Painter with a pulse

Updated 2018-07-24 11:22:00

One of Qi Baishi's paintings on show features fish and chicks.

Qi Baishi's works are on display at the Palace Museum, in a rare show of a modern Chinese artist at the venue, Wang Kaihao reports.

While Qi Baishi (1864-1957) is a household name in China, an exhibition of his paintings was last held at the Palace Museum in Beijing, or the Forbidden City, 64 years ago.

The museum, which was the seat of the royal court in imperial China from 1420 to 1911, is hosting Prosperity in Tranquility: The Art of Qi Baishi, a show on the modern artist, with some 200 of his paintings and seals exhibited at the Meridian Gate Gallery since last week. The exhibits are both from the museum's own collection and that of the Beijing Fine Art Academy.

For the general public, Qi's best-known works are his paintings of shrimps, due to the many legends on how he created them. As a result, many of his paintings of shrimps, crabs and fish are on display at the ongoing exhibition.

In 1960, Baby Tadpoles Look for Their Mother, China's first ink-and-water animation film that was inspired by Qi's other paintings, won praise abroad.

"In his early years, Qi drew shrimps to mostly learn from ancient painters," Xue Liang, a researcher with the Beijing Fine Art Academy, says. "But he later developed a personal style by using shades of dark ink to reflect the texture of a shrimp's body, giving its antennas an almost real-life feel."

Nevertheless, Qi's works went beyond aquatic life.

"Qi Baishi is the representative artist of Chinese art in the 20th century," says Wu Hongliang, deputy director of the Beijing Fine Art Academy.

One of Qi Baishi's paintings on show.

Be it landscapes, birds, flowers or figures, Qi's paintings are high on expression and detail, Wu says. He is also known for his seal carvings, poems and for setting art school trends.

Qi was prolific even in his 70s. In a group of paintings that are now on show, Qi drew some insects in the corners, leaving parts of the images blank. According to Lyu Xiao, another researcher at the Beijing Fine Art Academy, Qi did so because he wanted to fill in the parts later while focusing on the finer details first, before his eyesight became weaker.

"He had planned to fill these spaces with flowers later on, when he thought he wouldn't see as clearly as he did while painting the insects," Lyu explains.

After New China was founded in 1949, Qi was widely hailed as a "people's artist".

Wang Yamin, curator of the ongoing exhibition, says: "He was not only diligent, but also had a taste that was close to the grassroots."

A native of Xiangtan, Hunan province, Qi used to be a carpenter. He first learned painting from folk artists and later sold paintings for a living in Shanghai and Beijing during the period of great social upheaval in the country. That was also a time when he met some influential painters. Such life experiences made him understand different social strata, rather than catering to only high tastes.

Among his other paintings exhibited are flowers with blessings for prosperity, vegetables indicating harvests and farming tools to express his nostalgia for his hometown.

"People love these paintings because they remind us of the mountains and waters in the countryside, and remind us where we come from," Wang says.

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