Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 23, 2000
Stephen Little Spirit Stones of China: The Ian and Susan Wilson Collection of Chinese Stones, Paintings, and Related Scholars' Objects Berkeley: University of California Press in association with Art Institute of Chicago, 1999. 112 pp.; 82 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (0520220455)
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Recent studies of China’s remarkable tradition of scholar’s rocks have begun to reveal that these, together with the better-known outdoor garden rocks, form a unique Chinese sculptural tradition as aesthetically sophisticated and as deep in meaning as other world traditions in sculpture. As John Hay observed (Hay, “The Body Invisible in Chinese Art?” in Angela Zito and Tani E. Barlow, eds., Body, Subject and Power in China, Chicago, 1994), “The classical image of the Western tradition is the Apollo or the Venus. The classical image of the Chinese tradition is the rock” (68). The aesthetic interest of this tradition is underscored by Stephen Little’s beautiful new volume on rocks—he calls them “spirit stones”—documenting the collection of Ian and Susan Wilson, published by the the Art Institute of Chicago in association with University of California Press.

As a work of contemporary graphic design inspired by traditional Chinese book craftsmanship, the catalogue succeeds superbly. No doubt numerous readers, including collectors, students, and art historians, will find many hours of pleasure perusing its pages. Rarely have the Eastern and Western traditions of book design been merged so successfully. A notable past example, Pierre Ryckman’s The Life and Work of Su Renshan: Rebel, Painter and Madman, 1814-1849 (Paris and Hong Kong: l’Université de Paris, 1970), comes to mind as a precedent, but the present volume on “spirit stones” supersedes previous examples in its presentation of some of the most elegant aspects of recent design. With its scaled-back, gray characters used as traditional page titles and its rich black-and-white reproductions of details of the stones drifting from page to page in handscroll sequence, the book goes beyond mimicry to present a whole new blending of art forms.

As a work of scholarship, the book is a welcome publication of an important collection in this rare field. It will become a complement to the in-depth studies of scholars’ rocks and other studio traditions, including the early groundbreaking scholarship published in exhibition catalogues, such as John Hay’s Kernals of Energy, Bones of Earth: The Rock in Chinese Art (New York: China House Gallery, China Institute in America, 1985), Chu-tsing Li and James C. Y. Watt’s The Chinese Scholar’s Studio: Artistic Life in the Late Ming Period (New York: Asia Society Galleries, The Asia Society, 1987), and Robert D. Mowry’s Worlds within Worlds: The Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholars’ Rocks (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Art Museums, 1997). Little’s new contribution further explores the aesthetic regard for rocks, re-creating in the readers an awareness of the awe in which traditional collectors held such stones. Little does this primarily by weaving together excerpts from texts dating from the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) to the last decades of the Ming (1368-1644). While the approach is very useful, this reviewer wishes to express the hope that future studies will consider what Qing dynasty (1644-1911) collectors had to say on the subject, especially since we must assume that a significant percentage of the scholars’ rocks (as well as garden rocks) collected today were first quarried and appreciated as art objects during that time. Notably, two of the rocks in the Wilson collection have inscriptions by Qing dynasty artists, including Huang Yi (1744-1801; cat. no. 1) and Qu Yingshao (1780-1849; cat. no. 36). Perhaps future studies can take up this important topic.

The title of the book, compelling as it is, falls short of suggesting the breadth of the exhibition it documents. Spirit Stones of China suggests that it is an exhibition of scholars’ rocks, whereas scholars’ studio objects, traditional paintings and contemporary works of art by Liu Dan (born 1953; now living in New York) figure prominently in the mix. Rather than letting these components seem to dilute the theme of spirit stones, the editors might have instead chosen a title that could encompass the broader theme that the exhibition covers and might have organized the catalogue entries into more readily intelligible groupings. As it stands, the reader may find it disconcerting that with entry number 38 (out of sixty-six catalogue entries), the works shift from scholars’ rocks, to paintings of rocks and then to root carvings, wood carvings, rock crystal, inkstones, bamboo and wood brush holders, and qin (zithers), both real and decorative.

The inclusion of contemporary painting with historical objects should be greatly congratulated. Such connections are not often enough expressed in museum exhibitions. Liu Dan’s work, strikingly successful in its combination of traditional sensibilities and modern international format and scale (his work recently purchased by the San Diego Art Museum measures more than three feet in height and sixty feet in width!), is, alas, at risk of being seen as mere illustration by the casual reader of this catalogue. The fact that a prominent living artist still finds expression in interpreting the complex surfaces and shapes of rocks is a tribute to the strength and importance of this longstanding tradition. Readers may well wish for more information on Liu’s “Twelve Views of Little Openwork,” the latter being one of the rocks in the exhibition, as well as for translations of the contemporary artist’s inscriptions based on a text by Lin Youlin (Suyuan shipu, dated 1613) and a poem by Su Shi (1037-1101). They may also be puzzled over the relationship between Liu Dan’s twelve views and the eight views cited by Ma Yuelu in his inscription on the box in which the “Little Openwork” rock is kept. (The reader might also be interested to know that Ma Yuelu (1697-after 1766) together with his brother Ma Yueguan (1686-1755) was a noted patron of art in eighteenth-century Yangzhou. Their garden was a frequent gathering place for scholars, poets, and painters. A handscroll by Fang Shishu and Ye Fanglin, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, pictures the garden furnished with rocks and scholars’ objects. (See Ju-hsi Chou and Claudia Brown, The Elegant Brush: Chinese Painting Under the Qianlong Emperor, 1735-1795, exh. cat., Phoenix: Phoenix Art Museum, 1985)

For an exhibition catalogue, the book is sometimes frustratingly terse. No stones have full entries except number 27, a Taihu-style stone. Occasional comments, such as those on stones used as brushrests (cat. no. 22), are tantalizing and leave the reader wishing for more. Also, the cataloguing of paintings is abbreviated. For example, catalogue number 41 illustrates Leaf 8, ascribed to Wang Yuanqi, from an album of eleven leaves by various artists active during the Kangxi era (1662-1722). Readers may wish to know a bit more about the album as a whole, about the inscriptions on the leaf shown, and about the collector who is said to have owned the depicted rock and for whom the painting was painted. Catalogue entry number 43, Bamboo and Rock by Qu Yingshao, misses the opportunity to make reference to the same artist’s inscription quoted in catalog number 36, citing the bamboo as “grandson of the stone.” In catalog number 44, the novice reader may wonder about the nineteenth-century artist’s reference to the artist Mi Fu (1052-1107) bowing to a rock. Although the story is recounted (20-21), the reader is offered no page number to assist him or her in identifying the reference. The entries on scholars’ studio objects vary widely from a few entries that provide useful contextual information (for example, entries 48, 49, and 62), to several others that describe the object more fully (entries 51, 63, and 66), and to captions with only the briefest of identifications. In some cases the brief titles offer little description of the individual shape of an object. For example, in catalogue number 50, nothing in the entry links this brushrest of rock crystal, shaped as five craggy peaks, to the many traditional brushrests in other materials symbolizing China’s five sacred mountains.

The book closes with a translation of a Qing dynasty story, “The Ethereal Rock (Shi Qingshu)” by Pu Songling (1640-1715), reprinted from Judith Zeitlin’s Historian of the Strange: Pu Songling and the Chinese Classical Tale (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993). While the selection of this particular story is not explained in the text, this reader found it a happy juxtaposition. Zeitlin’s deft translation appears to preserve a tongue-in-cheek irony in the treatment Pu Songling gives to the misadventures of rock collecting. If the sculptural tradition revealed in “spirit stones” and garden rocks is important enough to be taken seriously, then it is also important enough to be regarded with humor.

Claudia Brown
Arizona State University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.