tables.

Another border-line case between stands and furniture is the duobaoge, or multiple-treasure shelf, a type of shelf with irregular compartments, each fitted to display one object. The smallest extant duobaoge function well as table-top cabinets, and almost fit into the category of scholar’s object. On the other hand, a duobaoge can take the proportions of a floor-to-ceiling display shelf. Examples of architectural proportions can still be seen in the Palace Museum in Beijing [3], and are described with minute precision in Dream of the Red Chamber, the well-known 18th century novel by Can Xueqin.

 

Displaying collections, collecting display stands:

The interest for display stands as collector’s items is therefore artistically grounded in the exquisite craftsmanship that matches the quality of the works of arts they were meant to support. It should also be noted that market forces have recently triggered this interest, and will continue to do so. The scholarship on Chinese furniture developed extensively since the American embargo on mainland China was lifted in 1972. The corresponding market went global and commanded increasingly high prices. Since the Wang Shixiang collection was exposed in the Shanghai Museum, it has become increasingly difficult for the private collector to acquire genuine pieces of Classical Chinese furniture, even though the amount of knowledge available from the literature and from museums enables connoisseurs to develop and refine their taste.

As a result, the attention of demanding collectors has been attracted to smaller pieces that retain all the features of classical Chinese furniture, even though they have been separated from the objects they once supported. Chinese wooden stands have now developed as a autonomous collecting field, with outstanding published collections documenting Ming and Qing stands in a variety of woods [4].

contemporary collectors can speculate, as an educated guess, about the nature of the object for which some one-of-a-kind stands were made. Once can even pursue the archeological dream of reuniting a stand to a matching object, thereby continuing the Chinese tradition of involving the beholder in the life of a work of art.

 

References:

[ 1 ] J. Dars, Les carnet secrets de Li Yu, un art du bonheur en Chine (2009), Éditions Philippe Picquier.

[ 2 ] Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things, Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China. University of Hawaii Press (2004).

[ 3 ] Forbidden City Publishing House, Interior design in the Forbidden City.

[ 4 ] P. Mak, The Art of Chinese Wooden Stands, the Songde Tang collection, University Museum and Art Gallery, the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

如古代中国许多鉴藏家一样,明末清初的著名文学家以及剧作家李渔对于陈列器玩秉持着一种非常审慎的态度:位置器玩与位置人才同一理也。设官授职者,期于人地相宜;安器置物者,务在纵横得当。

李渔的这一观点在其生活美学的所有方面都有所体现,包括对于家居的摆放以及案头器物的陈列。纵然他的一些言论在当时标怪立异,譬如他将剪裁下来不规则的多边形的壁纸拼凑成冰裂纹置于墙上以追求繁复华美的视觉效果,这一类发明可能被当时的文人,例如著有《长物志》的文人雅士文震亨称之为俗。

但是,将珍贵的器玩妥善陈列并置于适当这一重要的收藏传统为人所共识。尤其是收藏家为器玩寻求契合的陈列座子以提升其观赏价值这一行为本身就是融入了艺术的再创造之中,将艺术创造这一过程延续至几个世纪之后,收藏家同时也在其中转变为艺术家的角色。

雍正帝(1723-1735)曾下旨绘制一组《古玩图》,以图录的形式纪录宫廷收藏,如今仍有少幅存世,画中几乎所有绘制的珍贵物件都配有合适的座子陈列。一些古铜器配有后世量身定做的木座(以及木盖)。同样,在用以描绘传统中国古代生活场景的风俗画中,可以看到上百例用以陈列器玩的座子,可以想见座子在当时被广泛使用,并不仅限于宫廷之内。

中国传统家具及审美趣味的完美折射:

每一个陈列座子都兼具美与实用性。他们以自身为置放梅瓶或山子摆件提供足够的稳定,甚至有一些巧夺天工的座子能够挑战重力。纵使座子的目的并不旨在吸引观赏者对于摆件的注意力,然而它通过与摆件形式上的呼应或者与摆件材质上微妙的反差,恰恰能突出陈列于其上的摆件的观赏效果来吸引观赏者的注意(例如硬木座子与竹雕摆件的组合)。

最佳的陈列座子具有中国古代家具的一切优秀品质。它们的工艺遵从相同的传统与法式:完全基于木榫结构并最少量的使用粘合剂。木质座子因此也见证着中国家具艺术转变的进程。木雕座子所使用的材料也与大尺寸的家具同样珍贵,例如生长十分缓慢的珍稀热带硬木黄花梨。而小尺寸的座子使一些虽然体积不大却木纹优美的木料自然而然地成为最佳候选。

晚明时期,热带木料大量进口国内,届时文人对于木雕的品味更注重纯正简约的天然几何纹饰,例如黄花梨上形似人物的木纹即被明代文人称为“可爱鬼面”。在一些明式木座中,天然的木纹是仅有的装饰,这同样赋予明式座子一丝超现实主义的气息。因此它们的吸引力超脱于当时所处的文化直到现在。而另一方面,清乾隆时期(1736-1796)所制作的木座将一些戏剧化的效果例如不对称以及木材之间的对比组合融入木座的装饰中,并借鉴古铜器与古玉器上的纹饰进行仿古图案的设计。

 

并且,家具与木座之间的区别最终只是基于习惯上。由于小型几座这样介于艺术品与木座之间的存在,这两种品类几乎没有分别,从小的方形木座到大的炕案可以找出一个木座与家具之间完整的连续性。

 

另一个介于两者之间的例子是多宝阁,多宝阁是一种具有多个不规则格子的陈列架,每一个格子对应一种器玩摆件。现存最小的多宝阁与陈列柜一样,适合文房用具的陈列。另一方面,多宝阁能成为分割从地面到房顶空间的陈列架,至今在北京故宫博物院仍能看到这一建筑式样,而其装饰的图案则是18世纪曹雪芹著名的小说——《红楼梦》。

 

价值不菲的藏品展示佳物:

因此,收藏者对于陈列木座的兴趣在于其能与座上陈列器玩所媲美的精美工艺,值得注意的是,近来市场的推动也同样触发了收藏木座的热潮,并会延续下去。

自从1972年美国对中国大陆的贸易禁运令取消之后,对于中国家具的研究也快速发展起来。相应的家具市场也走向全球化,价格也不断走高。

王世襄的红木家具收藏曾在上海博物馆展览,而继他之后,即使收藏家能够从文献以及博物馆中能得到相关的知识并提升自身对于传统家具的品味,对于个人收藏者来说,已经越发困难去寻找和购买像中国传统家具这样大件而又精美的藏品。

因此,一些高要求的收藏者被这些秉承了中国传统家具所有品质的木座所吸引,即使它们离开了那些所要陈列的器件。中国木座本身现在已经发展成了一个独有的收藏领域,这在那些特别展览中所陈列的以不同材质制成的明清木座得到体现。

当代的收藏者可以推测南派原件的木座是如何制成的,同样,也可以推论北派多组构件的制作工艺,因此延续着赏心悦目的中国传统的木座工艺。

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