1863 – 1957
Taken from an original article by Wu Hsiao-ting
Chen Shizeng (1876-1923) played an important part in Qi Baishi’s life, not only because he inspired Qi to pursue his own style, but also because he introduced his works to the international art community. In 1922, Chen was invited to show his paintings at a Sino-Japanese exhibition held in Japan. He took Qi’s paintings along with him. Qi, who never thought that foreigners would take an interest in his paintings, did not think much of the exhibition. Yet unexpectedly, his paintings received a warm response from the Japanese. The several paintings that were displayed were all sold out. Some French people who went to the exhibition were also attracted to his works. They chose two of his paintings and brought them back to Paris for another exhibition. Again his works won the praise of Europeans.
The exhibition in Japan could surely be said to be the most crucial turning point in Qi’s painting career. Qi became famous overnight. After the exhibition, it grew easier and easier for him to sell his paintings. It became almost a must for foreigners who visited Beijing to buy his works, and the arty people in the city also considered it a fashion to own one or two of his pieces.
After he had achieved fame, he still worked diligently. Continuing to develop his technique and style throughout the 1930s and 40s, a time of political turmoil and upheaval in China, he was elevated to the status of a national icon in 1953 when the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China conferred on him the accolade of “People’s Artist.”
The allure of his paintings
So, why do Qi Baishi’s paintings enjoy such popularity and high appraisal? “I think it is mainly because of his creativity,” said He Huai-shuo, a famous painter and art critic. “His paintings, which vividly communicate an earthly charm, brought new life to the ordinarily lofty Chinese style of painting.”
Qi liked to depict prawns, frogs, cows, chickens, brooms, farm tools, insects, rats, vegetables – subjects which traditional Chinese painters either ignored or disdained to paint. In spite of the ordinary nature of his subjects, his paintings succeeded in being extraordinarily beguiling and captivating. Be it tadpoles or wildflowers, his subjects have a fresh immediacy that never fails to rivet the attention of the viewer. Almost all the touching images he portrayed in his paintings were inspired by his early life in the countryside. Although he came from a poverty-stricken farming family and encountered many people who looked down upon him because of his humble origin, he was never ashamed of his background. He cherished the poverty and toil he went through and turned his childhood experiences into subjects that enriched his paintings.
Qi said that he would not paint anything without having first come to know his subject. In order to improve his technique of painting prawns and insects, he once raised some at home and closely observed their movements. It was said that the locusts he painted in his early years were so lifelike that when the pictures were thrown to the ground, chickens would rush forward to peck them. Even though he could produce extremely realistic looking paintings, realism was not what he pursued. He said that the beauty of a painting lies between likeness and unlikeness: “Too much likeness verges on shallowness, while too much unlikeness makes a painting look unconvincing.”
Qi Baishi died in 1957, at the mature age of ninety-five. In addition to his paintings, he also left behind a large number of seal carvings. His rise from carpenter to internationally acclaimed painter became a legend among the Chinese people. He achieved a success and fame that few of his contemporaries could match. He Huai-shuo, the modern Taiwanese critic and artist, said that Qi Baishi could be counted as the only Chinese master painter in the twentieth century whose paintings appealed to both refined and popular tastes. His talent shone through the scenes he depicted – not grandiose or pompous, but all uncommonly, wonderfully tempting.
I hope you enjoyed this biography of Qi Baishi and will take a look at his work anew. Please do post back with any paintings inspired by his work as we genuinely do enjoy what people come up with from a specific starting point.