‘A small masterpiece that plays an outsized role in Chinese history’

Highlights from a lecture on Su Shi’s Wood and Rock, given by Dr Alfreda Murck, Research Volunteer, Asian Art, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wood and Rock  by Su Shi is, says Dr Alfreda Murck, ‘an early example of silent poetry in that the simple composition draws on metaphors that would have been understandable to Su Shi’s knowledgeable contemporaries.’

Among those contemporaries was Mi Fu, one of the most important calligraphers in Chinese history, who in his painting history wrote that Su Shi painted dry trees with trunks and branches ‘twisting endlessly’ and, even stranger, faceted rocks that were textured and hard, as if ‘melancholy thoughts were coiled within [Su Shi’s] chest’.

In her lecture, the Research Volunteer in Asian Art at The Met recounted how Su Shi and Mi Fu were both ‘great fans of rocks and collected them’. Rocks, Murck explained, ‘came into being through nature’s creative process and they were considered, on some level, animate, and therefore to share commonalities with humans.’

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
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 in Beyond Compare: A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic (Evening Sale) at Christie’s in Hong Kong on 26 November 2018

‘Superior’ rocks were denoted by a trilogy of characteristics — leanness, texture, perforation. These criteria appeared in written records for the first time in the 17th century but, says Murck, ‘eccentric rocks were much admired and collected for similar features’ as early as the 11th century.

Wood and Rock  is not signed; during the Northern Song dynasty, it was rare for paintings to feature an artist’s signature. There is, however, a seal mark at the upper left-hand corner which helps to confirm the author and the date: ‘the mid-1090s when Su Shi was approaching 60,’ says Murck. 

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Su Shi’s painting and Mi Fu’s calligraphy were joined in this scroll at a time of momentous change in Chinese culture. ‘These two eccentric, huge talents were largely responsible for establishing norms that became the core of Chinese literati painting for nine centuries,’ says the expert. ‘This small masterpiece, as an example of those aesthetic sensibilities, plays an outsized role in Chinese painting history.’