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.
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.’
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).
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.