View highlights from a special sale in Hong Kong that takes us on an artistic journey from the time of Su Shi through a millennium of Chinese history
On 26 November in Hong Kong, Christie’s presents Beyond Compare: A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic, a special sale that showcases
works spanning over a millennium of Chinese history, told
through the lens of the enduring spirit of
the Song literati.
The auction is led by
Wood and Rock by Su Shi, a monumental and singular
one of the greatest cultural figures of the ancient world,
whose work epitomises the creative
intensity of the Song dynasty (960-1279), and inspired so much of what followed.
‘Through this sale,’ explains Jonathan Stone, Deputy Chairman of Christie’s Asia, ‘we trace the journey of the literati tradition
both chronologically and through visual juxtapositions, highlighting
the relevance of this ethos not only through history, but
also for artists in the contemporary world.’
Wood and Rock, a dialogue is established
between the historic and the contemporary, illuminating the enduring legacy
of Su Shi.
Forming an integral part of the daily lives of scholars like
Su Shi, the Chinese ceramics and works of art offered in the sale
are the physical embodiment of the literati traditions. Highlights include an
important laquered qin.
The ancient Chinese
considered the qin to be superior to all other instruments, a vehicle for self-improvement through which
one could achieve harmony with nature. Su Shi was an accomplished player and composed numerous poems and a treatise about
the qin, which have inspired subsequent generations of players.
Although seductively restrained in form and colour, pieces
extremely rare ru ware bowl and the
important Longquan celadon ‘kinuta vase’ are
representative of the objects that Su Shi and his contemporaries
would have interacted with on a daily basis.
Fewer than 100 pieces of ru ware survive intact today, making
it some of the most coveted
celadon ware for collectors and museums. The ru ware
bowl in the sale appeared in The Beauty of Song Ceramics exhibition at the Museum of Oriental Ceramics in Osaka in
paintings in the auction offer an insight into how artists across the centuries have drawn inspiration
from the past, while also infusing tradition with their own interpretations
Created nearest to the lifetime of Su Shi is a work by another Song
master, Zhang Jizhi (1186-1263), who was a native of Hezhou (present day Anhui province) and, like Su Shi, held an official position — in his case, in the Ministry of Agriculture. With its disciplined structure and forceful brush strokes, Zhang Jizhi’s calligraphy is rooted in the styles of the Tang-dynasty masters.
Later works by
Bada Shanren (1626-1705) and
Jin Nong (1687-1763) reveal the continuity of the aesthetic tradition of the Song literati, and the longevity of their moral and ascetic philosophy.
The 20th-century artist
Wu Hufan (1894-1968) was a collector, authenticator, painter, calligrapher, poet, and writer who hailed from a family with a long history of scholar-officials, and the work offered in the sale is his tribute
to Su Shi in the form of a replica of Wood and Rock, created in 1965.
into the 21st century,
Liu Dan (b. 1953) depicts the spirit
of the meditative
scholar’s rocks, which were so admired and contemplated by Su Shi and his peers.
The intaglio characters Jiu Hua, which are inscribed in seal
script on the smooth surface of the rock in Liu Dan’s work, refer to the mysterious
rock Su Shi encountered and immortalised in a poem titled
Mount Jiuhua in a Vessel. Liu’s fine calligraphy balances the composition, in which he moves
seamlessly from the story of the fabled Jiuhua Rock and the
poems dedicated to it to reflections on Su Shi’s aesthetic discourses.
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Expressing individual character and soul in art was one of
Su Shi’s central beliefs, and these qualities are seen clearly
Zhou Chunya’s Tree Series (1993), in which a
tree, rendered in bold strokes like Su Shi’s, reaches upwards like a plume of smoke.
Chunya returned to China from Germany in 1989, and engaged in an intensive study of works by Chinese literati,
or scholar-painters, and the free, impressionistic style they employed.
The legacy of the Song dynasty can also be seen in the monumental landscape works of Zao Wou-Ki, where the play of light and shadow, the sense of mass and emptiness, create an effect that invokes towering mountains and enveloping mist.
Taiwanese artists such as
Ran In-Ting and
Yu Chengyao were inspired in a more
direct manner, creating works that evoke traditional Song-dynasty painting formats while taking decidedly contemporary approaches to depicting landscapes.
And finally, in Artificial Rock No.94 by Zhan Wang, we see a
re-imagination of the scholar’s rock cast in stainless steel
— a visual juxtaposition of the ancient with the contemporary.