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Depths of Ink: An Interview with Hugh Moss

Celebrated collector, artist, and scholar of Chinese aesthetics, Hugh Moss creates transcultural masterpieces that take you on a journey of self-discovery

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Working under the studio name Master of the Water, Pine, and Stone Retreat, Hugh Moss draws from traditional Chinese techniques to create striking contemporary paintings of scholars’ objects and landscapes.

In the Chinese language, the term “master” when associated with an establishment like a studio simply means “the owner of” without necessarily carrying a qualitative intent. This evocative moniker, however, reflects Moss’s perception of his inner reality and personality, echoing the sentiments of ancient Chinese literati who, through sublime depictions of mountains and water, sought to align their inner selves with the Dao.

A British native who spends most of his time in the East, Moss is undoubtedly a transculturalist, a devotee of Chinese art, and a rarity, moving from the West to contribute aesthetically to the East. While the past century witnessed a significant trend of Chinese artists seeking inspiration and technical training in the West, the last artists to contribute noticeably in the other direction were 18th-century Jesuits, such as Giuseppe Castiglione and Jean-Denis Attiret.

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Strolling Through the Gates of Wonder, ink and watercolour on xuan paper, two panels, each 177 x47.8 cm. Hong Kong, 2022.

Throughout his illustrious six-decade career, Moss has established himself as a connoisseur and advocate for Chinese art. He gained particular renown for his collection of snuff bottles and his diverse range of scholarly arts, including Chinese literati calligraphy and paintings. Along the way, Moss’s artistic journey has taken him to different corners of the globe, including Hong Kong, where he played a pivotal role in championing contemporary Chinese ink art after moving there in 1975.

In the last four decades, Moss has increasingly dedicated himself to Chinese painting, using ink, whimsical stones, and other literati trappings to create landscapes on paper. These artworks are complemented by English text, written in the calligraphic style of Chinese characters, unveiling an idiosyncratic yet congenial unity between the two distinct linguistic expressions.

Through these idyllic depictions, we witness Moss’s prowess in weaving the “three perfections”—calligraphy, poetry, and painting—to create singular masterpieces. In the pages that follow, we delve into his thought-provoking creative process, exploring the masterful fusion of diverse mediums, philosophies, and artistic expressions.

“In wielding the brush and varying the amount of water, ink, energy, and time spent, calligraphic lines transcend the words to reveal the artist’s inner character and sagacity.”

Calligraphy becomes an intimate reflection of Moss’s character—it serves as both a powerful visual experiment and a statement. To Moss, orthodoxy, characterized by a rigid focus on brushwork, tends to stifle the creative potential of ink painting. According to him, as the emphasis shifts from depicting the external world to expressing individual character, the calligraphy brush transforms into a potent tool both for self-realization and expression.

By incorporating English text, which structurally differs from Chinese script, Moss bridges cultural and linguistic gaps. In that sense, his art initiates a dialogue between the linear, alphabetic nature of English and the pictographic, expressive quality of Chinese characters, with each style enriching the other. By merging the two visual styles, he delves into the philosophical and expressive qualities of both cultures.

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The Five Stone Fools of Taihu, ink on Artistico Fabriano paper, 2012. Emma-Lee Moss Collection. 55.8 x 76.8 cm.

“Artistic products, however enticing and entrancing, eventually serve as portals to understanding and appreciating the creative process; they’re entry points to transcendent realms of perception and expression.”

The true meaning and power of art resides not solely in its tangible forms but also in its creative process and in the audience’s response. Moss’s perspective resonates with the deep-rooted beliefs of the Chinese artistic tradition, going as far back as the Zhou Dynasty when the process of creating art was viewed as a path to self-realization and enlightenment.

Moss subtly critiques the Western tendency to prioritize the final product, which has influenced global art perspectives due to the considerable influence of Western thought. Shifting the focus from object to process, he says, signifies a deeper understanding of art and encourages personal growth, self-exploration, and ultimately the discovery of a realm of wonder.

Order the Magnifissance print edition to read the full story.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 124

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