Painting of fish and crabs by Qi Baishi. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Qi Baishi ??? is possibly the best known Chinese painter of the modern era. His paintings, often sparse depictions of birds, plants and insects, reflect a strong connection with Chinese tradition, as well as Qi’s uniquely expressive and unrestrained brush style. In describing his philosophy of art he once wrote: “The sublime is found between likeness and unlikeness.”

Qi Baishi (1864–1957) is perhaps the best known and loved Chinese painter of the modern era. His life spanned the last half century of dynastic rule, and reached into the first years of the People’s Republic. These were some of the most trying times in the history of the Chinese people, yet Qi was able to rise above the cultural and political cataclysm to create a fresh, unique style of painting, still rooted in the venerable traditions of Chinese art.

Born into a peasant family in Xiangtan, Hunan Province, Qi Baishi received little formal education. After apprenticing as a carpenter, he began to teach himself painting by studying the Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual (published in 1679). Later he studied portraiture and calligraphy with local artists and began to make a living as a painter. As his skill and reputation rose, he studied painting and poetry with some of the most important literary and artistic figures of the day. In his late forties, during the years from 1902 to 1908, Qi traveled extensively, not only acquainting himself with China’s most famous scenery, but also meeting fellow artists and encountering other styles of painting. While in Shanghaihe became aware of the Shanghai School of literati painting, and especially the work of Wu Changshi (1844–1927), which made a strong impression on him. He also accepted an invitation from friends to travel to Xi’an to study the historical stone inscriptions at Beilin. This experience was to be critical in the development of Qi’s unique style of seal carving. (The use of seals, or stamped calligraphs, on Chinese artworks dates back to the Zhou dynasty [1045–256 BCE]. A treasured work will include not only the seals of its maker but of those of its collectors through the centuries.)

In 1917, to escape unrest in Hunan, Qi Baishi traveled to Beijing and was introduced to a number of artists and scholars, including Chen Shiceng (1867–1923). Chen was to be perhaps the most influential figure in Qi’s development as a painter. Qi settled permanently in Beijing in 1919. He lived by selling his paintings and seals. By 1927 Qi Baishi was well enough established that he was given an appointment at the Beijing Art Academy, a position that he held until the Japanese invasion of Beijing in 1937. In response to the invasion, Qi withdrew to a life of seclusion. It was not until after the Japanese surrender in 1945 that Qi came out of retirement and resumed teaching.

After the establishment of the Peoples’ Republic of China in 1949, Qi Baishi was appointed Distinguished Professor of the Central Art Institute and chairman of the Chinese Art Association. In 1956 he received international recognition by being awarded the International Peace Prize by the World Peace Council.

Throughout his life Qi Baishi developed a large number of styles in his painting. His early training in the realistic gongbi style provided him with a strong foundation in the fine brush technique necessary for portrait painting. Later, his study of the individualistic styles of Xu Wei (1521–1593) and Bada Shanren (1625–1705), and his acquaintance with the work of Wang Changshi, led him to a more modern, expressive style. His association with Chen Shiceng eventually allowed Qi to escape the shadow of tradition and forge his own unique style. That style, often described as da xieyi, or “painting ideas in large,” was a progression from traditional calligraphic use of brush strokes to a liberated application of heavier strokes that sought to capture the spirit of the subject matter without being restrained by excessive attention to figural detail. Qi’s most famous description of his own approach to painting is the phrase, “The sublime is found between likeness and unlikeness.”That ideal is most fully exhibited in the simple paintings of birds, insects, plants, and everyday objects that he favored in his late years. Those late works also exhibit a nostalgia for the uncontrived styles of Chinese folk art.

A Letter to Qi Baishi

It is customary in Chinese usage to address correspondence to friends by their personal names, rather than their family names, as a sign of intimacy. The salutation Xiansheng (Mr.), however, is retained. Here, Baishi is Qi’s personal name; this translation of a letter from Mao Zedong shows the familiar Chinese usage in correspondence.

Mr. Baishi:

I thank you heartily for the gift of your scroll painting Pu tian tong qing (Joyous Celebration of All in Heaven), which I have received. I would like to express my gratitude to all your co-creators: Messrs. Xu Shixue, Yu Feian, Wang Shensheng, Hu Peiheng, Pu Yizai, Pu Xuezai, and Guan Songfang.

Mao Zedong

October 5, 1952

Source: Kau, Michael Ying-mao, & Leung, John K.. (Eds.) (1986). The writings of Mao Zedong, 1949–1976. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 291.

Further Reading

A new traditionalist. (2001, Winter). The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, 58(3), 26–37.

Fong, Wen C. (1993). The modern Chinese art debate. Artibus Asiae, 53(1/2), 290–305.

Miao zai si yu busi zhijian [The sublime is between likeness and unlikeness]. Retrieved January 28, 2008, from http://www.artchinanet.com/artlife/qibaishi/main.htm

Qi Baishi. (1989). Likeness and unlikeness: Selected paintings of Qi Baishi (Caiwei Ouyang, Trans.). Beijing: Foreign Language Press.

Tsao, Jung Ying. (1993). The paintings of Xugu and Qi Baishi. Seattle: WA and London: Far East Fine Arts.

Source: Russell, Terence (2009). QI Baishi. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1821–1823. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Painting of grapevines by Qi Baishi. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

QI Baishi (Qí Báishí ???)|Qí Báishí ??? (QI Baishi)

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