Nancy Berliner

When you go to the beach, do you pick up pebbles or stones that appeal to you—that speak to you, so to speak? You feel strongly that you want this one, and not that one. Maybe it is perfectly round. Or maybe it has a beautiful white jagged line going across its surface. Maybe you pick up a few. Then the rocks are in your pocket, and when you get home, they end up on your dresser or perhaps a windowsill or your desk, and before you know it, over the years, you have a rock collection.

To me, a rock’s shape, colors, and texture all impart expression, despite the absence of human manipulation. And the permanence, longevity, and antiquity of a rock adds another layer of gravity to its essence.

There is a large rock on the front lawn of the MFA. The natural rock (okay, maybe it has a few human enhancements) and its pedestal stand more than 14 feet high. It is from China. For centuries, scholars, art collectors, art critics, and artists in China have admired, passionately collected, and critiqued rocks as they have any other form of art.

Chinese scholar's rock on a wood stand that was gifted to the MFA by Richard Rosenblum
Scholar’s Rock: “Family in Grotto,” Chinese, Qing dynasty, late 19th–early 20th century. Natural rock form with added shaping, and wood stand. Gift of Richard and Nancy Rosenblum in memory of Marianna Pineda. 

In Chinese garden design theory, the most essential elements are rocks, not flowers or trees. Fantastically shaped and twisted rocks the size of jungle gyms reign over courtyards and gardens. In their homes and studios, collectors display favorite rocks on wooden stands like sculpture. Rocks are judged by standardized aesthetic principles and criteria, like paintings and calligraphy. Among the prized qualities are “awkwardness”; rock aesthetics, mirroring Chinese calligraphy and painting theory, prioritize expression over prettiness. An early 18th-century porcelain dish in the Museum’s collection demonstrates the fervent emotions Chinese collectors have had toward these objects: the painting depicts Mi Fu, an 11th-century calligrapher and rock lover, bowing to a rock in a friend’s garden to pay his deep respects.

18th-century porcelain dish with an image of calligrapher Mi Fu bowing before a rock
Dish with scene of Mi Fu bowing to a rock, Chinese, Qing dynasty, 1723–35. Porcelain. Gift of Paul and Helen Bernat. 

Seeing a rock on the front lawn of the MFA is a reminder of these powerful and early aesthetics—concepts that anticipated American abstract expressionism by 900 years—and the universality of nature as a muse. (And, of course, it is a reminder of the MFA’s world-renowned collection of Asian art.)

This commanding rock came to the MFA as a donation from 20th-century artist Richard Rosenblum. After stumbling onto the Chinese penchant for rocks, the ever-curious Rosenblum became a passionate and discriminating collector of Chinese rocks, many of which he donated to the MFA. Inspired by the Chinese interest in rocks and tree roots, Rosenblum, originally a classic sculptor of human forms, turned to create bronzes expressing the dynamic irregularity of nature.

Bronze sculpture by Richard Rosenblum from 1988
Richard Rosenblum, Fractal Mountain, 1988. Bronze. Gift of the Rosenblum Family Collection. 

Whether they are rocks in a stream with water rushing around them or handsome Chinese rocks astride their pedestals, I find they seem to be silent and humble witnesses to the expansiveness of time. These days, as I wait without any sense of when I will return to hosting dinner parties or chatting with colleagues in the Museum galleries—or exploring gardens in China—time seems to be taking on a new and unexpected shape. But I find comfort in contemplating a rock that is beyond this moment—perhaps even beyond the concept of moments.

Author
Nancy Berliner is the Wu Tung Senior Curator of Chinese Art.