BY Carol Yinghua Lu in Reviews | 01 MAY 14

Qi Baishi, Begonia and insects in grass, c. 1936, watercolour, 68 × 34 cm

The story goes that at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, a community of Chinese artists and critics gradually began to define a ‘contemporary art’ scene. These artists – among them certain members of the Star Group, such as Huang Rui and Wang Keping – positioned themselves in opposition to the government-run, ideologically biased system of national, provincial or municipal artist associations, academies and institutions. Consequently, since then, contemporary Chinese art has been mistakenly described as existing independently from, and in rebellion against, the state ideology – in direct opposition to the kind of work made by artists operating within the official system. This oversimplified dichotomy has hindered consideration of the artistic and critical contributions that came from within the official circuit. In the meantime, it also set up a false expectation that all contemporary art in China should be ideologically conscious and critical. Therefore, those who consider themselves outside the official circle wouldn’t normally regard Qi Baishi as an important reference (though he is a highly regarded figure in the ‘official’ Chinese art history). Late in his life, Qi was a commercially successful artist, celebrated by the Communist Party as an icon of traditional Chinese painting. A recent retrospective at the Museum of the Beijing Fine Art Academy set out to reexamine his career.

The Beijing Fine Art Academy, whose Chinese name literally translates as ‘Painter’s Institute’, is an offshoot of an institutional model that was initially founded in ancient China. These ‘academies’ were created to serve the cultural interests of the royal family, supporting and coaching artists to make work consistent with the emperor’s aesthetic preferences. After the Communist Party came to power, the Beijing Fine Art Academy was the first institution based on the old model to be set up by the government – in 1957, the same year that Qi passed away at the age of 93. Its initial aim was to produce Chinese ink-wash painters and to support research and international exchanges. The academy does not provide educational services but, instead, keeps a group of artists on its payroll and encourages them to create work exemplary of national excellence and taste on a yearly basis. Four months before Qi’s passing, he was named the honorary director of the Beijing Fine Art Academy. His family members subsequently donated the majority of his archival materials and works to the academy.

Since then, the academy has made considerable efforts to research and exhibit this substantial archive. Qi originally worked as a carpenter and, in his spare time, taught himself how to paint flowers, birds and figures from the Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, a book of Chinese painting compiled during the early Qing Dynasty (around 1679). In 1889, he gave up carpentry and became a professional portrait painter. By the time he moved to Beijing in 1917, he was 55 years old and faced the challenge of re-inventing himself in order to gain recognition in a new art world. It was in Beijing that his technique went through a profound change – from painting in a freehand style to making highly detailed works, in response to the demands of the art market and the trends at the time. In his diary, Qi wrote frankly about his anxiety over the lukewarm reception of his paintings in Beijing and the cold shoulders he encountered among the cultural elite. Within a few years, however, he was introduced to high society by the famed opera performer Mei Lanfang.

Titled ‘Thoughts on Qi Baishi’, this exhibition commemorated the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth. Based on his unpublished diaries and numerous texts that record his working process and his interactions with colleagues as well as the political context of modern China since 1949, the exhibition provided a chronological and detailed account of the artist’s life. A careful selection of works from different stages of his career, accompanied by wall texts and excerpts from Qi’s own writing, were spread over four floors of the museum. These included portraits of Chairman Mao, which were offered as gifts on international diplomatic occasions, along with his earlier paintings of insects, plants and fruit.

Qi was an industrious artist who painted an enormous number of works with a wide range of subjects – from vegetables and animals to landscapes. He also sold many of them at hefty prices to business people and government officials. They were even considered hard currency during periods of inflation. Included in the show was a sign that Qi used as a means of refusing government officials the free paintings that they often requested, and the back of the artist’s wardrobe, on which he posted notes to remind himself what medicine to take and the birthdays of his family members. Instead of presenting Qi as a flawless and idealized figure, this well-curated exhibition portrayed his life and career in a rich and human fashion – an exception to the majority of state-funded art museums in China, where wall labels provide no more than the names
of the artists and the dates of their works.

Carol Yinghua Lu is a contributing editor of frieze, a PhD candidate in art history at Melbourne University, Australia, and director of Inside-out Art Museum, Beijing, China.