‘Too much likeness flatters the vulgar taste,” said Qi Baishi, “too much unlikeness deceives the world.” In the Chinese literati tradition, whose many intellectual ideals were developed by Su Shi, a satirical 11th-century Northern Song Dynasty poet, calligrapher and statesman, realism was considered a graceless pursuit.
With simple inked contours that lack shading and modeling, and a reserved color palette, Qi’s “Feeding the Ear” (circa 1920-30), currently on show at Kyoto National Museum, clearly illustrates Su’s philosophy. But the message of the painting itself, in which a figure holds a morsel of food pinched between chopsticks up to his ear, is a humorous warning against accepting the theories of others without thinking them over for oneself.
Through self-tutoring, Qi (1863-1957) rose from an agrarian background to be named “the people’s artist” by Mao Zedong in 1953, making him arguably the most prominent figure in China’s art world. His early years were spent as a carpenter, where he acquired the skill of painting through decorating woodwork. He also made an early living from seal-carving, which in turn nurtured a lifelong interest in calligraphy.
While other artists in China during the period of modernization advocated either Westernization or a synthesis of Western methods with local painting traditions, Qi opted for continuing the artistic heritage of the literati school. Still, his broadened subject matter and emboldened color schemes are regarded as significant contributions to modernizing the art form.
Conventional literati themes were bamboo, the orchid, landscapes and the like. Qi worked with such subjects, but added objects from his biographical origins: the farming implements of a sentimentalized rural life; the insects he had learned to draw as a youth; prawns nestling with crabs; rambling vines that balance elegantly with the poetry of his calligraphy. Such simple and direct themes catered to a much wider audience than those of the elite circles of the literati.
The title “Song Period Style Landscape” (1922) directly acknowledges Qi’s artistic sympathies. Gradated plain black ink forms thickets of trees in uniform shapes behind which steep cliffs loom large. Set in the middle ground and perched among craggy ridges is a rarefied world in retreat, with temple precincts and a hermitage wrapped in cloud. Later centuries’ perceptions of Song Period (960-1279) artists pictured them as free and romantic spirits whose character and virtue constituted their artistic style. This, no doubt, resonated within Qi, but the unimportance of social origins was also perhaps attractive to him. Song ruling ranks were gradually filled by the up-and-coming, and sometimes by those of low birth who passed examinations in the Confucian classics, rather than simply by those who made it there through family connections.
A considerable portion of the exhibition, including both Qi’s work and that of his circle of followers, were collected by Suma Yakichiro, and later entrusted to Kyoto National Museum. One painting by Qi’s disciple, the priest Ruiguang, “Suma Yakichiro’s Atelier: Hall of the Plum Blossoms,” was given to Suma on his birthday in 1929. But the majority of works on show are from before 1930 as Qi shut his doors to Japanese collectors once the nation invaded China in 1937, citing the desire to avoid what he considered to be corrupt politics. His doors did reopen after the end of World War II.
Qi’s patriotism fueled his cultural celebrity following the war, and perhaps unwittingly drew him into close contact with the Communist rulers. Craig Clunas has gone as far as to say in “Art in China” from the Oxford History of Art series that Qi was an “ornament of the regime, testimony to its ability to marshal the best part of the cultural heritage in service of New China.”
But in the 20th century, continuing within long established traditions was not considered a workable modernist option, and in that sense, Qi was anachronistic. After 1949, when China and the Soviet Union became politically close and oil painting became the standard, traditional Chinese painting’s supposed resistance to new subject matter was being touted as a residue of old China.
Qi’s addition of new subject matter to the genre, however, was essentially a modernizing move, albeit a subtle one. And in that, he is both a foundational and transitional figure between long-standing Chinese traditions and the contemporary Chinese painting that emerged following the country’s political liberalization in the 1970s.