Essays on Art by Hugh Moss

The Realm of Infinite Subtleties. The Handscroll Experience

13 February 2021

 

The handscroll is one of Chinese art’s most sophisticated, remarkable and absorbing artefacts, and one which exemplifies many of the ideas that form the basis of the trans-cultural theory of art I propose. The format arose from the ancient practice, common by the second millennium BCE, of writing with ink on thin strips of bamboo which were then threaded together and rolled up for storage.

The format is horizontal, on paper, silk, or satin, and can be of any length. Traditionally, and intentionally, it is kept rolled up and comes out only when the viewer decides to engage in an intimate, usually personal, and inevitably intense exchange with it. Further participants can be involved by looking over the shoulder of the viewer in charge of the exchange, but that inhibits some of its advantages as a format. Unless unusually short the handscroll is not intended to be viewed as a single image. It is a journey - into the art, into the mind of the artist, into the culture from which it comes, into the self, and, ultimately, as a highly efficient meditational aid, into the transcendent Self beyond ego. The attainment of this trans-intellectual goal governed the culture that evolved the format.

For our journey into the handscroll here, we will focus on The Four Seasons, by Liu Kuo-sung (1932).1 As agent for living Chinese artists for many years, I was keen to encourage ancient and highly efficient formats such as handscrolls, hanging scroll and albums. By the second half of the twentieth century, many Chinese artists outside of mainland China had begun to favour rectangular formats suitable for framing and for a modern, western-influenced, audience and clientele. So I commissioned many handscrolls from my artist friends, asking Liu Kuo-sung to create The Four Seasons, in 1982 – it was completed in 1983. Exhibited frequently, and widely around the world, it has become recognized as one of the finest handscrolls of the modern period, and one of the artist’s masterpieces.

Click on the image below to allow a closely similar experience to viewing the scroll in person (this will open in a new tab):

The Four Seasons, by Liu Kuo-sung (1932)

When you click on the image a screen will appear with a sliding scale for enlarging it. If you do so until the height fills your screen, you can use either the mouse or the keyboard arrows to go backwards of forwards to scroll through it. Begin by starting from the right and moving towards the left, which is the way the surface subject matter is intended to be revealed.

The traditional western approach to a handscroll has been an attempt to show it all at once, or as much of it as is possible, as a single image. This is inevitable for handscrolls on display in a museum or other exhibition setting, whether in the West or East, but these displays inhibit the meditational intention of the format and reduce some of its efficiency as art.

An early western response to the format is characterized by the fate of an imperial masterpiece that arrived in France after the inexcusably mendacious English and French looting of the Summer Palace outside Beijing in 1860. Many looted imperial works of art found their way to both countries, among them a series of large handscrolls depicting imperial journeys around China by Qing emperors. One of these appeared at auction in Paris some years back, with a large, neat, rectangular section cut out of it and possibly discarded, but in any case currently lost. Apparently, the large scroll had been used to wallpaper a grand dining room in France and the missing section was to accommodate a serving hatch from the kitchen. That was the fate of an imperial masterwork of Chinese art reduced to wall-paper in a western dining-room by an uncomprehending audience.

The handscroll effectively breaks down the distinction between artist and audience, a necessary goal once art efficiently begins to perform its highest role as one of our most efficient means of self-realization towards enlightenment, however we care to define that concept. The great benefit of the arts is that they are capable of communicating across the entire bandwidth of communication, from the explicit and explicable to the ineffable.

With a handscroll, the viewer controls speed of progress and direction, going back and forth at will, integrating the audience into the compositional process. The viewer’s experience is being constantly edited by changing the amount seen between the two rolled ends. This provides an enormous range of possible sub-compositions constantly edited and recomposed by the viewer.

The handscroll experience is intense and ideally solitary, reflecting the long-standing Chinese understanding of the value of the highest aim of the arts. As a practical measure, a pair of scroll-weights is kept at hand to hold back the two rolled ends should a particularly interesting section prompt a lengthy pause, for whatever reason. The format is designed to ensure that the audience cannot fail to become engrossed in the process as a full partner, rather than as a passive observer. It is specifically designed to get the viewer past the surface of art to its profound depths.

The initial impulse upon viewing a handscroll is to focus on subject matter, treating it as a journey and unrolling it to see where it leads and what happens along the way, even for those who understand their full potential; for those who don’t as yet, this initial journey is often taken at an unseemly gallop as if the destination was more important than the journey. But as the potential of the format reveals itself, those accustomed to it will begin to slow down and delight in the experience more. But as the potential of the format reveals itself, and as we become accustomed to it, its inner delights begin to reveal themselves. Once at the end, instead of just rolling it up again, quickly, to put it away, we can return slowly in the opposite direction, but focused this time on its inner languages. Once familiar with the subject matter, of course, this can be achieved by starting again at the beginning.

Focusing on form rather than subject, a completely different and abstract experience awaits. For centuries in Chinese art, although subject matter was never wholly abandoned, the focus shifted to the inner languages of form, line, colour and texture and the Chinese audience was expected to approach the visual art of painting with that firmly in mind. As explained in my theoretical introduction to these essays, western artists in the twentieth century, with their binary, intellectual approach to innovation, attempted to separate the languages of art in order to achieve their revolutionary goals. The Chinese, with their trans-intellectual mind-set, which prompted syncretism, simply shifted centuries ago to a focus on abstract, and particularly abstract expressive languages, without abandoning subject matter. Without knowing this, if we view a fourteenth century Chinese landscape scroll as primarily about subject matter, we are likely to miss the real art, the inner meaning. The experienced viewer will move beyond the surface subject matter, recognizing it as a restful and calming invitation to a far more profound experience expressed through the inner languages, the true focus of artist, audience and the culture represented. This focus on abstraction, abstract expressionism and other inner languages, including those of confidence and sagacity, while also enjoying the landscape, presented no problem to the syncretic mind. Profound art is not unlike an iceberg with the main aspects of its meaning concealed from casual view.  

As far as the languages are concerned, handscrolls are no different from paintings intended to be static while viewed. With subject matter, the balance between near and far views, vertical and horizontal shapes, solid elements and void, and so on all equally apply, as they do for all the inner languages. For the experienced viewer, understanding the vital role played by the audience, the same delights are available with any format. It is just that there is a little more effort involved in using a static painting as a portal to a transcendent realm of meaning than a handscroll, which so efficiently encourages it that even the inexperienced become experienced much more efficiently, and therefore rapidly. Once we become immersed in them, these inner languages speak eloquently and inspiringly. In Chinese art, for instance, the language of line, is highly developed through the art of calligraphy. Focusing specifically online opens up whole new vistas of meaning, avenues of delight. We can follow it to become involved in the expressiveness of the gestural, calligraphic brushwork. As we follow the dancing lines of brushwork in its many possible modes (varying ink-tones that can be wet or dry, changing the speed of the moving brush to vary texture, shifts in the use of the brush from its centre, to its side, with all of the subtle potential markings of each and everything between), the underlying subject matter begins to shimmer and dissolve into a deeper level of meaning, revealing the subtle levels at which traditional Chinese artists dealt with abstraction. This is also true of the subject matter, of course, once we understand that landscape, for instance, became an expression of the Dao and we move beyond looking at soaring cliffs, waterfalls and trees to seeing them as expressions of a deeper meaning. A good deal of Chinese painting also invokes inner meaning with illustrations of ancient people with legendary integrity and morality; exemplars of a Confucian/Daoist ideal.

With this exercise in plumbing the inner languages we gradually shift from the intellectual mode of understanding to the trans-intellectual, from the effable to the ineffable, from the realm of ordinary reality to the spiritual. And in the process we befuddle the intellect in order to rise above it and experience a transcendent level of meaning – the aim of all meditational pursuits including, in China, the arts. Wordsworth referred to it as the ‘meddling intellect;’ a colourful Chinese description of meditating likens it to trying to climb into the bird cage without awakening the birds – in other words, to reach the self beyond definition, beyond ego, and fulfil the long-standing Chinese concept of attaining the Dao or Buddha nature, by silencing the fragmenting intellect.

The efficiency of the handscroll format in breaking down the barrier between artist and audience and granting access to a more profound artistic experience of visual art has been demonstrated to me time and time again. Most visitors who see paintings conventionally hanging on the walls of my studio or home will tend to bounce off their surface and barely remember individual works at any depth. Once introduced to a handscroll, however, and encouraged to enjoy it as intended, they invariably remember the experience and the handscroll long afterwards. It is fixed indelibly in the mind; it worked more efficiently as art.

Having seen the process of the handscroll in action, as both artist and audience, it is worth recalling the concept mentioned in the introduction to these essays of the distinction between product (the art object) and process in art. In a fully mature aesthetic culture, it is necessary to shift from a product-based understanding of art to a process-based one. The fully mature aesthetic culture sees the highest role of art as being directly and efficiently linked to the evolution of consciousness, as a powerful means of self-realization. It approaches art, regardless of its lower level functions, with this in mind, and the handscroll format epitomizes this understanding of art. The approach is imbedded in Chinese aesthetics, but was only fully achieved in the West as a revolutionary transition very recently and has yet to be fully comprehend theoretically and trans-culturally. This basic fact is, I believe, the reason for so much confusion in the global art world, for both artists and audience.

The Liu Kuo-sung handscroll also illustrates another important aspect of the fully mature, process-based aesthetic approach to art, explained in my introductory talk in this series. When it was first loaned back to the artist to be shown in an exhibition of his works in various Chinese cities, the title panel was blank. When I had the painting mounted initially, it came with a title but the title panel was left blank. When it was returned to me many months later, to my delight I found that Kuo-sung had asked the famous artists Li Keran, then living in Beijing, to inscribe the title panel, which he did in his distinctive and much appreciated hand, along with a suitable encomium. In China the process was sanctified over the product, de-emphasizing its worldly manifestation. This explains why so many masterpieces of Chinese art attract elegant graffiti, those later additional inscriptions, sometimes written on the mounts or with handscrolls as additional, separate colophons added to the end of the painting, but also frequently on the painting itself, usually but not always in blank areas. It also explains the common practice of adding a series of collectors’ seals that can, over the centuries, become a cinnabar blizzard, often impressed over elements of the surface subject matter. The logic, in process-based aesthetics, is obvious: the art is not considered sacrosanct, the surface is not what it is all about and is not sanctified as in the West, so there is no inhibition against adding to it in a suitable manner.

When I commissioned The Four Seasons, in 1982 I was living less than a mile away from Liu Kuo-sung’s apartment, which was also his de-facto studio, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, so I was able to visit him regularly over the many months of its production as more and more furniture was moved out of the way, and more and more sheets of paper added to its length. It remains one of the most informative lessons I received from my many artist friends in those years inspiring me to become an artist in the Chinese tradition myself and to produce dozens of handscrolls over the past few decades – several of which can be accessed along with some others from my collection through the following links.2

Appendix
A selection of handscrolls:

Click on the images below to view high resolution scrollable photos (these will open in new tabs).

21.1.885
Ho Huai-shuo, The Four Seasons
Ho Huai-shuo(b. 1941)
The Four Seasons
1984
57.8 x 1,070 cm

Provenance:
Commissioned from the artist, November 1984 and completed in 1985

Title panel: Jao Tsung-I, 1985
67.3 x 106 cm

After Liu Kuo-sung completed the Four Seasons handscroll, I showed it to Ho Huai-shuo who responded with his own version, which is larger, and, of course, quite different. Again, a blank title panel was later inscribed by the Hong Kong literatus, painter, calligrapher and scholar, Jao Tsung-I at my request at the suggestion of the artist.

21.1.921
Ho Huai-shuo (b. 1941) Five Ancients
Ho Huai-shuo (b. 1941)
Five Ancients

Signed and dated on the title panel that it was conceived in 1984 and painted and inscribed in the third month, late spring of 1985, both title panel and painting dated to 1985
Painting: 16.3 x 315.3 cm
Title Panel: 16.6 x 60.5 cm

Provenance:
The Artist, Taipei, March 1985

Colophon:
When Ho Huai-shuo painted for me his monumental handscroll ‘The Four Season,’ commissioned and begun in1984, completed in 1985, I was already an aficionado of the genre and frequently asked him and other artists to paint them for me. Following his larger handscroll he responded to my requests for more with the present work depicting five famous ancient poets. It is as intimate as the larger handscroll was monumental, and as carefully thought out. Huai-shuo’s faultless sense of formal balance and subtlety of technique never desert him and are exemplified here in the juxtaposition of the elements of figures, landscape settings, blocks of calligraphy and seals, and in the ink-tones and colouring he uses to depict them. It provides endless delight.
Inscribed by the Master of the Water Pine and Stone Retreat in the winter of 2011. Sussex.
With two seals of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang  (‘Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’), and 士撝 Shihui.

21.1.1211

Ho Huai-shuo, Through the Gates
Ho Huai-shuo (b. 1941)
Through the Gates

1987
Ink and water-colours on xuan paper
Handscroll.
With three seals of the artist.
Title panel: 32 x 123 cm
Painting: 33.2 x 776 cm.
Colophon: 33.2 x 112 cm

Colophon:
Since 1983 my good friend Huai-shuo has painted several handscrolls for me. I believe they are among his finest works, taking him back to the formats of a tradition that he cherishes above all else. I was particularly delighted with ‘Through the Gates’ which he painted for me in 1987. Metaphorically, the title can be seen as standing for the Enlightenment experience of the Daoist or Buddhist adept, but open to all, even the unexpecting. The yingyang composition shifts dramatically half way through as the viewer is taken from a barren gorge with a still, near-frozen river, inhabited only by a few lonely birds, through an abrupt moment of transition, to a lush forest of pines. It seems to represent the harsh realities of the Dusty World giving way to the sheer delight of the realm beyond the Stage of Time. There is a path in the first section, implied by a rickety wooden bridge between rocky outcrops but it is absent from the second where one might feel that a path is no longer needed. But in fact, although it may appear unnecessary, it remains useful. Once one has stepped through ‘the gates,’ beyond the rational, reasoning faculties of mind there remains one last aspect of the Enlightenment experience to master. It is a three-phase process: aspiration, realization, integration. The first is when one realizes that there is something there worth reaching for; the second when, in a random moment of light one attains it in the Enlightenment experience itself, the third is the rest of one’s life as one learns to integrate the wisdom of the transcendent realm with the every-day concerns of the Dusty World.

Huai-shuo, however, ever practical as an artist and grasping the nature of the handscroll format, was probably more concerned with making the physical painting work, so the continuous path, even where only implied, is necessary so that the traveller, finally encountered by the viewer having traversed the forest of pines, can be seen turning back to return along it. This is a clue from Huai-shuo that the viewer should also turn back and experience the handscroll in the opposite direction. This never fails to be rewarding, encouraging the viewer to reach beyond the immediate language of subject matter and begin to enjoy all the underlying languages of form, line, colour and texture and, ultimately, beneath them, of confidence.

I treasure it, viewing it frequently at the Water Pine and Stone Retreat. Inscribed in the summer of 2011 Sussex. Mo Shiwei

With two seals of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang  (‘Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’), and 攜杖老人 Xiezhang laoren (‘The old man who carries the staff’).

21.1.1449
Ho Huai-shuo, The Nodding Stone Garden

Ho Huai-shuo (b.1941)
The Nodding Stone Garden

1985
Ink and water-colours on xuan paper.
Handscroll.
34 x 954 cm.
With two seals of the artist.

Provenance:
The Artist, Taipei, 2005

Title panel:
Ho Huai-shuo
34.5 x 69.5 cm
With two seals of the artist.

Colophon:
In |July 2004 Ho Huai-shuo came once more to visit me in Sussex. He stayed for several days and each day he would wander alone in the gardens; a solitary, small figure who would emerge now and then between trees in the distance or be glimpsed across the waters of the lake, reminding me of the solitary figure so prevalent in his paintings when we first forged our friendship so long ago.

A year later I paid him a visit at his studio on the outskirts of Taipei. After some time spent drinking, chatting and looking at his recent works, I was about to leave when he presented me with a gift of this handscroll almost, it seemed, as an afterthought. It was his impression of Old Surrey Hall and its gardens with the two of us enjoying its many delights. When he stumbled one day across a circle of stones I had erected, he returned to the house excited and suggested the name The Nodding Stone Garden. He explained that in the early fifth century, the monk Daosheng entered Tiger Mountain and was reputed to have preached on the subject of the Nirvana Sutra to a group of stupid stones as disciples. Having finished, he asked them whether what he had said accorded with Buddha-nature and, according to the legend the stones nodded their agreement. Huai-shuo’s suggestion of the name while tongue-in-cheek was flattering and amusing so I, of course, readily agreed. We immediately retired to my studio where he took a large sheet of Xuan paper, brush and ink and wrote the name in his powerful calligraphy. The many stones brought half way around the world to be placed in the garden have yet to nod at any words of mine but they are agreeable companions nonetheless.

To the scroll he also added an impressive water-fall and some towering mountains, which the gardens had lacked until he gave me the scroll.

It was a generous and thoughtful gift, aimed at and treasured in my heart so now I pick up my brush to record my gratitude. It has taken me five years to muster the courage.

Inscribed by the Master of The Nodding Stone Garden in the Summer of 2010.
With three seals of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang  (‘Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’), 人磨墨墨磨人 Renmomo momoren (‘Man grinds the ink; ink grinds the man’), and 攜杖老人 Xiezhang laoren (‘The old man who carries the staff’).

21.1.540
Chen Chikwan, Arcadia

Chen Chikwan (1921-2007)
Arcadia (1)
Ink and water-colours on xuan paper.
Handscroll.
Inscribed at the beginning of the handscroll ‘Painted by Chen Chi-kwan, Taiwan, Autumn 1966,’ with one seal of the artist, Chen Chi-kwan yin (‘Seal of Chen Chi-kwan’), which is repeated at the other end of the scroll
1966
184 x 22.8 cm

Provenance:
The Artist, Taipei, January 1981

Published:
Chen Chi Kwan Paintings 1940-1980, Taipei: Art Book Co., 1981, p. 112
Taipei Fine Art Museum, Painting and Architecture of Chen Chi-kwan, Taipei: 2004, p. 220, no. 170

AK11.45
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat

The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
The Dangerous Road to Shu

Handscroll, Private collection, Singapore.
Title Panel: 26 x 78 cm
Painting: 26 x 333 cm
Colophon: 26 x 273 cm
October 2011
With three seals of the artist: 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’), 人磨墨墨磨人 Renmomo momoren (‘Man grinds the ink; ink grinds the man’), and 一二三 Yi er san (‘One, two, three’.

Inscriptions:

Label:
The Dangerous Road to Shu
With one seal of the artist: 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’).  

Title panel:
The Dangerous Road to Shu

A visual response to Li Bai inspired by a recently acquired strange stone resembling The Hard Road to Shu with its white veins running through precipitous peaks. Inscribed by the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat.

With three seals of the artist: 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’), 攜杖老人 Xiezhang laoren (‘The old man who carries the staff’), and
有意无意 Youyi wuyi (‘Between intention and no intention’)

Colophon:
Aiya! Dangerous and steep!
The Road to Shu is hard, harder than climbing the sky!
Cancong and Yufu in the far, murky past founded this land;
for forty-eight thousand years after them hearth smoke of men did not stretch through the passes into Qin.
Over Mount Taibai directly west there is a way for birds whereby they can cut straight across Mount Emei’s peak.
There once was a landslide, an avalanche, and warriors died in their prime, and only after that time did ladders to sky and plankways on stone link it through, one to the other.

Above there is the high ensign where the team of six dragons bends the sun, and below is the stream that winds around with dashing waves surging back crashing.

Even in flight the brown crane cannot pass, apes and monkeys want to cross and sadly strain, dragging themselves along.
At Qingni it loops and twists, each hundred steps with nine sharp turns that curve around ridges and peaks.
Touch Orion, pass by Gemini, look up and gasp, with your hands stroke your breast, sit and sigh in pain.
Oh westbound traveller when you will return? – for I am dismayed by paths so craggy, insurmountable.
You will hear and see only sorrowing birds that wail on leafless trees, forest cockerels, winding their way through the woods, followed by their hens.

You will also hear the nightjar crying to the moon and casting a gloom in deserted hills.
The Road to Shu is hard, harder than climbing the sky, causing wrinkles to form in youthful features of any who hear this song.
Peak joined to peak, the uppermost but a foot short of Heaven, barren pines hang upside down, clinging to sheer cliff face.
Torrents burst over bluffs in cascades in bellowing duels, boulders roll smashing down slopes; thunder in thousands of canyons.
Since here there is such peril you who have come so far on this way, why have you come at all?
Sword Tower looms high, juts into sky, one man could block the pass and thousands could not break through. And the one who holds it may prove no friend, may change into wolf or jackal.

At dawn we dodge fierce tigers, at dusk we dodge long snakes.
They sharpen fangs to suck our blood and kill men like scything down hemp. Men may speak of the joys of the City of Brocade, but best to turn home as soon as you can.
The Road to Shu is hard, harder than climbing the sky,
I sway gazing off towards the west and give a mighty sigh.

The Road to Shu is Hard was written by Li Bai, who I never met, although we had at least one mutual friend and I had intended to get together with him when news of his untimely but romantic death reached me beyond the passes. It was not until many years later that I read his poem, and Bai Juyi’s Song of Enduring Sorrow and was reminded of Emperor Minghuang’s journey along this same hard road in flight from rebellion after the death of his beloved concubine. I had been along the road long before, but determined to do so again with these images in mind. And so I did. It was as difficult as ever, and as dangerous, but now more romantic and more meaningful at every bend in the road. Painting it from memory brings it all back to life again with such clarity that these many centuries melt away.

The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat, in the clear autumn of 2011.  

AK11.55
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat

The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
Mind Moons Mirror
Ink on cotton paper.
Handscroll, Private Collection, Gabriola, BC. Canada
Title panel: 35 x 93.8 cm
Painting: 38 x 538 cm
Autumn 2011

Title Panel:
Mind moons mirror.
A Handscroll mirroring the verse of monk Saigyo eight centuries later.
Inscribed by the Master of the Water Pine and Stone Retreat in the clear autumn of 2011, Hong Kong.
With three seals of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’), 攜杖老人 Xiezhang laoren (‘The old man who carries the staff’) and 人磨墨墨磨人 Renmomo momoren (‘Man grinds the ink; ink grinds the man’)

Painting:
In the mountain’s deep places the moon of the mind in light serene. Moon mirrors all things everywhere. Moon mirrors mind. Enlightenment.

With three seals of the artist: 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’), 人磨墨墨磨人 Renmomo momoren (‘Man grinds the ink; ink grinds the man’), and 无爲 Wuwei (‘Without action’).

Published:
INKstudio, Four Accomplishments in Ink: Liu Dan | Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat | Xu Lei | Zeng Xiaojun. Beijing: INKstudio, 2019, p 22-35

Exhibited:
Four Accomplishments in Ink: Liu Dan | Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat | Xu Lei | Zeng Xiaojun, INKstudio at J.J. Lally & Co, New York, 13 – 29 March 2019

AK13.22
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
Into the Void

Ink on cotton paper
Handscroll. Unknown collector, sold Sotheby's Hong Kong, April 2014.
12.5. x 67.5 cm
With two seals of the artist: 意氣如雲 Yiqi ru yun (‘Spirit as high as the clouds’) and 閒中日長 Xianzhong richang (‘The days are long when one’s at leisure’)
2013

Title Panel:
Into the Void

Inscribed by the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat in the Spring of 2013
With two seals of the artist: 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’) and 士撝 Shihui.

Colophon:
Men ask the way through the clouds,
The cloud way’s dark, without a sign.
High summits are of naked rock.
In deep valleys sun never shines.
Behind you green peaks, and in front,
To east the white clouds, and to west –
Want to know where the cloud way lies?
It’s there, in the centre of the Void!

Cold Mountain poetry inscribed by the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat playing games taught to me many years ago by my old friend National Pine and fermenting in my heart ever since.
With two seals of the artist: 竹虛 老人 Zhuxu laoren (‘Old man as Empty Inside as Bamboo'), and 石石 Shishi (‘Stones’)

Published
Sotheby’s, Contemporary Literati – A Gathering. Hong Kong: Sotheby’s, 2014, p 206

Exhibited
Contemporary Literati – A Gathering, Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 7 April 2014

AK14.64
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
Silent Night

Ink and water-colours on cloud dragon paper
Handscroll. Q collection, London, England
39.5 x 423 cm
Sussex July 2014
With five seals of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’) (twice), 竹虛 老人Zhuxu laoren (‘Old man as Empty Inside as Bamboo'), 如如居士 Ruru Jushi (‘The retired scholar who believes that all doctrines are equal’) , and 無爲Wuwei (‘Without action’)

Inscription:
Silent Night re-imagined for a post-religious age by the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat in the summer of 2014.

Silent night, Tender night
All is calm, all is bright
Add one more to the tally of years
Rise above the procession of fears
Sleep in confident peace,
Sleep in confident peace.
Silent night, radiant night
Barns are full and spirit takes flight
Mountain meadows covered in snow
Muffle hooves in the afterglow
Family warm by the hearth
Family warm by the hearth.
Silent night, Mystical night
Stardust fulfillment sprinkled as light
Feel the resonance, feel the grace
Feel the love in the human race,
Eternal spirit reborn
Eternal spirit reborn.

AK14.92
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat

The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
Eve

Ink and water-colours on cloud-dragon paper
Handscroll. Q collection, London, England
280 x 38 cm
September 2014 Sussex

Inscriptions

Title Panel:
Eve
 I have always been drawn to mountains and enchanted by snow. A few years ago good friends invited me to spend time with them in their retreat in the Austrian Alps. Being a staunchly catholic country, Christmas eve is one of the high festivals of the year and no-where have I heard the hymn Silent Night given greater meaning. One can believe in belief and the spirit it brings forth at its best without believing in God. Now, in the warmth of summer at the Garden at the Edge of the Universe with the sun dappling the shadows in the cloisters, I paint my recollection of the experience bathed in a glows.
Inscribed by the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat, September 2014.

With three seals of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’), 山外山樵 Shanwai shanqiao (‘The mountain woodcutter who is not in the mountains’) and 人磨墨墨磨人 Renmomo momoren (‘Man grinds the ink; ink grinds the man’)

AK16.4
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat

The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
Transmutations

Ink and water colour on cloud-dragon paper laid down on Xuan paper.
Handscroll
Title panel: 62 x 132 cm.
Painting: 62 x 988 cm
Hong Kong, January 2016

Exhibited
The Experience of Looking, Hong Kong Arts Centre, organised by Rasti Chinese Art, 2-10 June 2019

Published
The Experience of Looking. Hong Kong: Rasti Chinese Art, 2019. Exhibition catalogue. P. 54-55.

Inscriptions:

Title slip:
Transmutations
With one seal of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’)

Title panel:
Transmutations.
Alchemizing strange stones at the Garden at the Edge of the Universe, 2016.
With three seals of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’), 石石狂 Shishikuang (‘A Fool for Stones’) and 水松石山房主人 Shuisongshi shanfang zhuren (‘Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’)

Painting:
The fundamental role of art is the transmutation of consciousness. Creative response to experience embodied in the arts provides the most sophisticated and flexible range of languages for exploring and expressing an infinite range of meaning from the banal to the profound and from the precise to the undefinable that are essential to the pursuit of higher meaning. Transmutation is also central to alchemy and not only in the metaphor of transmuting base metal into gold but in what it stands for in transforming consciousness. The artist is an alchemist; brush and ink are crucible and alembic, transforming the raw materials of ink and paper into a higher form that, in turn, transforms consciousness for artist and audience alike.

The same process of transformation and transmutation is found in the relationship between the Stone Fool and strange stones. The adept is capable of transmuting the self, stepping beyond mortal restrictions and entering the realm of the stone as an immortal beyond the Stage of Time, there to wander and wonder uninhibitedly in the realm of the Enlightened Sage.

Over the centuries I have met only two practising alchemists who were also Stone Fools. One was aptly named the Eyebrowless Hermit, with whom I spent time in the mountains while the Mongols ruled; the other I encountered not in the ‘real’ world but while sojourning in a Strange Stone. Exploring its many delights I came across his retreat in a forest of blossoming peach trees on the banks of a river chilled by snowmelt from a thousand distant peaks.

I have no idea how long I stayed with him - beyond the Stage of Time, time has no meaning and seasons are optional; the peach trees blossomed all year long and snow fell politely only when we were climbing in search of it to offset the pleasant mildness of our valley calm. Deer and cranes came and went without fear and the old man’s goats, ducks and chickens roamed freely.

He had a fine collection of eight strange stones when I arrived and we added two more while I was with him, making stands as needed from ancient trees clinging doggedly to the gorges above us where we sought out stones. In recalling them to the brush as I revisit my old friend, I have decided to make them of cinnabar, the alchemist’s stone, despite the fact that in the ‘real’ world it does not figure among strange stones. He would have recognized the appropriateness of this, for dwelling in a realm beyond reason there is no need to be constrained by reality and red is a joyous colour. My friend claimed that one particularly fine stone would, occasionally, levitate from its stand as if leaping free, although I cannot say I ever saw it do so – until now, that is.

I mixed the colour as he would have done in his alchemical practice from a variety of different watercolours and inks, with just a hint of black and a touch of blue to take the prettiness out of it. Then I added a touch of my own cinnabar blood from a cut in the palm of my hand, a little snake bile and a splash of deer-hoof glue before bringing it all to the boil over a brazier. The resulting pot of colour lasted just long enough to paint all ten stones. Perhaps there was one for each decade of his lifespan, but in a timeless realm, who knows how old he was?

Inscribed by the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat at the Garden at the Edge of the Universe, with an itching palm and a joyous heart, returning to reality in a chilled Hong Kong in the beginning of 2016.

With fourteen seals of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’), 養石閒人 Yangshi xianren (‘An idler who cherishes stones’), 如如居士 Ruru Jushi (‘The retired scholar who believes that all doctrines are equal’), 山外山樵 Shanwai shanqiao (‘The mountain woodcutter who is not in the mountains’), 攜杖老人 Xiezhang laoren (‘The old man who carries the staff’), 竹虛 老人 Zhuxu laoren (‘Old man as Empty Inside as Bamboo'), 石狂 Shikuang (‘Stone Fool’), 有意无意 Youyi wuyi (‘Between intention and no intention’), 石 Shi (‘Stone’), 石 Shi (‘Stone’), 偶然得之 Ouran dezhi (‘Achieved by accident’), 笑傲烟霞 Xiaoao yanxia ('Smile haughtily among clouds and rosy mists'), 意氣如雲 Yiqi ru yun (‘Spirit as high as the clouds’), 閒情似野鶴 Xianqing si yehe (‘Free as a wild crane’), 閒情似野鶴 Xianqing si yehe (‘Free as a wild crane’) and
以山水文籍自娱 Yi shanshui wenji ziyu (‘To amuse oneself with landscape (painting) and books’).

AK17.25
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
A Night with the Shaggy-Maned Immortal

Handscroll
Ink and water colours on Cloud-dragon Paper
23.5 x 556 cm
Summer 2017

With three seals of the artist:
墨者不朽 Mozhe buxiu (‘Let ink be my immortality’), 如如居士 Ruru Jushi (‘The retired scholar who believes that all doctrines are equal’), and 養石閒人 Yangshi xianren (‘An idler who cherishes stones’)

Title Slip:
A Night with the Shaggy-Maned Immortal
With one seal of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’)

Title Panel:

A Night with the Shaggy-Maned Immortal
Pine-shadowed moonlight pierces evening mist
Woodsmen and birds home for the night
The chill of evening brought in on the breeze
Carrying the distant sound of a temple bell
As the door to my humble abode creaks open
Awaiting the Shaggy Maned Immortal
To drink with me and chant poems
To the mottled scales of ancient pines
Inscribed by the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat, at the
Garden at the Edge, Summer of 2017.
With three seals of the artist: 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’), 人磨墨墨磨人 Renmomo momoren (‘Man grinds the ink; ink grinds the man’) and 竹虛老人Zhuxu laoren (‘Old man as Empty Inside as Bamboo')

AK17.47The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat

The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
Walking Staff in Hand
Ink on cloud-dragon paper
Handscroll. K Y Ng collection. Hong Kong.
Painting: 26.8 x 379 cm
Black Molly and Sussex, Summer 2017

Inscriptions:

Title slip:
Walking Staff in Hand
With one seal of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’)

Title Panel:
Walking Staff in Hand
Inscribed by the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat on a painting four months in the making.
With three seals of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’), 墨者不朽 Mozhe buxiu (‘Let ink be my immortality’), and 養石閒人 Yangshi xianren (‘An idler who cherishes stones’).

Painting:
With two seals of the artist, 終日到門惟白雲 Zhongri daomen wei baiyun (‘All day long to this gate come only the white clouds’), and
竹虛老人 Zhuxu laoren (‘Old man as Empty Inside as Bamboo').

Colophon:
Walking-staff in hand, I watch snow clear.
Ten thousand clouds and streams banked up,
Woodcutters return to their simple homes,
And soon a cold sun sets among risky peaks.
A wildfire burns among ridgeline grasses.
Scraps of mist rise, born of rock and pine.
On the road back to a mountain monastery,
I hear it struck: that bell of evening skies!

Sometimes I take my walking staff in hand and wander in the wilderness; sometimes I take a book from the shelf and wander among ancient poems. There, so often, I meet Jia Dao, faithful wilderness wanderer and companion.

Inscribed by the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat at the Garden at the Edge of the Universe in the late Summer of 2017 on a handscroll painted in the mind-expanding calm of Black Molly and the cliffs and ravines of Majorca.

With three seals of the artist, Flying Cranes (pictorial seal), The Sage in the Lotus (pictorial seal), and 閒情似野鶴 Xianqing si yehe (‘Free as a wild crane’).

AK17.49
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
Startling the Birds
Ink and water-colours on Cloud-dragon paper.
27.5 x 183.5 cm
Sussex, Bangkok, Hong Kong, July-October 2017

Inscriptions:

Title slip:
Startling the Birds.
With one seal of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’)

Title panel:
Startling the Birds.
Inscribed by the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat on a painting that kept me company around the world in the summer and autumn of 2017.
With two seals of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’), and 養石閒人 Yangshi xianren (‘An idler who cherishes stones’)

Painting:
I'm idle, as osmanthus flowers fall,
This quiet night in spring, the hill is empty.
The moon comes out and startles the birds on the hill,
They don't stop calling in the spring ravine.

Wang Wei wrote these lines many centuries ago. Today I call him back to visit me in my studio by illustrating the poem and inscribing his timeless words.

With three seals of the artist, Flying Cranes (pictorial seal)
水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’), and 攜杖老人 Xiezhang laoren (‘The old man who carries the staff’).

AK19.23
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
Seeking the Temple of Fragrance Amassed
Ink and water-colours on cloud-dragon paper
Handscroll.
Painting 19 x 414 cm
Hong Kong, January 2019
With three seals of the artist, Flying Cranes (pictorial seal), 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’), and 養石閒人 Yangshi xianren (‘An idler who cherishes stones’)

Inscriptions:

Title slip:
Seeking the Temple of Fragrance Amassed
With one seal of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’)

Title Panel:
Seeking the Temple of Fragrance Amassed
With two seals of the artist, 墨者不朽 Mozhe buxiu (‘Let ink be my immortality’), and 竹虛老人 Zhuxu laoren (‘Old man as Empty Inside as Bamboo')

Colophon:
Unfamiliar with the Temple of Fragrance Amassed,
For several tricents I make my way through cloudy peaks,
Where in ancient woods innocent of paths made by men,
Somewhere deep in the mountains a bell sounds.
As the sound of a stream makes towering rocks gulp,
And the sheen of sunlight chills green pines,
There at twilight by the bend of an empty pool
I sit in meditation and subdue the poisonous dragon.

Inscribed by the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat, calling, once again, upon Wang Wei across the ages, at the Garden at the Edge of the Universe, early spring, 2019.

With two seals of the artist, 山外山樵 Shanwai shanqiao (‘The mountain woodcutter who is not in the mountains’) and 攜杖老人 Xiezhang laoren (‘The old man who carries the staff’)

Note:
Wang Wei is being very clever here: any body of water whatever shape or size has a resident dragon (sometimes mischievous, but mostly benevolent). Here the ‘empty pool’ is surely a metaphor for the void mind. The dragon being subdued, therefore, refers to the transcendence of passions and concepts to achieve the void mind.

過香積寺
不知香積寺
數裡入雲峰
古木無人徑
深山何處鐘
泉聲咽危石
日色冷青松
薄暮空潭曲
安禪制毒龍

Translation by Prof. Richard John Lynn.

AK19.24
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
The Stone Garden of the Reluctant Duck
Ink and water-colours on Cloud dragon paper, mounted down on xuan paper.
Handscroll 47 x 670 cm. Private Collection, Beijing.
Hong Kong, January 2019
With twenty seals of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’), 石狂 Shikuang (‘Stone Fool’),     
如如居士 Ruru Jushi (‘The retired scholar who believes that all doctrines are equal’), 虚静觀復道人 Xujing guanfu Daoren (‘Man of the Dao who Observes the Return of All Things to Emptiness and Quietude’), 墨者不朽 Mozhe buxiu (‘Let ink be my immortality’).
山外山樵 Shanwai shanqiao (‘The mountain woodcutter who is not in the mountains’), 竹虛老人 Zhuxu laoren (‘Old man as Empty Inside as Bamboo'), 攜杖老人 Xiezhang laoren (‘The old man who carries the staff’), 人磨墨墨磨人 Renmomo momoren (‘Man grinds the ink; ink grinds the man’), 養石閒人 Yangshi xianren (‘An idler who cherishes stones’), 无爲 Wuwei (‘Without action’), 有意无意 Youyi wuyi (‘Between intention and no intention’), 意外之喜 Yiwai zhixi (‘A happy accident’), 偶然得之 Ouran dezhi (‘Achieved by accident’), 笑傲烟霞 Xiaoao yanxia ('Smile haughtily among clouds and rosy mists'), 年年歲歲一床書 Nian nian sui sui yichuang shu (‘Bed full of books all year round’), 意氣如雲 Yiqi ru yun (‘Spirit as high as the clouds’), 石 Shi (‘Stone’), 一二三 Yi er san (‘One, two, three’) and 閒情似野鶴 Xianqing si yehe (‘Free as a wild crane’).

Inscriptions:

Title Slip:
The Stone Garden of the Reluctant Duck
With one seal of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’)

Text:
The Stone Garden of the Reluctant Duck

While I was living in a remote valley in the mountains of Zhejiang, as the Ming established its legitimacy, a matter of no concern to me, I was visited by an old friend from Nanjing. He had been tutoring the son of a high official in Yangzhou for some years, since the official had little time from his duties to the Emperor to do so himself. But he had grown weary of the rigid social politics of the household and decided to retire to the mountains to seek the Dao. We had kept in touch by letters over the years of our separation, so he knew where I lived and, to my delight, came to join me. One can never get enough of true friends, friends of the heart who share one’s aspirations and understanding. We devoted our time to the usual delights of the wilderness and content for several years climbing high into the mountains in search of fungi, visiting precipitous gorges to listen to the songs of heaven-sent cascades, whistling into the mist and, back home, writing and chanting poetry and tending our vegetables and fruit trees, some ducks, chickens and two goats.

Then, one day, we received a most unexpected, official visit, on behalf of the Magistrate of Hangzhou. Belatedly, since it had taken his messengers nearly two years to find us. They arrived inappropriately banging a drum, wielding stout staves that were not designed primarily with support I mind, and carrying identifying banners as if intent on arresting a couple of miscreants.

After they had calmed down, been fed, and had rested, they explained that my friend had come into wealth. He was the beneficiary of an unexpected inheritance; a great estate, a vast fortune, and an extensive collection of paintings and calligraphy, and ancient bronzes, amongst other treasures.

An uncle on his father’s side had died, and his sole male heir had recently met an unexpected end during a military campaign, so the next male in line was my friend. The only proviso stipulated was that once he took up residence he was to see to the well-being of the entire household and keep widow, who was his only official wife, concubines and daughters in the style to which they were accustomed.

He begged me to accompany him to visit the estate, which he remembered fondly from a few visits during his early childhood, and to help him to settle into his new life. He suggested I might like a change and should stay with him for as long as I cared to so that I could enjoy the delights of a sudden shift from a life of rustic essentials to one of considerable luxury. I had, of course, immediately considered accompanying him on his adventure but as soon as he told me of his memory of playing in the ancient gardens filled with strange standing stones I happily agreed.

We set off the very next day, for it was crowded with two extra guests. It may be difficult to leave a wilderness retreat in the mind, but physically, it is a matter of an hour or two’s preparation. On top of which, we had two willing helpers eager to see their homes again. We left behind most of what was there, against our return, should we find a life of luxury too troublesome after a while.

The estate turned out to be far more extensive than he recalled, and the inheritance too vast to calculate.

I spent almost a decade with him, living in a residence adjoining my favourite of several stone gardens. It was extensive and divided into different areas separated by walls and pathways, with ancient trees, bamboo, bridges and two open pavilions. Continuous yet discrete, intimate and private, it cleverly evoked the experience of enjoying a handscroll. A rill wound through it fed from a nearby hillside spring at one end, and falling through different levels with waterfalls and ponds before joining a river that ran through the wilder part of the estate with its more natural terrain where deer and cranes enjoyed ongoing harmony in a natural environment. It was located well away from the main dwelling, which was far too sumptuous for me with its painted beams and lofty ceilings, vast reception rooms and so many obsequious staff. From my pavilion the stone garden was accessed by crossing a wooden bridge zig-zagging across a large pond over which my little home jutted. Once through the first moon-gate, the rest of my private garden was filled with large, smooth, twisted stones that had obviously been there for many generations, all apparently from the same source, but none resembling any of the usual, famous types of strange stones.

My friend was diverted from his attempts at the Dao by his new station in life, but in a rather Daoist fashion. He spent more time in my humble quarters than in his own palatial residence – very much more time. There was a rather personable duck that lived, with others, on the pond. It was unusually friendly and quite the entertainer and my friend delighted in bringing it morsels and trying to teach it tricks, one of which was to bow reverentially to a strange stone. How could the duck know of Mi Fu, but my friend did and, despite failure, persisted. His endless, patient efforts were in themselves Daoist in nature with his indifference to the outcome. It became such a feature of his visits that we informally renamed it The Stone Garden of the Reluctant Duck.

In recalling these happy days to the brush I may have lost part of the distinction between stones and viewers, so I have also taken the liberty of adding one stone that bears no resemblance to any that was actually in the garden. It resembles, instead, the duck, perched on a low stone, which it did learn to do, and paying homage to a twisted stone, which it did not. Maybe ducks don’t bow. Perhaps they are the true embodiment of the Dao, but what would be the point of that in a creature lacking the conception of what the Dao is, and why it is worth attaining.

Quack.

Inscribed by the Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat, gazing back into the Valley of the Past, again, at the Garden at the Edge of the Universe in the spring of 2019.

AK20.40
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
Gathering of Ancient Trees
Ink on Cloud-dragon paper
49 x 870 cm
Hong Kong August 2020
With six seals of the artist, ), 如如居士 Ruru Jushi (‘The retired scholar who believes that all doctrines are equal’), 石 Shi (‘Stone’),墨者不朽 Mozhe buxiu (‘Let ink be my immortality’), 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’), 竹虛老人Zhuxu laoren (‘Old man as Empty Inside as Bamboo'), and 養石閒人 Yangshi xianren (‘An idler who cherishes stones’).

Inscriptions:

Title Slip:
Gathering of Ancient Trees
With one seal of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’).

Title Panel:
Gathering of Ancient Trees
With three seals of the artist, 水松石山房 Shuisongshi shanfang (‘Water, Pine and Stone Retreat’), 攜杖老人 Xiezhang laoren (‘The old man who carries the staff’), and 人磨墨墨磨人 Renmomo momoren (‘Man grinds the ink; ink grinds the man’).

Painting:
I have gathered together many collections over the centuries, strange stones, walking staves, paintings and calligraphy, printed books and much else. To a wanderer and hermit, seldom close to city dealers in the flavours of the past, or fellow collectors with whom to exchange objects and ideas, they can become a burden as well as a joy, so my attachment has always been passing and, therefore, more intense. When I have collected stones, for instance, those strange gates, cracks in the fabric of reality, portals to the realm of the immortals, I have tended to leave them in and around my retreats when I left. But one collection I have always kept and added to assiduously since I first wandered the wilderness is of trees, sentinels and sages of ancient wisdom, weathered by the elements, patiently clinging to improbable crags, or decaying nobly, blessed with the infinite patience and indifference of nature. You may have seen some of them; I keep them on the mountains of the world, in the wilderness, or what was wilderness when I collected them, although some now grace marketplaces or monasteries, for sagely trees attract sagely people and in monasteries there is the time and space to help them reflect upon what matters, even if not all of them do.

I do not, of course, have to travel to them in order to enjoy them still. I can recall them to the brush at will, even add to them for a noble tree is as at home, and as real, on a handscroll as in the wilderness, and beneath the brush, they save my creaky old knees from too much climbing.

Hugh Moss
At the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat
.

 

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