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Chinese art breaks auction record, second time round

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Its value has multiplied 63 times in 30 years

Perspective is a fascinating subsection of art history. Greek artists used the Euclidian perspective – the same system that most realists employ today. But traditional Chinese art used ‘oblique projection’ to give depth – a system which is best understood by imagining a painting of a set of train tracks running towards the horizon. In the Euclidian system, the two rails would meet at the horizon or vanishing point. In a painting using the oblique system the parallel rails would run diagonally across the image towards a notional horizon but they would never converge.

To modern eyes the oblique projection is strange – it can make objects look flat or distorted in relation to other items in the same picture.

So an artist who can create a detailed image of a complex object, and give it depth, using the oblique projection is a person of great talent. And that is why a series of detailed ink paintings titled The Ten Faces of the Lingbi Stone sold for Rmb513 million ($76 million) this month – making the scroll they feature on the most expensive piece of ancient Chinese art ever to be sold at auction.

The scroll – which measures 27 metres in length – was created by Ming Dynasty artist Wu Bin in 1610. It was last sold in 1989 by Sotheby’s in New York and also broke the world record for Chinese art back then, reaching a sale price of $1.2 million.

This time it was sold by Poly Auction in Beijing, having had an opening price of Rmb100 million. According to Beijing Business Today the first bid doubled the starting price and after 40 minutes of bidding the hammer fell at Rmb446 million, plus 15% commission.

Poly Auction believes the uniqueness of the piece means it is a good investment. “Thirty years ago it was world-class, in thirty years time it will still be world-class…. If it shows up at auction again it will set a new record,” China Business Journal quoted a spokesperson as saying.

So what exactly does this record-breaking piece of art look like? Well, to begin with the owner is going to need a lot of space if he or she wants to display it as the unravelled scroll is longer than a full-sized tennis court.

The main attraction of the piece is the 10 studies of a jagged piece of stone or ‘scholars’ rock’ from the Anhui town of Lingbi. What makes the paintings special is that Wu Bin managed to create an almost three-dimensional effect in his studies and that all 10 images are clearly aspects of the same object. The rest of the scroll is taken up with calligraphy extolling the beauty of the stone. Scholar Stones (or strange stones, as they are known now) became an obsession in the Ming Dynasty, with the rich and educated extolling their aesthetics.

The stones from Lingbi were prized because they were so distorted – think a Rorschach inkblot in weathered limestone.

“In China strange stones were valued on several levels. While they could convey considerable social status merely through their strange beauty, stones were also seen as reflections of the basic structures underlying reality as understood by ancient Chinese philosophers and cosmologists,” the Los Angeles County Museum of Art explained in a 2017 exhibition featuring the Lingbi scroll.

It went on to note that the “fantastic stones were perceived as mountains in miniature, imbued with the same primordial energies that made up peaks sacred to both Daoist and Buddhist traditions”.

Wu Bin noted this himself in a piece of large calligraphy featured within the scroll. “Scattered cloud of the Five Sacred Mountains,” was how he described it with perfectly balanced brush stokes.

Nothing is known of the new owner of the scroll but many have expressed a desire to see the artwork displayed publicly in China.


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