The People's Artist: Qi Baishi

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Thursday was the 53rd anniversary of the death of Qi Baishi (1864-1957), who is considered an “obscure Chinese artist” by westerners but “the Picasso of China” by the Chinese. So, in the hopes of educating the west about this influential Chinese painter, today's post is devoted to Qi Baishi.

1. Copying figures and motifs from The Mustard Seed Garden, a famous Qing Dynasty painting manual, Qi Baishi taught himself to paint. He was never formally trained at an art school, though he went on to teach at them, but he did find professional artists to mentor him. It was in training with his mentors that Qi realized art was something he could actually pursue professionally. The first paid painting gig he landed was as a family portraitist. He went on to become the most popular 20th-century painter in China, as well as a skilled seal-carver and calligrapher.

2. Qi is perhaps known as much for his clever titles and inscriptions as he is for his painting skills. The painting of baby chicks, shown above, is titled “The sex of the chicks not yet determined,” while a painting of two chicks fighting for the same worm is inscribed “Friends in the past.” It's probably no surprise, then, that Qi was also a poet. He formed the Longshan poets society in 1895 with several of his friends, who then elected him the director. His poetry collections, Jieshanyinguan Shicao and Baishi Shicao, were published in 1928 and 1933, respectively.

3. During the Sino-Japanese war, Qi was adamant that he did not want the Japanese purchasing his work. In 1937, when they gained control of Beijing, Qi locked his door and refused to admit any guests. He posted a sign outside that read, “Old Man Baishi has had a recurrence of heart sickness and has stopped receiving guests.” (Some sources say he went so far as to put a sign stating, “Old Man Baishi is dead.”) He also quit his job teaching at the Beijing Art College.

4. Qi is most famous for his paintings of flowers and animals, especially prawns, many of which were created while he was over the age of 70. Interestingly, though, Qi actually preferred painting landscapes, and considered his landscape painting skills superior to his skill at painting birds, flowers, and other objects.

5. If you research Qi on the internet, you may come across reports that he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1956. Pretty impressive for a painter, right? Well, those reports are wrong—Qi didn't receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1956 (in fact, it wasn't awarded to anyone that year) or any other year. What he actually received in 1956 was the World Peace Council's International Peace Award... which is still pretty impressive.

6. Westerners received a bit of a surprise this past March when it was announced that Qi is the third best-selling artist at global art auctions, based on Art Price's market data. Qi's $70 million in auction sales last year comes behind only Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, who each had $220 million in auction sales last year. While he is virtually unknown in the US and the UK, Chinese art lovers have been collecting Qi for years, with Qi's work in “every important Chinese collection.” Qi's past sales have been almost exclusively in Chinese auction houses, which makes his spot on the best-selling list even more of an accomplishment.

Larger versions of the four works shown above are available: the first landscape, the birds in the tree, "The sex of the chicks not yet determined," and the second landscape.

Fans should check out the collections of Qi's paintings at China Online Museum, About.com, and China Page; a sampling of his woodblock prints; and CCTV's documentary, "Civilization and Innovation: Qi Baishi."

"Feel Art Again" usually appears three times a week. Looking for a particular artist? Visit our archive for a complete listing of all 250+ artists that have been featured. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists. Or you can head to our Facebook page, where you can do everything in one place.

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September 18, 2010 - 10:11am
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