The True Charm of Nature. SOME NOTES ON QI BAISHI AND HIS ART
This article is a compilation of interviews with the author and his articles published in recent years.
As we look back today at the history of the Chinese fine arts, Qi Baishi (1864-1957) stands out as one of the most celebrated painters of the 20th century. He is also one of the Chinese artists who has enjoyed the highest level of international recognition. Study of Qi Baishi began during his lifetime, and over the 60 years that have passed since his death, many essential discoveries about him and his art have been made, which lay a broader and deeper foundation for the future study of the artist. But has that research now been thoroughly concluded? Can it be said to be exhaustive? Surely not: a new stage of study is required.
In any such new stage, we need to move away from previous more general studies towards more sophisticated explorations, from the perspective of the 21st century, to revisit Qi Baishi’s life and arts and interpret them with greater openness from an international perspective. According to the critic and art historian Lang Shaojun, we must now dig deeper into the “hidden” part of Qi Baishi’s legacy. Lang’s research over the years has provided a new way of thinking to help us rediscover Qi. With such inspiration, we will try to understand his arts in a more rational way, through his experience, challenges, and development of artistic temperament which are the keys to refine the study of Qi. It will prove a lengthy process, however.
In 2005, when the Art Museum of the Beijing Fine Art Academy was established, a series of 10 exhibitions devoted to Qi Baishi was planned, projected at a rate of two shows per year. With the appearance of further studies, there were many more discoveries and, as a result, it has taken almost 10 years to complete this extended programme. With each exhibition, my thinking and understanding of Qi has evolved and deepened. This article, therefore, provides for the time being a summary of my insights gained through research on Qi, and my sensibility towards the exhibitions.
When revisiting Qi’s art, I felt that he grasped the essential issues both of human nature, and of the arts - in other words, the relationship between humanity and nature. He interpreted nature in a way according to what he believed with his true temperament, namely the air of freshness and spirited atmosphere which had been a declining element of Chinese literati painting since the late Qing Dynasty. Qi revived just that style of freshness and spirited atmosphere of Chinese art. Because he was so assiduous - or perhaps, just so inquisitive - he was proficient in many art forms, including poetry and calligraphy, seal-carving and painting, including landscapes, studies of flowers and birds, as well as figures; he worked with fine brushwork, freehand brushwork, and other forms. As a result, he became a great and consummate artist. In addition, he was bold and unconstrained, and naturally became one of the most often-quoted artists in the news: thus, he was a good ambassador for Chinese art.
In 2010, both the Art Museum of Beijing Fine Art Academy and the Qi Baishi Memorial Hall marked their fifth anniversaries. To commemorate the special date, the Beijing Fine Art Academy planned and organized the first “Qi Baishi International Art Forum”， accompanied by the Art Museum holding an exhibition featuring the Beijing Fine Art Academy’s collection of Qi Baishi’s works. During the initial stages of planning the exhibition, we studied more than 2,000 pieces of Qi’s works, cartoons, personal effects, and Qi’s private collections in the Academy’s possession, in order to find a byword for Qi’s supreme life dedicated to art over a period of 90 years. Eventually we found a small cartoon, which suddenly brought clarity: a sketchy pen-and-ink drawing of a small and charmingly naive bird on a sheet of paper (28 x 20.5 cm in dimensions). Its script read: “On the 18th day/6th month/56th year F8 (ji wei) of the 60-year cycle, when talking with Zhang Boren, my disciple, at the Karman Hall of Fayuan Temple in Beijing, I suddenly saw a white slurry of stone seal-grinding on the brick pavement. Because it looked like this bird, lying on the ground I made a rough draft of its shape on this paper and kept it. It truly has a natural appeal”. The postscript itself presented a great, always ingenuous, artistic “Old Master”, the Qi Baishi of real life who was devoted to art, one who retained a simple, childish innocence even after he had experienced life’s vicissitudes to the full. It was 1919, the year that the May Fourth Movement took place in Beijing, a prelude to China’s modern history. During the prevailing movement, Qi, however, endeavoured to chart his own artistic course by using his brush, interpreting the genuine origins of arts without being contaminated by the everyday world. The postscript on the draft - “It truly has a natural appeal” - is exactly Qi’s portrayal of himself. The discovery of this small piece led us to not only find a “slogan” for the exhibition, but also helped to make a breakthrough in deepening our interpretation of Qi Baishi’s art.
“Sincerity” is at the core of art. I believe that Qi’s naturalness can be summed up in three aspects: being naturally genuine, being a genuine member of society, and being his own genuine self. Specifically, he loved nature; he loved life, he was sincere, and conducted himself in society in an authentic way, a way that matched his beliefs. “Be genuine” was at the core of his character. His “being natural” originated from his genuineness. Therefore, the theory that being human is an integral part of nature, which is the essence of Chinese philosophy, is well rendered in Qi’s art. The particular appeal of Qi’s art consists, firstly, in its humour and charm, and secondly, in its fun and style. “Be true, with a natural appeal” is Qi’s motto and philosophy of life. Consequently, we selected 200 pieces from the collection of more than 2,000 to present at the exhibition according to the criterion of “natural appeal”; the show was well received.
Furthermore, we should not overlook Qi’s humble origins when appreciating his works. The first sentence of his “An Autobiography Told by the Old Man Baishi” reads: “It is very hard for children from poor families to be able to grow up and stand out from the crowd in society, harder than climbing to heaven It was very lucky for such an individual from peasant origins to be able to free himself from the heavy chores of farm work and work instead as a joiner, a relatively easier job. Even more fortunately, Qi became a joiner-turned-painter, a more advanced profession, and later, unexpectedly, a renowned artist. This poor background and the hardships of life made him more appreciative than ordinary people of everything he earned. Therefore, Qi loved painting from the bottom of his heart, because he felt it was much more interesting, much more attractive, compared with farm work, or the work of a joiner. His postscript on the painting “Pumpkins” read: “Because it was windy yesterday, I didn't paint. I made the work up this morning, in order not to remain idle for one day”. It reveals an old man who had diligently worked not only in painting, but also on making his living; he ardently loved both such directions. Having such a genuine and abiding love, he studied meticulously to improve his professional skills and broaden his horizons. Qi, the former joiner, was well aware of the importance of a job well done to an artisan. The “craftsman’s spirit” we often speak of today was intrinsic to Qi. He was able to resolve to “reform in old age”, because in addition to Chen Shizeng’s coaching, Qi’s farmer and artisan tenacity also came into play.
Qi often liked to mull over and repeatedly revise the same subject, and we cannot commend him highly enough for his practice that after “drafting nine times, he finished the painting in one go”. Speaking of the extreme nature of such diligent study, we found Qi’s painting of shrimps to be a typical example. In the eyes of many people, “shrimp-painting” is iconic of Qi’s works. His answer to this, however, was that he could only sigh, “I’m 78 years old already. It is an injustice that people say I can only draw shrimps!” Qi’s painting of shrimps originated from his childhood experience. “A friend of mine once asked me: ‘The shrimps you drew look very realistic. How did you learn these skills?’ I replied, ‘There is a small crystal clear pond in my home. I can often see shrimps swimming in the pond. They change their movements endlessly. You have to learn how to draw different movements to make your drawings realistic.’ After I draw shrimps in this way, people may say they look real, but I didn’t hear anyone said so before.”
It is good to have passion, but even so you have to hone your skills for a long time to master them. In fact, Qi’s shrimp-drawing skills underwent several transformations to reach the level where he would draw shrimps with such a poetic tone with only a few simple strokes. Beijing Fine Art Academy has a collection of dozens of pieces of “Drawings of Shrimps”, from which we can say that the evolution of Qi’s shrimp painting is evident. In his postscript on “Shrimps”, he indicated that, “My drawing of shrimps has undergone a few stages of change. In the initial stage, it slightly resembled shrimps in appearance, then become more realistic, and finally, the colour depth became differentiated.” The postscript on another piece, “Shrimps and Taro Leaves”, read: “I have changed my approach to drawing shrimps four times, and this is the fifth.” 3 At about age 88, he reached a level of achievement that has never been paralleled in shrimp-painting. “Every fish or shrimp seems to carry a sword on its back. For more than 60 years, my endeavours to paint ideal fish and shrimps resemble labour-intensive bladesmithing.” Qi, in his own words, not only told us of his efforts to perfect techniques in shrimp-painting, but also revealed his attitude towards his pursuit of art.
Qi painted faithfully what he saw and felt; therefore, most of his paintings are sketches from nature. As Qi described it, “What I painted are mostly things that are often seen in daily life. Any unusual thing is illusory to me, and even though I can paint it well, I still feel unrealistic.” This attitude applies to paintings, such as insects, plants, flowers, and especially figures. He stressed: “Words must be understood, and things in paintings should be familiar. I used to paint the images of the Duke of Thunder for fun. After knowing the thunder god is a fiction, I stopped painting him…” He would find corresponding examples in life, even drawing the Buddha, the gods, and supernatural beings. In order to draw a supernatural being with “a baleful look”, he “had no alternative but to pick a few persons among his acquaintances with remarkable physiognomies as models”，and adapt one to his painting. His “Head Portrait Draft” in the Beijing Fine Art Academy’s collection has a figure resembling a pensive arhat (a saint of one of the highest ranks) with a drifting beard and eyes closed. The postscript reads: “In the 1st month/3rd year C3 (bing yin), I saw this face when strolling around factories and shops, and drew it after returning home.” Evidently, the origin of this work is what he saw and memorized when strolling down the street: he painted it after returning home, indicating one of his chief characteristics, that he didn’t like to draw what was invented.
Nostalgia for the “good old days” is a kind of emotional sustenance: someone filled with nostalgic memories won’t forget his or her roots. And Qi, throughout his life, did not forget his roots. I have used the scripts of three of Qi’s pieces of seal-carving to summarize his life. The scripts on the first seal read “Lu Ban’s Disciple”. Qi was initially a joiner: at that time, he started carving and learned skills from studying the lessons of the “Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden”，and became attached to the art. Therefore, working with wood was the starting point of his artistic career. His seal-carving “Lu Ban’s Disciple” shows he revealed his humble origins without hesitation. Rather, he felt proud and contented to be a joiner. Qi’s open-minded attitude is admirable.
The second seal is inscribed with the phrase “Lonely Journey”, which indicates his struggling independently for a way forward and his development of his own school in the field of art, which was a lonely but unique journey. Of course, he also encountered many benefactors throughout his life. They included Hu Qinyuan, his initial teacher, Wang Kaiyun, Lin Fengmiam, Xu Beihong, Mei Lanfang, and Zhou Enlai, among others, and therefore he made the third seal-carving, “Bosom Friends the Benefactors”. People who don’t forget where they come from are very often on friendly terms with and grateful to relatives and friends. In 1917, when a refugee in Beijing, he became acquainted with Chen Shizeng. Chen was his first soulmate and benefactor after Qi reached Beijing. Under Chen’s exhortation of “creating your own style, and no kitsch”, Qi started to “reform in old age”. Chen also brought Qi’s paintings to Japan, where they sold very well, and such success provided further impetus for the Chinese market. Qi regarded Chen as a confidant. After receiving the tragic news of Chen’s death, Qi’s grief reached a peak. He wrote an elegiac couplet of mourning:
“Mastering three categories in painting, which is rare, you possessed the talents begrudged by God. You, I didn't surpass. Heaven, however, is jealous; Leaving merits for generations to come, which is difficult, yours have been concluded.
You, the world should keep,
Whom Earth was puzzled to bury.”
Qi had found a soulmate, but after Chen died, he lamented, “Without me, you didn’t advance; without you, I did retrogress.” One can see that they were friends who had a complete understanding of one another.
“Looking for an Old Friend”, in the collection of the Beijing Fine Art Academy, captures the famous friendship between Qi and Xu Beihong, an accomplished painter and educator of the fine arts in China. In 1928, Xu Beihong arrived in Beijing to assume the role of Dean of the School of Arts (the former Peking College of Arts) at Peking University, but resigned and left for the south of the country three months later. During his stay in Beijing, since Xu had discernment in assessing people and highly valued Qi’s art, he engaged Qi to work as a teacher at the School of Arts (he followed Liu Xuande’s famous model of his three humble visits to petition Zhuge Liang). Subsequently, Xu left for the South due to his disagreement with the old artists of the Beijing school. Missing Xu and his favour, Qi painted “Looking for an Old Friend”.
There are two postscripts on the painting: “After having been invited three times, felt it was incumbent upon me to accept, / Not to mention, this old painter,s craft of no high order. It convinced me, the occult force in the human world. / Outside the lacebark pines, the hidden breeze blows. (In autumn of the 5th year E5 (wu chen), Xu Beihong, the Dean of the Old School of Arts, wanted to hire me to teach. After he paid me three visits at Jieshanyin House, I finally accepted his request. Mr Xu had tested his students, and the subject of his painting exam was ‘Lacebark Pine’. After the examination, Xu consulted me about the grading and accepted all my assessments.)” The postscript continued: “Having not met you for one day, I already started to miss you. / The thought of reunion makes me pleased; however, we didn’t make a date. / I hope cool breeze at sea when bright moon is full. / I’m holding a walking stick, which supports the dream about visiting the renowned painter. (When Mr Xu was leaving Beijing, I asked him where would he go in the South. He answered, 'When it is a crescent moon, I’m in Nanjing, and when a full moon, in Shanghai.' I created this painting and mailed it to Xu Beihong as a present, accompanied with two quatrains. After this, because I was still in a good mood, I then made this piece. Master of Jieshanyin House)”. From the two short poems and their annotations, one can see that Qi often fondly recalled Xu’s favours to him. Looking at the seal “Bosom Friends the Benefactors” now, we know it is a keepsake inscribed with Qi’s words, which reflect his gratitude.
We are not saints. We cannot be separated from the secular world, and Qi was no exception. He was greedy; however, he lived by “selling paintings by gentlemen’s agreement. No matter who you are, please pay your price according to the painter’s schedule of charges.” It is not just greed, but also his farmer’s natural attitude, that what you reap is what you sow.
Qi offered many artist’s rates for remuneration, among which “Painter’s Remunerations”, published in 1848, has a list of prices classified according to production information, working hours, and difficulties. For example, the red pigment Qi used in paintings was imported and very expensive; therefore he requested 10 yuan for its intense use and five yuan for moderate use. Because carving red script on a seal, which requires greater effort, was more complex than reverse type script, he would charge 20 yuan for red script and 15 yuan for reverse type. Moreover, Qi “invented” a way to increase his prices: “Add one cent above on every yuan.” With such a minor price increase - just like the three-yuan fuel surcharge added by taxi drivers in Beijing today - the client has no choice but to pay. The last phrase of the artist’s rates for remuneration might make us burst into laughter. It shows Qi’s native Hunan character. Qi wrote, “Asking for an additional seal-print or inscription for a painting sold and taken out from my door, the answer is no!” Was he stingy? Or was this his sense of humour? Or his great wisdom of putting things bluntly and briskly? Such is Qi Baishi. If you were him, what would you do? Qi had to earn money in order to sustain himself. But he believed the noble person should make money in a legitimate way. He didn’t want to take unfair advantage, nor did he want anybody to receive anything from him for nothing. He was innocent and magnanimous.
As already mentioned, the “appeal” of Qi’s works can mean at least two things: first, humour and charm; second, fun and style. He was able to create paintings of high-quality style because he had absorbed the literati traditions of thousands of years. But the humour and charm, a kind of humorous folklore, reflect his natural instincts, which had their origins in the wisdom of farming and rural life. This charm of authentic humorous folklore was essential to Qi’s art and made his paintings unique and novel: it can be enjoyed by scholars and everyday viewers alike. Qi was born in Hunan, where from ancient times people had engaged in practices to exorcise demons, and by custom worshipped gods and spirits. Qi was no exception. His faith was not purely Buddhism or Taoism, but rather the hybrid religion of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism that is commonly followed by the Chinese. It is a utilitarian practice. Believing in it, or not, is determined by demand. Thus, the Buddhist or Taoist gods that appear in Qi’s paintings show less of lofty divinity, but more of secularity. Qi was very fond of painting Tieguai Li,s image, but it doesn,t mean he really believed in the immortals. The script on his “Li Tieguai” reads: “Who knows if he were an immortal, if he doesn’t have a gourd?” Another painting, “A Beggar”， shows a beggar who looks like Li Tieguai, with messy hair and dirty face, sitting on the floor and holding a pair of chopsticks, attempting to eat. The script reads: “A man slept on the ground without a mat and dined without cooking. Add a gourd to him, and he then becomes an immortal.” It seems, in Qi’s eyes, the only difference, in this case, between an immortal and a beggar is whether the immortal has a gourd.
Based on this, Lang Shaojun indicates: “A deep psychological background exists in Qi’s painting of Li Tieguai - his art was not understandable in Beijing at the time, because Beijingers judged him by his peasant appearance. But while he admitted he indeed was a farmer, he felt he should not blame Beijing’s viewers.” Although Qi’s painting was about an imaginary immortal, what he expressed in words was about ordinary human things. He was able to connect the image and human feelings and make sense for viewers, who were often convinced with a knowing smile. The appeal of this charm of humorous folklore appears in other works, such as “Dongfang Shuo”, “Bi Zhuo”，and “Tumbler”, among other paintings.
In his “A Popular History of Chinese Fine Arts”， the renowned Taiwanese scholar Chiang Hsun mentions only two contemporary artists, Qi Baishi and Xu Beihong, after he has enumerated the masters of the Sun, Yuan, Ming andQing dynasties. Chiang has a particular soft spot for Qi’s painting. He said: “Qi Baishi had been able to retain his childhood innocence into old age. He had the spontaneity of a child. Children are the most capable of discerning the beauty of the world; therefore, the Chinese always point out, ‘The great man is he who does not lose his pure and innocent heart.’”9 It was his pure and innocent heart that made Qi create works that have “natural appeal”.
“He has influenced generations of people with his naturalness, his integrative contribution to people and folk arts, which originated from such utter innocence. His spontaneous eulogies of rural nature will always be valuable, and for that he can go beyond this age, and beyond history,” Lang Shaojun has said. In fact, Qi’s works have already gone beyond national boundaries. I once showed an album of Qi’s paintings to the curator of the Acropolis Museum, who had no understanding of Oriental art. After considering it, he defined Qi’s work as “modern art”： he felt that there were similarities between the art of the 20th century and Qi’s work, that they had developed in different places during almost the same period. In other words, the fundamentals of the arts are consistent and will always find a way to people’s hearts! Qi’s art does precisely that and, just like that of Leonardo da Vinci or Picasso, represents his contribution to the historical development of the arts. For now, it is very important to embed Qi Baishi within the structure of world art and make him indeed a true international master.
- Fayuan-si (法源寺) - the Buddhist monastery, where Qi Baishi rented a room during his stay in Beijing in 1917.
- This inscription was written on the scroll which was presented to Hu Peiheng. In the original, it reads as follows: «予年七十八矣，人谓只能画虫下，冤哉！»
- Liulichang - the famous antiques and rare books market in Beijing.
- Lu Ban (c.507-444 BCE) was a carpenter, inventor and statesman who lived during the Spring and Autumn period (722-479 BCE). He is considered the patron deity of carpenters and builders.
- “Three perfections” (son jue) - poetry, calligraphy and painting.
- A famous scene from the 14th century novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. Liu Bei had to pay three visits to the cottage of Zhuge Liang before Zhuge agreed to be his strategist. In contemporary Chinese the phrase 三顾茅庐(son gu moo /u, literally “three humble visits to a thatched cottage”）means “to repeatedly request somebody to take up a responsible post”.
- In this poem Qi Baishi compares Xu Beihong to the 10th century artist Xu Xi from Southern China, who was famous for his paintings of flowers and plants.
- Quotation from the book “Mengzi”.
Mounted. Ink on paper. 26 × 26 cm
Back supporting paper. Colour on paper. 20.5 × 29.5 cm. Detail
Unmounted, pen-and-ink on paper. 28 × 20.5 cm
Back supporting paper, pen-and-ink on paper. 34 × 27 cm
Reverse type script. 3.5 × 3.4 × 4 cm
Reverse type script. 2.9 × 2.8 × 3.2 cm
Red script. 2.2 × 2.3 × 3 cm
Back supporting paper, paper. 72 × 25 cm
Back supporting paper. Ink on paper. 47 × 30.5 cm
Scroll. Colour on paper. 89 × 47 cm
Scroll. Colour on paper. 135.5 × 37 cm
Scroll. Ink on paper. 128.5 × 34 cm
Scroll. Ink on paper. 103.5 × 47 cm
Album leaf. Ink on paper. 30 × 25.5 cm
Scroll. Colour on paper. 40.5 × 29 cm
Mounted. Colour on paper. 34.5 × 25 cm
Back supporting paper. Colour on paper. 17 × 24 cm
Scroll. Colour on paper. 133 × 33.5 cm
Mounted. Colour on paper. 101.5 × 48 cm
Scroll. Colour on paper. 167.5 × 47.5 cm
Back supporting paper. Ink on paper. 42 × 20.5 cm
Back supporting paper. Colour on paper. 20.5 × 29.5 cm