Michelle Cheng, Asian Art specialist in New York, on a rare and richly detailed Kangxi-period screen, the like of which has not been seen at Christie’s ‘in many years’
‘It’s one of the most beautiful coromandel screens I’ve ever seen,’ says specialist Michelle Cheng of the 12-panel lacquer piece to be offered on 14-15 September in our auction of Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art in New York.
Cheng is quick to clarify that the term ‘coromandel’ is a misnomer. ‘Coromandel is a coastal region in the southeast of India. It was originally thought that these screens came from India, but in fact they come from southern China,’ she explains. Today the term has become shorthand for the technique used to create them: the application of lacquer, in even layers, over a softwood core. Once the lacquer has been applied designs are carved into the screen’s surface, and the recesses are filled in with coloured pigments to create vibrant scenes.
This particular piece dates from the Qing dynasty, specifically the Kangxi period (1662-1722), considered the apogee of this type of decorative screen production. ‘During this time we really see the most beautiful and precise painting and carving,’ Cheng explains, ‘and the most intricate details.’
Like all coromandel screens, this example features a continuous scene on the front that runs through all 12 panels — the maximum number of panels on screens of this kind — and a decorative border.
In the centre, we see a pair of beautifully rendered spotted deer beneath a large prunus tree, surrounded by flowering peonies and roses. ‘It’s so carefully worked that you can see the individual hair markings on the deer. The white spots are individually carved, and accented in black,’ the specialist points out. The deer is an auspicious symbol, representing longevity.
Just beside this scene, there’s a qilin — a mythical four-legged beast with dragon scales and a dragon’s head — that seems to be dancing on frothy waves. ‘The qilin was thought to bring peace,’ says Cheng. ‘This one is executed in gold, and you can see the fine scales and shimmering effect of the gold paint. I love the contrast between the right and left sides — between the real and the imaginary — that comes together in one continuous scene.’
Around the perimeter are the so-called ‘hundred antiques’ — objects found in antiquity, or other decorative pieces, such as a fang ding (a ritual bronze vessel), a brush pot, and vases with flowers. ‘When I first saw this screen, one thing that really struck me was how beautifully executed the antiques were,’ the specialist says. ‘In many cases, artists spent a lot of time on the central scene, while the borders are relatively perfunctory. Here, a lot of attention has been paid to carving the individual antiques, and the detail you get is really quite amazing.’
If the front of the screen stands out for its extraordinary attention to detail, the back sets it apart. ‘Many screens of this period feature inscriptions on the reverse celebrating birthdays, important events or a rise in social rank,’ explains Cheng. This screen is particularly unusual because, instead of these inscriptions, the reverse is decorated with panels that reference different kinds of Ming-dynasty painting, such as landscape and flower paintings, and which reproduce the calligraphic styles of famous Ming-dynasty artists, with examples of running script, seal script and standard script.
‘These references demonstrated the owner’s knowledge of art and history and changes in taste,’ Cheng explains. ‘If someone had walked into the home of the person who commissioned this screen, one would have known immediately that the owner was erudite, with a deep knowledge of calligraphy and painting.’
Coromandel screens were appreciated in both Asia and the West, and have been incorporated into European interiors for hundreds of years. ‘They were made for both domestic and export use,’ Cheng says.
In a modern interior, the specialist explains, these screens are generally divided into sections. ‘The full 12-panel screen can’t really be accommodated in, say, a New York City apartment. But interior designers often separate the screens. Each panel is affixed with hinges, and can be removed. So they’ll take three or four panels and space them out so that the entire screen fits within a room.’
For Cheng, it's a thrill to be able to bring this piece to market. ‘We haven’t seen anything like this in many years. Screens that we’ve sold in the past three to four years have generally been palace scenes, which show men and women in a garden setting. To have a landscape scene like this — particularly one with such vibrant colour and this level of detail — is rare.’