Detail of “Wood and Rock” scroll by Su Shi (image courtesy Christie’s)

In November, the Salvator Mundi debate will take a backseat to the work of Song Dynasty master Su Shi, whose 11th century scroll, “Wood and Rock,” will appear at auction. The scroll’s recorded provenance claims it changed hands during periods of war. Despite the red flags that this raises, Christie’s estimates “Wood and Rock” will sell for $51 million dollars. However, that transaction will not resolve the scroll’s questioned authenticity because the discussion of genuine and fake paintings is ever-present in Chinese art history; copies in Chinese painting will burden scholars, collectors, and dealers for generations.

From a technical perspective, the label “fake” is problematic because it encompasses both copies and forgeries. A copy is a duplicate for which the model is still known, while a forgery is created with the intent to deceive. Su Shi knew the difference. Before photographic reproduction was possible, if a collector or artist owned a good painting and wished to share it with friends, the only way to do so was to make a copy. In the National Palace Museum (Taipei, Taiwan), a letter written by Su Shi reflects on the process:

One night I was looking for Huang Chü-ts’ai “Dragon” but couldn’t find it. Then I remembered that two weeks earlier Ts’ao Kuang-chou borrowed it to have a copy made. It will be another month or two before I get it back.

Su Shi, the owner of the original painting, did not intend to make a forgery and it would not be difficult for him to tell which work was the original.

Su Shi, “Wood and Rock” (11th century) (image courtesy Christie’s)

In Looking at Chinese Painting, author Wang Yao-t’ing provides examples of copyists that betrayed this process by replacing a real with a fake, within and beyond the imperial court. Su Shi’s contemporary, artist Mi Fu, whose inscription is included on “Wood and Rock,” was caught in his own Thomas Crown Affair when he was approached by someone selling a painting of a water buffalo by the Tang Dynasty artist Dai Song. Mi Fu insisted he wanted to appreciate the painting for a few days before deciding whether to purchase it and immediately put his skills toward producing a replica. At the end of his loan arrangement, Mi Fu gave the copy to the owner instead of the original. The owner saw through the scam because Mi Fu failed to notice a subtle detail in the original painting: the reflection of a herdsboy in the eyes of the water buffalo.

Dai Song, “Herd-boy mounting a water buffalo” (13th century), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Collection (image courtesy Artstor)

The only thing more exciting in the art market than a big price tag is a scandal. However, the anecdotes that swirl within discussions of ancient Chinese art feel familiar. The same demands that burdened successful European masters throughout history also impacted their contemporaries in China: as a painter’s reputation grew and commissions became overwhelming, it was common for students to produce the majority of the painting and the master to add a genuine signature, inscription, and seals. Later meddlers may add a famous signature to an anonymous work or refit copies with original mountings. These technical interruptions are prevalent but the idea of the “copy” becomes more challenging when casting a wider philosophical net. The act of repetition is fundamental to training in Chinese calligraphy and ink painting. According to Tang calligrapher Sun Guoting, only after an artist faithfully copied a master could he understand the fundamentals of the brush and individual style. He remarks:

The student should delve deep into his subject; and if he starts by copying, he should copy his model without equivocation. When he fails in this – when, from absence of mind or reluctance to copy slavishly, the distribution of the strokes falls out of order and the structure of the body is loosely shaped – then, to what is splendid and to what are the pitfalls in this art, he is equally, stranger, and such he will remain.

Copying was understood as essential training for an artist to learn to move freely within his or her own composition. Yuan Dynasty painter Ni Zan focuses this advice in terms of brush stroke techniques in his 14th-century Manual of Sketches at the National Palace Museum, stating:

The ancients used the ax-cut, the clove or t-shaped, the horse teeth, and other kinds of texture methods. But some modern painters, unable to master all the methods, claiming that some of them have vulgar, craftsman like quality, follow only the ax-cut and draping hemp-fiber methods. To try to follow the ancients and fail is to be twice the loser … I have used a mixture of several ancient and modern methods.

This statement not only instructs new painters to avoid limiting their repertoire of techniques, but also posits that synthesizing techniques popular in the mid-14th century with earlier, less familiar techniques and styles could forge a new creative tradition of landscape painting; copying could lead to innovation.

Ni Zan, Manual of Sketches (1350), album leaf, ink on paper, (image scan from A Panorama of Paintings in the Collection of the National Palace Museum, 1993)

The copy is not a restrictive practice. It encourages interrelationships between mediums and forms, such as that between poetry, calligraphy, and painting. A landscape painting by Song Dynasty artist Wang Shen inspired poetry by his contemporary, Su Shi. Yuan dynasty artist Zhao Mengfu then transcribed Su Shi’s poem into his own calligraphic style. The poem in Zhao’s bold presentation inspired the Ming artists Shen Zhou and Wen Cheng-Ming to create landscapes paintings. Su Shi considered the expressive forms to be equals, calling one artist’s poems “figureless paintings” and another artist’s paintings “wordless poems.” The concept and execution are at the same time refined and experimental, completely subverting how we interpret a painting’s significations.

Zhao Mengfu, detail of “Withered Shrubs, Bamboo, and Rocks” (undated), hand scroll, National Palace Museum Collection (image courtesy Artstor)

The pure aesthetic enjoyment that accompanies viewing “Wood and Rock” is documented by the many vermillion seals and inscriptions by colleagues and collectors on the scroll. Each mark remind us that judging the quality and character of the painting are always the primary steps in its evaluation by the creative community. The last step in a painting’s evaluation is verifying its authorship. But as artist Ni Zan notes in his manual, the extraordinary temperament necessary in drawing and appreciation is something, “mediocre people seldom understand.”

Kealey Boyd is a writer and art critic. Her writing appears in the LATimes, Art Papers, College Art Association, The Belladonna Comedy, Artillery Magazine and elsewhere. She teaches journalism at University...