Chinese ink cakes

Kaiwen HU

Item#: 84003 We're sorry, this item has been sold


HU, Kaiwen. Decorative Chinese ink cakes. Huangshan, China: Hu Kaiwen Ink Factory, circa 1870-1920. 18 gilt-decorated pictorial ink cakes, set into original double-tray blue cloth folding case, bone clasps, original paper cover label.

Wonderful collection of 18 mid-19th-century Hu Kaiwen ink cakes, produced from the original moulds, commemorating the “Luohan” (worthy ones)— Buddha’s 18 disciples who were told to remain on earth “to save the world.” Each bears a gilded bas relief image of a given Luohan, with his description in Chinese molded on the verso and with “Hu Kaiwen zhi” on the edge.

“In the course of the centuries there has developed in China a special tradition regarding the paraphernalia of the study, which includes all the cherished objects literati and artists always have near at hand. Paper and writing brush, ink cake and ink slab— referred to as Wen-fang-szu-pao (The Four Treasures of the Study)— conform to certain conventional patterns, [although] tradition leaves ample scope for individual artistic expression. The tradition was kept alive by the desire of scholars and artists to surround themselves with beautiful things; there can be no doubt, however, that it originated from magic considerations… Almost every one of the objects suggests by its shape or material that it is a receptacle of ‘vital essence” (R.H. van Gulik). In practice, the ink cake is ground with water on the ink slab to produce a liquid. This gives artists and scholars total control over the density, texture, and quality of their ink and, by extension, the textural and tonal variations of ink in their paintings and calligraphy. An ancient treatise on Chinese ink, the Mo Ch’ing (Ink Classic), written in the 12th century by Chao Kuan-chih, lists as the chief ingredients of high quality ink simply soot and glue. Before the use of lampblack, the best soot was made from the “burning of specially selected pines in an ink furnace that had inverted pottery jars over the smoke. These jars trapped the soot which was then removed with feather brushes. The soot was then mixed with glue, which could be made from horn or animal hides. The glue made from the horns of young deer was of the highest quality because of its purity” (Robert Greenberger). From the 15th century to the present day, there has developed a delightful practice of making ink cakes “for purely decorative, non-functional purposes— as works of art, presents among the literati, not to be ground down or used with brushes. They could take the form of plaques, or vessels in imitation of decorative bronzes. They were made in moulds, and the good makers achieved perfect precision of line and form. All are rare” (C. & C. Franklin). Called “Hui,” ink cakes produced in east China’s Anhui Province are considered to be the finest in the world. First opened in 1782 during the reign of Emperor Qianlong of Qing Dynasty, the Hu Kaiwen Ink Factory is the oldest and most famous manufacturer of Hui Ink sticks and cakes.

Gilt rubbed on most pieces (otherwise fine and intact), staining to covers of original case. A very scarce collection of this unusual art form.

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