Photographs of rocks might seem like a hard sell, but Jonathan M. Singer’s handsome book Spirit Stones: The Ancient Art of the Scholar’s Rock (Abbeville Press) makes a strong case that scholars’ rocks are worth contemplating.
As with exotic flowers and bonsai trees (subjects of Singer’s earlier studies), these specimens are produced by nature but treated like art—by the photographer and by the Chinese culture that has cherished them for thousands of years.
The nearly 150 pieces shown here in black and white are from the collection of Kemin Hu, an expert on scholars’ stones whose insightful introduction explains the criteria for a good rock.
Reproduced sometimes at life size, the stones suggest everything from tiny mountain ranges to grotesque monsters. These resemblances are confirmed by their poetic names, included in an illustrated index. One stone, called The Lotus That Has Just Sprung into Blossom from the Water, is a narrow, vertical linglong (exquisite) Ying stone made of limestone from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and was partially shaped by hand.
While rocks in the West are usually cherished for their rarity, size, and color, “Easterners say that scholars’ stones share a telepathic connection with human souls,” writes Hu. Learning to see soulful qualities in these nonliving objects by understanding their long-running importance in Chinese culture is one of the pleasures of this book.
We find out that throughout the first and second golden ages of stone connoisseurship—beginning in the Tang dynasty (618–907) and reaching into the present—tastes in scholars’ stones have evolved as demand has exhausted the supply of some specimens. And styles go in and out of fashion. Lingbi and Taihu stones have been collected for centuries, but Moer, a smooth, dark specimen found in deep water, was named after 20th-century sculptor Henry Moore, a collector of gongshi, or “respected stones.”
Shipu, we learn in Thomas S. Elias’s short and useful history, are books of description, poetry, or art dedicated to stones. The first was published between 300 b.c. and a.d. 100, as part of an encyclopedia of facts about the known world. Elegant and informative, Singer’s book is the latest in this long line.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 50 under the title “Rocks of Ages.”