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Qi Baishi (1864-1957)

Qi Baishi was one of China’s most notable painters, with a world renowned reputation in the art and auction world. Within the past decade his popularity has surged. In 2017 his work propelled him into the $100 Million Club as one of his pieces sold for $140.8 million at the Poly Auctions in Beijing. However, his celebrity status drastically differs from the foundations of his life and work. Baishi came from a humble background, born into a poor family in Xiangtan, Hunan. He exercised his artistry from an early age, as he became a practicing carpenter by the time he was 14. However, the catalyst for his painting was his discovery of, ‘The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting’, which informed the basis of his natural subject matter.

From that point, Baishi proceeded as a self-taught artist.  It was not until the age of 27 that he began his professional training under the influence of Hu Qinyuan. Here, he practiced the core principles of Gongbi, a meticulous realist technique in Chinese painting. The approach consists of the application of highly diligent and intricate brushstrokes that limit expressionist adaptation. This method was applied to his practice until he was 38 years of age.

After this, his works found a new mode of aesthetic exploration which prioritised the Xieyi technique. This method comprised of expressive implementation and loose brushwork which is representative of Xieyi’s approximate translation, ‘writing the feelings’, or ‘sketching thoughts’. Although the concepts of Xieyi oppose the Gongbi style, it does not disregard the experience and skill required in order to achieve effective execution.

‘A Painting In Ink And Colour On Paper’ perfectly represents Baishi’s identification with and amalgamation of these two philosophies. It also embodies his own theories on art as he stated, ‘If a painting has too much likeness to the subject, then it is pandering to the taste of the vulgar but if it lacks too much likeness it cheats the viewer of the familiar and lessens the meaning of the object.’ The piece invites the viewer to consider not only Baishi’s mastery of these two concepts but also to reflect on the spontaneity and spirit of his subject matter. As he averts our attention to the themes depicted, he elevates the importance of various elements of nature that are often overlooked.

‘A Painting In Ink And Colour On Paper’

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