A thousand years of the Chinese literati aesthetic

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 masterpiece by 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.

Su Shi (1037-1101), Wood and Rock.  Painting 26.3 x 50 cm (10⅜ x 19¾ in); painting and colophons 26.3 x 185.5 cm (10 38 x 73 in). Estimate on request. Offered in Beyond Compare A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Su Shi (1037-1101), Wood and Rock.  Painting: 26.3 x 50 cm (10⅜ x 19¾ in); painting and colophons: 26.3 x 185.5 cm (10 3/8 x 73 in). Estimate on request. Offered in Beyond Compare: A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

‘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.’ 

Beginning with Wood and Rock, a dialogue is established between the historic and the contemporary, illuminating the enduring legacy of Su Shi. 

An important lacquered phoenix-style qin, Song dynasty (960-1279). Thickness 1¾  in (4.4  cm). Estimate HK$4,000,000-6,000,000. Offered in Beyond Compare A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

An important lacquered phoenix-style qin, Song dynasty (960-1279). Thickness: 1¾ in (4.4 cm). Estimate: HK$4,000,000-6,000,000. Offered in Beyond Compare: A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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 like the 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 2016.

The Chinese 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 and styles.

Jin Nong (1687-1763), Seeking inspiration amongst plum blossoms. 32.5 x 131.5  cm (12¾ 51¾  in). Estimate HK$6,000,000-8,000,000. Offered in Beyond Compare A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Jin Nong (1687-1763), Seeking inspiration amongst plum blossoms. 32.5 x 131.5 cm (12¾ 51¾ in). Estimate: HK$6,000,000-8,000,000. Offered in Beyond Compare: A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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. 

Moving 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.

Liu Dan (b. 1953), Jiuhua rock. 53 x 136  cm (20⅞ x 53½ in). Estimate HK$3,000,000-4,000,000. Offered in Beyond Compare A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Liu Dan (b. 1953), Jiuhua rock. 53 x 136 cm (20⅞ x 53½ in). Estimate: HK$3,000,000-4,000,000. Offered in Beyond Compare: A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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 in 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.

Zhou Chunya (b. 1955), Tree Series, painted in 1993. 195 x 130  cm (76¾ x 51⅛  in). Estimate HK$25,000,000-35,000,000. Offered in Beyond Compare A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Zhou Chunya (b. 1955), Tree Series, painted in 1993. 195 x 130 cm (76¾ x 51⅛ in). Estimate: HK$25,000,000-35,000,000. Offered in Beyond Compare: A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.

Zao Wou-Ki (Zhao Wuji, 1920-2013), 20.01.69, painted in 1969. 115.8 x 81 cm (45⅝ x 31⅞  in). Estimate HK$16,000,000-24,000,000. This lot is offered in Beyond Compare A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Zao Wou-Ki (Zhao Wuji, 1920-2013), 20.01.69, painted in 1969. 115.8 x 81 cm (45⅝ x 31⅞ in). Estimate: HK$16,000,000-24,000,000. This lot is offered in Beyond Compare: A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.

Yu Chengyao (1898-1993), Magnificent Landscape. 58 x 1241  cm (23 x 488⅝  in). Estimate HK$9,000,000-12,000,000. Offered in Beyond Compare A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Yu Chengyao (1898-1993), Magnificent Landscape. 58 x 1241 cm (23 x 488⅝ in). Estimate: HK$9,000,000-12,000,000. Offered in Beyond Compare: A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.

Zhan Wang (b. 1962), Artificial Rock No. 94, executed in 2006. Sculpture 105 x 51 x 33 cm (41¼ x 20 x 13 in). Stand 16 x 29 x 28  cm (6¼ x 11⅜ x 11  in). Estimate HK$1,000,000-1,800,000. Offered in Beyond Compare A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Zhan Wang (b. 1962), Artificial Rock No. 94, executed in 2006. Sculpture: 105 x 51 x 33 cm (41¼ x 20 x 13 in). Stand: 16 x 29 x 28 cm (6¼ x 11⅜ x 11 in). Estimate: HK$1,000,000-1,800,000. Offered in Beyond Compare: A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) on 26 November 2018 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

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.