Qi Baishi was a master of integrating his rural upbringing and observations of nature with a child-like sensitivity and simplicity in his paintings. While going against tradition, he put his focus on seemingly trivial objects, adding a whimsical touch without trying to be pretentious. His genius lay in his ability to engage viewers by evoking a play of space and rhythm from nature through minimal strokes of his brush, with an acute sense of composition and perspective. Instead of emulating the masters, he boldly created his own style and chose to paint in xieyi manner. Stressing strong contrasts with thick brushwork and unconventional colours, he paints “between likeness and unlikeness.”
In 1889, Qi Baishi began to study flower- and-bird paintings under Hu Zizhuo (1847-1914), a renowned literati artist from Qi’s hometown of Hunan. Qi was fond of painting from nature and practiced under his teacher in the gongbi style. In 1919, Qi Baishi moved to Beijing, selling paintings and carving seals. By good fortune, he befriended Chen Shizeng (1876-1923) who convinced him to change to xieyi style of painting.
After the age of 60, Qi Baishi changed his approach to painting, realizing that merely copying ancient works did not give him enough of an understanding of the subjects he wished to depict. After purchasing items such as shoes, books, and confectionaries, Qi Baishi would save the wrapping paper in order to use them as sketching paper to practice his technique and composition. If a draft did not satisfy him, he would throw it away. Qi once remarked, “A distinguished [painter] should attain excellence…by repeatedly doing sketches from nature and translating his thoughts into paint.” His excellence in painting is a result of his rigorous sketching and prolonged observation and study.
This turning point, combined with his rural background, resulted in paintings that emphasised nature in a folk-like manner, radically different to traditional paintings that were most often seen in Beijing, and they received a very warm reception.
“Flowers must have insects as accompaniment to be more life-like.” -Qi Baishi
Qi Baishi would keep plants and insects at his home, in order to sketch by observing their shapes and movements (Fig. 1). A similar work (Fig. 3) in the collection of the Beijing Fine Art Academy, exhibits a similar mood and composition as this painting of amaranth and butterflies. Here, he first paints the shapes, drawing in the complex system of veins afterwards. The red amaranth leaves are highlighted by its tonal variation and the green amaranth behind. Using a vertical format, the viewer is guided to look at the painting from the amaranth at the bottom up to the butterfly dancing in the sky.
“If [wisteria] vines are painted with a lot of likeness, then what you paint are not vines…[It is of] concern not to be able to paint wisteria in a disorderly manner, for such disorder provides spirit and essence.” -Qi Baishi
Having began painting wisteria in the 1920s, he mastered the subject after years of sketching and practice (Fig. 4). The wisteria in the painting transitions from large, periwinkle blue to smaller, lavender flowers, reflecting its maturity through the colour. The vines are composed of calligraphic brushwork that is powerful at the top, trailing downwards into delicate strokes. Though the composition is full with various elements, the painting remains balanced without being chaotic, radiating energy and warmth.
“I cannot draw anything I have yet to see.” -Qi Baishi
Throughout Qi’s later artistic career, he continued to stress the importance of drawing from life. He would purchase a basket of shrimp, picking the ones that were the most animated, and of various sizes, to keep in a water bowl in his studio (Fig. 2). From this, he was able to practice painting shrimp and their liveliness, as exhibited in a similar work (Fig. 5) published by the National Museum of History in Taipei. Hu Peiheng (1892-1965), one of Qi Baishi’s closest friends, once wrote, “only after the age of eighty did Qi Baishi truly perfect his shrimp paintings.” Dated 1943, when Qi Baishi was around 80 years of age, the painting of shrimp and fish from Between Likeness & Unlikeness – Amaranth, Wisteria, Aquatic Life, Lychees was created at the pinnacle of Qi’s artistic development. Without using ink to depict the water, Qi is able to give the illusion of the fish and shrimp swimming by the tufts of seaweed. By using variations of diluted and undiluted ink, Qi Baishi creates tonal contrasts that add dynamism and spirit to his portrayal aquatic life.
“Lychee is the best-tasting fruit of all…[and is] the best subject for composition of a painting” -Qi Baishi
Though the fruit is not native to his hometown of Hunan, lychees became one of the artist’s inspirations while he was traveling in Qinzhou, an area well-known for their production of lychee, resulting in the subject becoming part of the artist’s repetoire (Fig. 6). His admiration of the fruit is clear in the painting of lychees in Between Likeness & Unlikeness – Amaranth, Wisteria, Aquatic Life, Lychees . Overall the painting has a balanced composition, with its overlapping branches dangling from above, and anchored by the woven basket filled with lush fruit. Expertly rendered in varying hues of light and deep crimson, the painting is at once warm and inviting. As few of Qi Baishi’s best lychee paintings have survived, this is a rare example that presents the artist’s genius manifested in the composition and mood of the piece.
Qi Baishi saw beauty in the simple things in life—his paintings are juxtaposed with a richness of ink and an uncomplicatedness of subject matter. Qi Baishi painted in a radical manner for the time, which changed the realm of Chinese paintings, using strong colours, focusing on folk art that rarely received artistic acclaim. This set of four paintings is a rare and exceptional masterpiece exemplary of the great repertoire of one of the most celebrated Chinese artists of the twentieth century.