An 11th-century Chinese ink painting fetched HK$463.6 million ($59.2 million) at a Christie's sale in Hong Kong on Monday night, making it one of the most expensive of all classic Chinese paintings and works of calligraphy sold at auction.
The monochromatic painting Wood and Rock, measuring only 26 by 50 centimeters, is attributed to Su Shi (1037-1101), a pre-eminent scholar, artist and statesman of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Su's aesthetic views ushered Chinese art and culture into a new era.
Christie's confirmed that "a Chinese buyer" bought Wood and Rock. The international auctioneer didn't disclose where the buyer is from, or whether an individual or institutional collector was involved, saying in a news release their policy is to "honor the confidentiality" of buyers.
Wood and Rock depicts only three subjects: a withered tree, a strange stone and a few stalks of bamboo. They were all done in quick, sketchy brush strokes conveying a touch of tranquility.
Su's work is said to demonstrate a maxim of classical Chinese painting that ink has five shades. That approach is demonstrated by the painting's use of light, medium and dark tones of ink to achieve a harmonious effect.
The painting is part of a scroll that includes four handwritten commentaries in traditional calligraphy that lengthen it to 186 cm. One comment was written by Mi Fu who, together with Su Shi, is ranked among the "four great calligraphers of the Song Dynasty".
Dozens of Su's calligraphy works are in museum collections and private holdings, but only a handful of paintings thought to be his exist, including one at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. Wood and Rock has attracted wide attention since Christie's announced earlier this year it would be auctioned at its major autumn sale in Hong Kong.
Di Zhu Ming (Pillar Inscription), a calligraphic piece by Su's peer Huang Tingjian, sold for 436.8 million yuan ($62.8 million) in a Beijing sale in 2010. Last year, Six Dragons, a 13th-century painting by Song court painter Chen Rong, sold for $49 million in New York.
Su is known for a rich legacy of poetry, but he was also prolific in other areas, including calligraphy, painting, medicine and gastronomy.
Su lived in political exile for most of the second half of his life, until he was pardoned by the court a year before his death. In Wood and Rock, critics say Su imbued the tree and the stone with a spiritual sense, providing a glimpse into his state of mind as he entered the autumn of his life. Also, his spare, expressive style set the tone for the development of literati painting in China.
Wood and Rock was acquired around 1937 by Fusajiro Abe, a famed Japanese collector of classic Chinese art, and had remained in his family.
Kim Yu of the Chinese paintings department at Christie's says the Abe family approached them after seeing Christie's auction 31 Chinese artworks in New York last year from the former collection of the Osaka-based Fujita Museum.
"It was placed in a plain box," Yu said, recalling the first moment he saw the painting in Japan earlier this year. "As the painting was unfolded slowly on a blanket, (I realized) it was the piece of work by Su Shi mentioned in art history."
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