The scroll entitled "Wood and Rock" by Su Shi was sold for HK$463.6 million (US$59.2 million) at Christie's Hong Kong Autumn Sale 2018 on November 26.
In order to understand the reason behind the staggering value of this artwork, we need to go back to the artist Su Shi (alias Su Dongpo), also a writer and scholar from the Chinese Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Lin Yutang (1895-1976), the renowned Chinese author well received in the Western world, was Su Shi's number one fan. He commented on Su Shi in his book "The Gay Genius": "He was as a character more like Thackeray, in his politics and poetic fame more like Victor Hugo, and he had something of the exciting quality of Dr. Johnson... If Johnson were a Gainsborough at the same time, and also a Pope making criticism of current politics in verse, and if he had suffered like Swift, without the growing acidity of Swift, we would have an English parallel."
Chinese culture and literature peaked in the Northern Song Dynasty. Scholars were highly regarded in society at the time. However, the trend was superficial and hypocritical within the literacy circle. Su Shi did not follow the trend. His style was simple and refreshing, drawing directly from his life experiences and true feelings. Examples include when he compared the beautiful scenery of the West Lake in Hangzhou as a charming lady that can be enhanced with either light or rich make-up. When he described his open feelings, he wrote "from now on I would vanish with my little boat; for the rest of my life on the sea I would float." Being a great philosopher of his time, he described Lushan Mountain as "looking like a range of gorges from the front, but a sheer cliff from the side, with different geographical features from every angle either close or afar. One could never figure out the real landscape of Lushan Mountain, if he spends his life right in the heart of the mountain."
Su Shi was listed as one of the 12 most influential characters living around the year 1000 by Le Monde of France in 2000. This was due to the fact that not only was he a distinguished scholar and artist, but also a great politician of his time. His political life was filled with many ups and downs, from being a high-ranking government official to being exiled or even jailed. Despite all of these experiences, he never allowed his view to be suppressed by the authority, and always enjoyed life with open mind and uplifting spirits.
There are very few remains of Su Shi's original paintings. As a result, this "Wood and Rock" piece is an extraordinarily rare find. The painting represents the true value of the artist himself - a twisted hollow branch and strange shaped rock depicts the hardship in his life. However, life still calmly finds its strength to survive when all seems impossible. The technique in his brush strokes is simple and unpredictable, contrary to the popular aristocratic style of his time, which boasted delicateness and preciseness. That is why this piece is regarded as the most contemporary and advanced artwork form of his time. Su's style was also compared with that of the Renaissance due to its characteristic of breaking away from the tradition and emphasising on individualism.
Su Shi is treasured for many unique characteristics, such as an incorrigible optimist, a great humanitarian, a friend of the people, an engineer, an experimenter in wine making, a humane judge and a prowler in the moonlight... just to name a few. We are looking forward to sharing more interesting stories of Su Shi together with other distinguished historical scholars in the near future.