Su Shi (1037-1101) is one of the most important figures in Chinese history. The pre-eminent scholar of the Song dynasty (960-1279) was a true polymath — a poet, politician, writer, calligrapher, painter and aesthetic theorist.
In November 2018, Su Shi’s Wood and Rock, an ink-on-paper handscroll depicting a withered tree next to an unusually-shaped rock — complemented with calligraphy by Mi Fu, the renowned scholar, Su Shi’s contemporary and one of the most important calligraphers in Chinese history — will lead Christie’s Hong Kong’s Autumn season.
According to Jonathan Stone, Co-Chairman of Asian Art at Christie’s in Hong Kong, ‘being able to offer at auction a work of such historic and cultural significance as Wood and Rock is the kind of moment that we live for at Christie’s.’ He describes the painting as ‘the pure distillation of so much of Chinese culture’, which combined with its rarity, beauty and age, ‘inspires a profound sense of awe among all those who come in contact with it.’
‘Wood and Rock is tremendously moving,’ comments Kim Yu, International Senior Specialist in Chinese Paintings at Christie’s. ‘The Northern Song was the golden era of Chinese painting, and for Su Shi the act of painting was an exploration of the self. This painting, with its relaxed and elegant charm, began an aesthetic revolution, which led to the development of later literati painting.’
‘In the history of Chinese art the Song dynasty is regarded as the peak of artistic achievement,’ says Sophia Zhou, Associate Specialist in Chinese Paintings at Christie’s in Hong Kong. ‘It was during this period that painting joined calligraphy as one of the four fine arts that a scholarly gentleman would have been expected to master.’
Only a tiny number of paintings by Su Shi exist, and given the pre-eminence of the artist and extreme rarity of his works, the scroll is set to become one of the most important works of art ever to come to auction.
Su Shi is to the Chinese tradition of literature and visual arts what Leonardo da Vinci is to the European tradition of painting and invention. ‘In terms of creative genius it’s appropriate to draw analogies between the two,’ confirms Chinese Paintings specialist Malcolm McNeill. ‘Su Shi’s name is synonymous with the maximum creative potential of the human condition — he is at the apex of creative possibility.’
Unseen for decades, Wood and Rock has been categorised by the leading art historians of the late 20th and early 21st century as ‘location unknown’. Only now, with its sale at Christie’s in Hong Kong, will this historic work experience an unprecedented degree of visibility.
‘It is something that I never expected to be able to see,’ McNeill says of his first encounter with the handscroll. ‘When I first set eyes on it, my initial reaction was one of shock. There was something overwhelming about it. The slow build of disbelief ultimately gave way to the realisation that I was looking at the visceral, tangible trace of someone at the core of the Chinese artistic tradition. It was an experience bordering on the sacred.’