The Life and Times of Qi Baishi (齐白石/Ch’i Pai-shih)
When looking at Qi Baishi’s vita, one might be surprised that someone with originally no connection to painting should become one of the greatest and most famous ink painters of modern times. Although taking painting very seriously throughout his life, it seems as if fame did not come to him until the last decade of his life.
Qi Baishi was born the son of a farmer in 1864 and did start to paint until the age of 20, when he borrowed a book about art. Being an autodidact, he taught painting to himself by copying pictures from painting manuals such as “The Mustard Seed Garden”, but also found inspiration in works by individualist painters such as Zhu Da or Xu Wei. He later received formal training and developed his own distinctive painting style. When Qi was 40, he went on a journey through China to visit famous places in search of new motifs and inspiration. He settled down in Beijing in 1917 and occupied himself with other activities besides painting, such as poetry, calligraphy and seal carving.
It was not until the 1920s that Qi Baishi – now in his sixties – had developed a mature and unmistakably personal style. He produced his greatest works in his sixties and seventies and was a fully acknowledges painter by then. In 1955, he was awarded the World Peace Council prize, two years before he died at the high age of 94.
Qi Baishi’s (齐白石/Ch’i Pai-shih) Painting
Even though Qi Baishi witnessed the downfall of the Qing Dynasty and the turmoil at the beginning of the 20th century, his works are free of any allusions to the political circumstances. In his choice of motifs, he did not set himself any limits, although his subjects are mostly drawn from nature. Animals, vegetables, figures, flowers – there seem to be no subjects in the natural world which he didn’t find worth being portrayed. What strikes most is the way he laid focus on small details, on the little things in life, and depicting them with an easily flowing, elegant brushwork.
Just as Xu Beihong is mostly known for his graceful renderings of galloping horses, one will most likely connect the name of Qi Baishi with his depictions of sea animals, mainly shrimp.
When looking at one of those pictures by him, the boldness with which he painted even the longest brushstrokes is most notable. They are spread across the whole surface of the paper, as if painted in one single flowing motion without stopping for one second to reload the brush with fresh ink. Qi Baishi leaves the safe way of depicting his subjects realistically, but follows the individualists’ concept of painting in “xieyi” (寫意) style, that is, rather catching the essence of a subject than trying to reproduce its outer appearance in naturalistic forms. By using very pale, grey ink which almost fades on the surface, he manages to evoke a feeling of lightness and carefreeness.
Qi Baishis motifs seem simple and reduced, even somewhat naïve, but if you look closer, you will realize the accomplished brushwork in a vigorous painting technique, especially when it comes to accentuation his pictures. The simple compositions and economically placed elements are supplemented by swiftness and vigour in their execution. Qi Baishi added colors to his pictures, but combined them skillfully with black and grey ink. When only painting in monochrome ink, he explored the different tonalities of the medium by using thick, fully saturated brushes.