Su Shi (simplified Chinese: 苏轼; traditional Chinese: 蘇軾) (8 January 1037 – 24 August 1101), courtesy name Zizhan, (Chinese: 子瞻), art name Dongpo, was a Chinese writer, poet, painter, calligrapher,  pharmacologist,  gastronome, and a statesman of the Song dynasty.”

Portrait of Su Dongpo by Zhao Mengfu

Su Shi was born into a literary family in 1037. At the age of 19 he passed the highest-level civil service examinations with flying colors, and was marked out as a rising star within the world of officialdom. His lucid, eloquent essays greatly impressed Emperor Renzong (1010-1063) and by the time the young Emperor Shenzong (1048-1085) ascended to the throne in 1067, Su Shi was a respected figure among scholar-officials at court.

‘During the Song dynasty, a period of unsurpassed refinement in the arts in China, Su Shi had a brilliant and staggeringly varied career,’ explains art critic Alastair Sooke. A poet, politician, writer, calligrapher, painter and aesthetic theorist, Su Shi was the pre-eminent scholar of the Song dynasty. ‘He was so prolific in so many different fields that it is very tempting to think of him as a proto-Renaissance man,’ says Sooke, ‘even though he was born four centuries before Leonardo.’

“Su Shi was exiled to provincial Huangzhou, where he lived in relative poverty. He built a farm in the foothills of what became known as the Eastern Slope (Dongpo), and began to call himself Master of the Eastern Slope (Su Dongpo). For all the hardships he experienced in exile, it was during this period that he produced some of his most well-known verses.”

One of 12 leaves from the album Stories of Su Dongpo by Zou Yigui (1686-1772), showing Su Shi when he was 66 years old. Sold for HK$437,500 on 28 May 2012 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

“Today, Su Shi is recognized as one of the eight great prose masters of the Tang and Song, and one of the four Song masters of calligraphy. His poems, including At Red Cliff, Cherishing the Past  and Prelude to the Water Melody, have become embedded in Chinese culture, inspiring landscape paintings and poetic illustrations throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties. His calligraphy has been copied, studied and collected for centuries.

Note: The movie Red Cliff by Director Johnathan Woo is in our top 10 movies of all time. It is a two-part, four and one-half hours film. Everything about this film is stellar.  From the story-line, casting, music and production.  We cannot more highly recommend this film.  Click here if you want to purchase a copy.   Be sure to purchase the International version as the US version, as seen on Netflix, is a cut down 2 hour version that ruins the film frankly. 

Su Shi’s ideas on what it was to create an image, and the relationship of the image to the internal psychology of the painter, were revolutionary, and can be seen as a launchpad for painting as a non-representational, psychologically driven process. It was Su Shi who first began to explore concepts of artistic practice as the outward expression of the artist’s interior experience.”

“Similarly revolutionary was Su Shi’s approach to brushwork. Other contemporary painters pursued a representational style that involved great detail and strong delineation. But Su Shi’s brushwork is impressionistic and spare. Writing on the principles by which to judge the highest class of painting, Su Shi once declared, ‘If one discusses painting in terms of formal likeness, one is no different from a child.’ For him, there was painting in poetry and poetry in painting.”

‘There is a saying in Chinese art history that “ink has five colors”,’ says Zhou. ‘Ink has all that you need to depict the external world and to express yourself and whatever your artistic impulses have to say. Wood and Rock  is a true embodiment of the artist’s state of mind at the time, which you can see so palpably in the painting.’

Note: Similarly, English painter Lawerence Stephen Lowry, born in 1887, used only a five color pallet for his paintings.  His use of ivory black, vermilion, Prussian blue, yellow ochre and flake white. 

Su Shi (1037-1101), Wood and Rock. Handscroll, ink on paper.
Painting: 26.3 x 50 cm (10⅜ x 19¾ in); Overall with mounting: 27.2 x 543 cm

“Wood and Rock  is inscribed with the poetry of Su Shi’s friend Mi Fu (1051-1107), which was probably added at a later date. Like Su Shi, Mi Fu was a celebrated poet, calligrapher, painter and statesman. For Su Shi, expressing affinity through the giving and exchanging of painting and verse in the form of calligraphy was a means of building networks of cultural capital.

The ink traces on this scroll offer insights into abstracted ideas of how Su Shi and Mi Fu thought and conceived of art, but also illuminate how these exceptional men of the 11th century understood each other. They are, therefore, tangible representations of the relationships between cultural giants of the distant past.

Mi Fu’s verse on the scroll interprets his friend’s painting of a withered tree as an intimate expression of oneself at an old age. The pathos in Mi Fu’s lament certainly resonates with what is known of Su Shi’s experiences in exile. In Mi Fu’s other writings, he speaks of how Su Shi condensed his emotions in the turns of his brush and the construction of his rocks and trees.”

Inset of the scroll entitled Wood and Rock

This 1,000 year old scroll was recently auctioned at Christie’s in Hong Kong.  It sold for HK$ 463,600,000 or approximately $59 million USD.