BEAUTY IN THE UGLINESS OF STRANGE STONES ~ The Wall Street Journal

‘Art Rocks,’ at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, looks at the culture that grew up around such ‘guai shi’ and their importance to Chinese visual arts.

A Scholar’s RockPHOTO: MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON

By 

Lee Lawrence

April 9, 2022

Outside the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in the green to the left of the main entrance, stands a large hunk of limestone. It isn’t part of “Art Rocks,” the last in the three-part series of “Weng Family Collection of Chinese Painting” exhibitions, but it offers a wonderful prologue. Massive, ungainly and pockmarked, the gray stone rises some 14 feet, as though lava had shot up from the pedestal, hit cold air and solidified into a misshapen mushroom. Pretty it is not. But intriguing and compelling? Absolutely. 

Peking glass in shape of rock (18th century)PHOTO: MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON

‘Weng Family Collection of Chinese Painting: Art Rocks’

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through May 3

In “Art Rocks,” Nancy Berliner, the museum’s senior curator of Chinese art, gives us a sense of the culture that grew up around such guai shi, or “strange stones,” and how integral they are to China’s visual arts. By the Song dynasty (960-1279), art connoisseurs were classifying them into types—the limestone described above is a taihu rock, after a lake where centuries of currents, storms and loose pebbles carved and shaped submerged boulders. Scholars praised rocks in poems and included them in landscape paintings. And they elaborated aesthetic criteria by which to judge them. Chief among these are wrinkled and textured surfaces, cavities and perforations, asymmetry and “awkwardness”—characteristics they saw as natural and powerful manifestations of qi, the energy that pervades all, animate and inanimate alike. 

The elite were also collecting them, placing large ones in gardens and bringing smaller ones indoors. The show evokes this by using a partition that emulates a wall and moon gate to create an outdoor/indoor divide. We start in the outdoor space, where works give us some history and context. Paintings of a famous garden, for example, tell of Weng Xincun (1791-1862) and Mi Fu, an 11th-century official famous for his reverence for rocks. And a 39-foot handscroll records artist Shen Zhou’s 1499 journey to the Zhang Gong Grotto in text and painting. In the portion on display, a man stands inside a cave, dwarfed by the monumentality of the mountain, four towering rocks, and countless stalactites. 

We also encounter two rocks, one of which stands five feet tall. It is narrow at its base and broadens in such irregular bulges and shapes that, no matter where we stand, there is no making sense of its form. So we stop trying. It is a coveted lingbi stone, and the longer we contemplate its lines, veins, ridges, hollows and outcrops, the more dynamic it feels.

Lingbi rock with wooden base (18th-19th century)PHOTO: MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON

At the moon gate we get a primer for what’s to come. On one side, an album gathers paintings of rocks in which Aisin-Gioro Yung iong (1743-1790), son of the Qianlong Emperor, uses a different traditional brushstroke for each—angular lines, dashes and dots, fluid strokes, “boneless” washes. On the other, a video shows Liu Dan, a contemporary Beijing artist, deploying a similar range of calligraphic techniques to capture the myriad textures of a rock, for the connection between rocks and brushstrokes runs deep. In describing the aesthetics of calligraphy, the esteemed 17th-century calligrapher Fu Ching-Chu hailed works that were clumsy, ugly and spontaneous—descriptions that echo the qualities of a fine scholar’s stone. 

Among the paintings on the other side of the moon gate, the 1708 “Finger Paintings of Flowers” takes this to the extreme. Here, Gao Qipei (1660-1734) forgoes the brush, transmitting the energy of his fingers directly onto the paper as he draws a ragged stone with large, uneven perforations and, along one edge, a sprig of grasses, their thinness and regularity providing a delicate counterpoint. Elsewhere, slim, feathery bamboo and broad, gently scalloped leaves of banana trees balance out the erratic lines and weighty mass of towering rocks in landscapes and idyllic outdoor scenes. Particularly affecting is Gu Ying’s early 17th-century “Narcissus,” where stone and flower meet in a composition so asymmetric it should slide right off the page. Yet, like a scholar’s rock, it holds fast.

This section also includes two rocks, both small, both lingbi. One illustrates some collectors’ fondness for rocks that emulate a recognizable form, in this case a fruit nicknamed “Buddha’s Hand.” One of several portraits made of this stone is displayed with it. Another, some seven inches long and four inches high, did double duty on a scholar’s desk. As an object of contemplation, the rock brought the scholar in touch with the forces that shaped this miniature range of gnarly, striated mountains. When the scholar had ground ink and unfurled a length of paper, however, its peaks and valleys provided an elegant brush rest—and maybe even inspired a way to paint mountains in a landscape.

There have been other shows in the U.S. highlighting scholars’ rocks, but nowhere near enough. With any luck, “Art Rocks” will inspire more institutions to bring these works of nature into direct conversation with some of the art in their collections. Whether the shows end up being big, small or, as is the case here, medium-size, the exchanges promise to be rich.

—Ms. Lawrence writes about Asian and Islamic art for the Journal. 

Gao Qipei, ‘Finger Paintings of Flowers’ (1708)PHOTO: MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON

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