Curator's Corner

Commemorating Qi Baishi

By Karl Cole, posted on Sep 16, 2013

Chinese painting, drawing, and graphic arts of the 20th and 21st centuries is an amazing combination of traditional and bold contemporary statements. Today I honor Qi Baishi, who died on this date in 1957. He was an amazing talent who blended traditional Chinese painting technique and format with contemporary aesthetic.

The unfortunate tendency of Chinese galleries to favor realism over contemporary experiment means that the West is richer for it! We get to see cutting edge Chinese modernism! While Qi Baishi is not exactly “cutting-edge,” he does represent a strain in Chinese art that endures into the 21st century. His work is extraordinarily beautiful.


Qi Baishi (1863–1957, China), Wisteria.
Qi Baishi (1863–1957, China), Wisteria. Ink and watercolor on paper, mounted as hanging scroll. Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2956)


Chinese painting first flourished during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE). It was primarily landscape and genre subjects. Indeed, landscape dominated Chinese painting, and subsequently Japanese and Korean painting since that period. However, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), close-ups of nature also became popular subject matter for painters. This was especially true in the format of the hanging scroll.

Since the Communist Chinese revolution of the 1940s, social realism has been the preferred painting style by Chinese government. However, a myriad of styles that hark back to traditional Chinese painting persist until the present day. Qi Baishi is perhaps the most famous of artists in the 1900s painting in traditional subject matter and style.

Qi studied calligraphy, literature and painting from the artists of the Shanghai school. He only started to seriously pursue painting when he was in his mid-20s. He did not receive widespread recognition until he was in his 60s. Qi not only assiduously studied the painting lessons in old Chinese texts, but also western art. He combined these influences in a style that recalled the individualist painters of the Qing dynasty, while infusing his subjects with modern compositional sensibilities. Like the individualist painters, Qi expressed his subjective feelings about the subject without affecting a faithfulness to nature.

The wisteria was a favorite subject of Chinese and Japanese artists because it is a vine flower. In Chinese it is called “purple vine.” It symbolizes playfulness and spontaneity, because the vine seemingly grows where it wants to. The spontaneity of vine flowers was a good accompaniment to the Zen Buddhist idea of spontaneous enlightenment. Qi has perfectly captured that playfulness in this beautiful hanging scroll.


Studio activity: Create a hanging scroll of flowers. Using complementary colors (those opposite each other on the color wheel), do an asymmetrically balanced composition of your favorite flowers. Take a tall, narrow sheet of drawing paper, and use markers or watercolor. Choose favorite flowers and make sketches of how they look. Try to create the scroll image without doing a pencil drawing so that it is spontaneous. Remember to contrast positive and negative space, yet achieve an approximate balance of shapes.


Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art2: 1.2; Explorations in Art2: 1.3; Explorations in Art5: 4.19, A Global Pursuit: 4.5; A Personal Journey: 5.5; Exploring Visual Design: 5,10; The Visual Experience: 13.4; Discovering Art History: 4.3