Mayor Bloomberg can look back over the past 12 years and be satisfied that he was instrumental in making tobacco use seem completely repellent. The culture had been shifting for years, of course, but by banishing cigarettes from restaurants, then public parks, he helped turn the tide. In this frowning environment, visiting the Met’s latest exhibition of luxurious snuff bottles, charmingly titled “Small Delights,” carries a kick of excitement. People really, really used to love the stuff, you realize, looking at the care they put into their carrying cases, and their enthusiasm is addictive.
Snuff—a blend of tobacco and fine herbs enjoyed through the nose—was popular around the world for centuries, but it’s the Chinese who adopted en masse the use of snuff bottles to carry the drug, after being introduced to it by Europeans in the mid-1600s. There are about 80 here, spanning 250 years, from snuff’s introduction up to the early 20th century, when the Qing dynasty, and the final emperor, fell. The bottles’ variety and workmanship astounds, and since most are just a few inches tall, the show is easily the most fun per square inch you’re likely to have in a New York museum all year.
The immense diversity of bottle styles means that there is one to suit even the most discriminating tastes, and there were options available for people of differing means. As signifiers of individual style and status, they are like miniature precursors of designer handbags.
The snuff bottles that one probably pictures are the hardstone variety, which were rock solid and therefore favored for day-to-day snuffing. Among the hardstone highlights are a white jadeite with neon-mint clouds from the 19th century, a rich blue lapis lazuli with gold speckles from around 1800, a white agate carved with various poisonous animals from the 19th century, a smoky gray chalcedony marked with five black bats (also circa 1800) and an asymmetrical cream-soda-colored nephrite carved with two roughhousing boys and a lotus near its stopper from the late 18th century. (All of them, but particularly that last one, beg to be held.)
For special snuffing occasions, there were also less durable, but even more exquisite options, including glass pieces painted on the inside by artisans who would slip a thin brush into the bottle to write calligraphy or sketch portraits or landscapes. The turn-of-the-century master Ye Zhongsan (1875–1945), who focused on outdoor scenes, is represented here with one piece that shows a man astride a bucking horse and another in which the bottle has been turned into a goldfish-filled lotus pond, with a sporty coral stopper in the shape of a bird. There were porcelain options too, typically painted in a style informed by European Baroque painters. I’m particularly fond of a tiny circular piece from the 18th century, just two-and-a-half inches tall, with the self-explanatory title “Snuff Bottle with Hundred Beauties.” It only just edges out a lusty bronze piece from the 19thcentury made of aventurine glass with gold sparkles that looks like it could have debuted in the East Village in the 1980s.
Though just about every snuff bottle here has its appealing oddities, there are some really wild anomalies, like four minute silver bottles from the 19th century connected with hinges—a whole tasting flight of snuff in your pocket—and a sumptuous mother-of-pearl number from the 19th century that wears a blue enamel collar and a red glass hat as its stopper.
It’s enough to make one wish we could celebrate some of our modern vices so openly, if only for the spillover aesthetic pleasures—something far more attractive replacing the plastic bags, pill bottles and kitschy paraphernalia associated with drug culture today. Happily, electronic cigarettes, those bizarre, untested devices of the future (sometimes charged in USB ports), at least seem to be blazing into potentially fruitful, uncharted design territory—so there may be hope. (Through Feb. 17, 2014)