FIELD OF STONES presents an opportunity to view the first collection of scholar rocks shown in the United States assembled by a Chinese collector. In formulating the initial idea for the exhibition, CHINA 2000 FINE ART was inspired by the passion of two great connoisseurs, Robert Hatfield Ellsworth and Richard Rosenblum, who stimulated us to delve into the subject with penetrating intensity and emerge with this erudite yet enchanting exhibition.
The stage for an important exhibition of scholar rocks has already been set in New York. In 1986, the China Institute organized the exhibition, Kernels of Energy, Bones of Earth: The Rock in Chinese Art and published a catalogue. In 1996, the Asia Society along with numerous other museums exhibited Richards Rosenblum's traveling rock exhibition. And most recently, there was an extremely well attended exhibition entitled "The Natural World," focusing on the genesis of the scholar rock curated by Maxwell Hearn at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A passion for strange and wondrous rocks was an inevitability of Chinese culture and philosophy. Like the rocks themselves, it seems to have existed forever. As far back as the Tang dynasty (618-907), rocks took a prominent role in paintings, and the motif became a widespread convention by the Song dynasty (960-1279). The connoisseurship of rocks flourished in court and literary circles since the beginning of the Southern Song (1127-1279). Rocks entered the literature of the Song period as the object of scholarly appreciation.
Rocks have become well known as accoutrements for the scholar's table. Scholar rocks engendered collaboration between many aspects of the scholar's appreciation and responsiveness to his changing environment. Thus they took an especially important place in the studio. Affection for rocks has a deeply personal character. Mi Fu (1052-1109), perhaps the ultimate connoisseur in all of China's history, made his passion for rocks into a definite idiosyncrasy.
Small rocks symbolize mountains that expand into landscapes. The symbolism here is not mere representation, since Chinese philosophy provides for a direct interconnected relationship. The miniature rock is a microcosmic model of the mountain, which is a microcosm of the universe in the way that the earth (yin) is a microcosm for the macrocosm of heaven (yang).
There are formulaic criteria for judging the merits of a rock that is equated with the aesthetics of Chinese culture on a scholar-literati level. These formal qualities include resonance, surface texture, and a pierced structure with deep undercuts and hollows. All these elements are derived from a deeply philosophical approach to the nature of energy in the universe.
The classic Taihu limestone, of which the exhibition has several, is the embodiment of the transformational passage of energy in the universe. The cumulus-like rhythm of its form seems to grow from a narrow base, its surface is pitted with cavities, and its interior is pierced through with holes both large and small. The hollows in the rock resemble caves in a mountain. The cave is the most Taoist of all Chinese paradises, reminiscent of the womb, of nature's wonders hidden in strange places, of spiritual wonders hidden and revealed. The exhibition includes several paintings of Taihu rocks and two important paintings of the popular motif of ascetics meditating in caves, one by Li Ruiqing and one by Chen Hengke.
The close association of rocks with pines was also a popular motif which the exhibition addresses. Pine and rock represent the eternal process of change. Conifers, themselves, are very long-lived, emphasizing their endurance by retaining their foliage throughout their lives. As these evergreens age, their gnarled trunks look more and more like stone, and at their eventual death, they recede into the ground and are transformed into rock. Such interlocking cycles of energy, of time, and of transformation are recurrent in Chinese thinking.
Because inkstones are made of stone, they can reasonably be included in an exhibition of related objects in the scholar's world and have been given the attention of deeply cultivated connoisseurship. Since the ink that is being ground on the inkstone is made from pine soot, there is once again the familiar association of pine and stone.
In addition to the use of ink, painting in mineral colors made from stone was a strong and ancient tradition. Early painting in color was called transmuting the divine, akin to alchemy. One important painting by Li Ruiqing shows a pine, rock, and lingzhi (the plant of immortality) painted in mineral colors.
Although the majority of objects in the exhibition are scholar rocks (35 stones and 4 wood "rocks"), there are several inkstones dating as far back as the Song dynasty, and eleven paintings of rock motifs dating from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. The artists include Ren Xun (1835-1893), Hu Yuan (1823-1886), Wu Changshuo (1844-1927), Wang Zhen (1866-1938), Li Ruiqing (1867-1920), Chen Hengke (1876-1923), Ning Fucheng (1897-1966), and others. It is quite significant to exhibit paintings of rocks alongside the scholar rocks because they play off one another in a very philosophical way. This brings the appreciation of the collector for the scholar rock to the higher level of art, and it gives to the painting of rocks a philosophical dimension because the artist is not simply painting a rock, but describing an entire genre replete with far ranging philosophical and cultural implications.
Today, scholar rocks are appreciated in the West because of their organic and abstract form. These found objects, taken from their natural environment and placed in an entirely different one, are invested with a dramatic power and ability to transport the viewer. As Richard Rosenblum once commented, it may be nothing but a lump of rock, but it is a lump of rock that allows you to see all the way to infinity.
© 2000 Copyright for China 2000 Fine Art