‘It would be highly unlikely that another such piece exists’

Kim Yu, International Senior Specialist in Chinese Paintings, considers the spiritual import of Su Shi’s Wood and Rock, and why the artist’s depictions of elemental forces might have offered consolation during periods of banishment

‘What is the spirit of the Orient?’ asks Kim Yu, International Senior Specialist in Chinese Paintings at Christie’s, before citing ‘the pursuit of simplicity’ and artistic expression through ‘introspective exploration’.

The specialists says Su Shi’s Wood and Rock, painted, it is believed, sometime between 1071 and 1101, exudes this same sense of simplicity. Rocks, bamboo and wood regularly featured in the great Northern Song scholar-official’s work and these ‘three worthy friends’, as Su Shi referred to them, became a source of spiritual inspiration.

Su Shi (1037-1101), Wood and Rock. Handscroll, ink on paper. Painting 26.3 x 50 cm (10⅜ x 19¾ in); overall with mounting 27.2 x 543 cm (10¾ x 213¾ in). Colophons by Liu Liangzuo (11th century), Mi Fu (1051-1107), Yu Xilu (1278-1368) and Guo Chang (1563-1622). Forty-one collector’s seals, including one of Liu Liangzuo, one of Mi Fu, 11 of Wang Houzhi (1131-1204), three of

Su Shi (1037-1101), Wood and Rock. Handscroll, ink on paper. Painting: 26.3 x 50 cm (10⅜ x 19¾ in); overall with mounting: 27.2 x 543 cm (10¾ x 213¾ in). Colophons by Liu Liangzuo (11th century), Mi Fu (1051-1107), Yu Xilu (1278-1368) and Guo Chang (1563-1622). Forty-one collector’s seals, including one of Liu Liangzuo, one of Mi Fu, 11 of Wang Houzhi (1131-1204), three of Yu Xilu, nine of Yang Zun (circa 1294-after 1333), nine of Mu Lin (1429-1458), two of Li Tingxiang (1485-1544) and two of Guo Chang. Estimate on request. Offered at Christie’s in Hong Kong in November 2018

‘The artworks Su Shi created were different from those produced by artisans, craftsmen or professional painters of the Imperial Academy,’ Kim points out. ‘The bamboo, plants and rocks, painted with brushstrokes that twist and turn, give an air of elegance and grace. The lines may seem simple, yet they are incredibly expressive and varied.’

The painting is one of less than a handful of extant examples by Su Shi, while the calligraphy of Mi Fu (1051-1107), regarded as one of the most important calligraphers in Chinese history, only makes this historic handscroll even more remarkable. ‘[The scroll] contains both Su Shi’s and Mi Fu’s hand,’ confirms the specialist. ‘I think it would be highly unlikely that another such piece exists.’

Colophon by Mi Fu ‘Fu, following the rhyme  Who can say what it is like at the age of forty  For three years, I haven’t had any new clothes made.  In poverty one understands the dangers of life;  In old age one feels the intricate wisdoms of Tao.  Already too late to devote oneself to an official career,  Not to mention how few souls truly know me.  Delighted am I to find such refined company,  In

Colophon by Mi Fu: ‘Fu, following the rhyme: / Who can say what it is like at the age of forty? / For three years, I haven’t had any new clothes made. / In poverty one understands the dangers of life; / In old age one feels the intricate wisdoms of Tao. / Already too late to devote oneself to an official career, / Not to mention how few souls truly know me. / Delighted am I to find such refined company, / In the autumn years of my life, I have yet to speak of returning home.’

The painting was originally a gift from Su Shi to ‘Master Feng’ in Runzhou (now known as Zhenjiang, on the banks of the Yangtze River), who in turn invited Liu Liangzuo (11th century) and Mi Fu to add colophons. Two further colophons were added by the scholar officials Yu Xilu (1278-1368) and Guo Chang (1563-1622).

Turning to the provenance of the painting, the specialist points out the mounting and the thin blue lines at the top and bottom, a method that originated during the Ming dynasty. The scroll features 41 collectors’ seals dating from the Southern Song (1127-1279), the Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming dynasties (1368-1644).

A portrait of Su Shi, left, and the handscroll offered at Christie’s in November, which contains one of a tiny number of his extant paintings

A portrait of Su Shi, left, and the handscroll offered at Christie’s in November, which contains one of a tiny number of his extant paintings

The collectors’ seals include one of Liu Liangzuo; one of Mi Fu; 11 of the Southern Song collector, connoisseur, and epigrapher Wang Houzhi (1131-1204); three of the scholar official Yu Xilu (1278-1368); nine of the distinguished collector of seals Yang Zun (1294-1333); nine of the poet, artist, collector and military official Mu Lin (1429-1458); and two each of the mid-Ming scholar officials Li Tingxiang (1485-1544) and Guo Chang (1563-1622).

In 1937, the painting passed through the hands of Bai Jianfu, a painting and antiques dealer in Beijing, whose wife was Japanese. The work was then taken to Japan, where it has remained until now.