1863 – 1957
Taken from an original article by Wu Hsiao-ting
Part 1 of this article is featured in the blog post linked.
The guidance of his teachers
Although he was completely self-taught, the pictures Qi produced won enthusiastic admiration from his clients. But even the most talented of people need the guidance of a good teacher at some point. If he wanted to scale new heights, it was impossible for him to rely wholly on his own efforts.
When he was twenty-seven, the chance came. One day when he was carving wood at the home of a rich intellectual called Hu Tzu-Cho, he was summoned to see the great man. Hu, who was also a good artist, had seen Qi’s paintings. He appreciated Qi’s talent and offered to teach him painting for free. Qi gladly accepted his kind offer. Under Hu’s tutelage, Qi mastered the fine-line gongbi painting technique, a style akin to Western realism with meticulous brushwork and close attention to detail. Because Qi was not well educated, Hu also introduced him to Chen Shao-fan, a teacher of Chinese classics. Through the guidance of Hu and Chen, Qi was able to refine and improve himself by studying books and paintings by ancient scholars and famous artists. He also expanded his circle of acquaintances and got to know many men of letters and people of refined tastes.
Of course not all the people Qi came across treated him with such politeness and high regard. Some of his clients who commissioned him to paint asked him not to sign his name on his works because they thought that he, being lowborn and unknown, was not worthy enough to do so. This was extremely painful to him, but in order to make a living, he had to take all the insults. He knew very well that if he wanted to disentangle himself from such predicaments, he had to work harder to demonstrate his worth and abilities.
A little story that Qi once told showed how determined he was to improve his art. As many people know, Qi was not only famous for his paintings but also for his seal cutting. In order to master the skill, he once went to ask for advice from a top-notch seal cutter. The seal cutter showed disdain for him and said to him with a sneer, “If you drink the water in my hookah (an oriental water-cooled pipe), I will teach you everything I know.” The water in a hookah is used to filter the nicotine from tobacco, and so it is stinking, pungent and bitter. But without the least bit of hesitation, Qi took the seal cutter’s hookah from him and drank the water from it. Impressed by his firm resolve, the seal cutter did in fact teach Qi everything he knew. Thus, Qi was exceptionally good at turning difficulties and obstacles in his life into positive forces that motivated him to go further.
The expansion of his scope
Before he reached forty, Qi never travelled far from Xiangtan County, his birthplace. His friends advised him that if he wanted to make further improvements in his art, he should step out into the big world. The significance of travel for an artist was perhaps best articulated by Dong Qichang (1555-1636, famous calligrapher, painter and art critic), who commented that a painter must “read ten thousand volumes and travel ten thousand miles” to be able to convey the spirit and vibrancy of nature through a painting. At the invitation of his friends, Qi then left his home many times to wander around famous mountains, lakes and rivers throughout the country.
The excursions broadened his horizons and increased his confidence. The majestic and grandiose scenery he saw and the people he met inspired him to imbue a new spirit into his paintings. The most significant change was the shift of his painting style from a realistic to a more spiritual expression – from fine, detailed brushwork to spontaneous, freehand brushwork characterized by vivid expression and bold outline. It was obvious he was changing from a folk artist who put more emphasis on the technical aspect of art to a more mature member of the literati, one who could create works of art which were more profound and scholarly.
Even though he was greatly improving himself as an artist, Qi was still groping for an individual idiom that would make him stand out as a maestro. That would not happen until he had met Chen Shizeng (1876-1923).
Qi moved to Beijing in 1917, when he was fifty-five, to avoid the harassment and extortion of bandits and local bullies, who had grown greatly in number because of the unstable political situation at that time. In Beijing he made the acquaintance of Chen, who came from a distinguished family and was a renowned painter, poet and seal carver. He showed a great interest in Qi’s paintings and seal carvings. He told Qi his paintings were great, but that he had not reached the realm of perfection. At that time Qi was greatly influenced by the style of the famous monk-painter, Bada Shanren [Zhu Da] (1626-1705). Chen advised Qi to create his own style instead of following in the footsteps of the great painting masters before him.
Qi took his words to heart. Actually his paintings were not popular in Beijing at that time. Even though they were cheaper by fifty percent than the paintings produced by other artists, still few people commissioned him to paint, and he made a living out of his seal carvings. Chen’s advice inspired him to be creative in his own way. From 1919 to 1928, he gradually developed his own style, a style that combined traditional free-hand brushwork with folk-art technique. He drew on the strength of his early training as a craftsman and his education in classical Chinese painting and literature in his latter years and fused them into a fresh, unique style that would capture the hearts of many.
The final part of Qi Baishi’s biography is published in Part 3