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Steffani Bennett
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In the autumn of 1921, Qi Baishi 齊百石 painted this image of a gnarled trunk of a plum tree, its branches in full blossom. The painting, titled simply Blossoming Plum, is dedicated to the “Honorable Wei Lu畏廬仁先生大人,” a sobriquet for the famed translator Lin Shu 林紓, (1852–1924). Acquired by the Seattle Art Museum in 1999, this unassuming composition stands distinctly apart from many of Qi’s later works which are characterized by bright splashes of color and free brushwork.

Emerging from the left-hand edge of Blossoming Plum is an ancient plum trunk, its aged bark textured by striations of dry ink, or “flying white.” Four branches emerge from the trunk twisting and turning, weaving in and out of one another as they rise upward, assuming a more stylized form than the naturalistically conceived trunk. Qi Baishi renders the lower branches in saturated black, giving way to a fine net of light grey branches adorned with blossoms. Intermittently, touches of dark ink accentuate blossoms and branches, further animating and punctuating this painting.

In this inspired image Qi Baishi portrays all the stages of the plum blossom’s life. Buds are small circles; those beginning to open have the suggestion of a sepal or two; and newly opened blossoms are multiple plump circles with sepals. Once the flowers are in full bloom, they assume a schematic five-lobed shape in the center of which is a pinwheel of sepals. Throughout, the arrangement of the blossoms is natural and relaxed, the brushwork controlled and confident. The delicate blossoms stand in graceful juxtaposition to the ancient trunk, creating a striking silhouette against the plain ground of the paper. It seems that Qi’s primary intention was not so much botanical realism as it is to underscore the image of the flowering plum as a poignant motif.

Among the early masters of the painted plum genre whom Qi Baishi emulates in Blossoming Plum is the Song dynasty painter Yang Buzhi 楊補之 (1097–1169). Qi had seen and copied examples of Yang’s work.Kaiyu Hsu and Fangyu Wang, Ch'i Pai-shih's Paintings (Taipei: Art Book Co., 1979): 79. Yang’s Four Views of Flowering Plum (dated to 1165) exhibits his use of dry ink and fine, modulated lines to crisply define shapes and textures.Maggie Bickford, Bones of Jade, Soul of Ice: The Flowering Plum in Chinese Art (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1985): 137. Compared with Yang’s painting, Qi’s treatment of the subject is more freely executed, yet there is resonance of spirit in both works. As a leading figure in the ink plum genre, Yang pioneered the use of monochrome ink—i.e. the variations of ink tonality from pale grey to black, and an exploration of the expressive possibilities of line—elements of the genre that find expression in Qi’s painting. Perhaps the most concrete inspiration to be found in Qi’s work is the method of rendering certain blossom types that belonged to a conventionalized repertoire developed by Yang and other artists.

Another artist whose work influenced Qi Baishi’s ink plum depiction is the Qing artist Jin Nong 金農 (1687–1764), one of the eight masters of Yangzhou. Jin Nong’s style, as seen in his flowering plum compositions, is characterized by slender, strong brushwork which evokes the plum’s wintry beauty and stoic symbolism.Yiran Yu, Yangzhou Bajia Huaji, (Taibei: Wenhua Yishu Gongsi, 1971): 1. In Blossoming Plum the influence of Jin Nong’s style is more pronounced than that of Yang Buzhi, who was further removed in time. Qi’s lines, like those of Jin, are more freely and naturalistically executed than the fine, restrained lines of Yang. The horizontal format of Yang’s Four Views of Flowering Plum enables the artist to explore the details of the plum flowers and branches, whereas Jin and Qi chose a narrow, vertical format, emphasizing the tree’s vertical growth. Yang portrays the different stages of the blossoming plum in separate scenes which feature sparse branches, epitomizing the elegance of the plum motif. Jin Nong and Qi Baishi, however, capture the full beauty of the plum’s life cycle in a single composition.

Qi Baishi was trained as a young man in traditional painting methods, including the meticulous detailed, or gongbi工筆, manner, often used for rendering flowers like the plum; however, in 1920, Qi’s lifelong friend and mentor, Chen Shizeng 陳師曾 (1876–1923), urged Qi to re-invigorate his style, inspiring him to develop a colorful, expressive style that would later dominate his extensive oeuvre.Jungying Tsao, The Paintings of Xugu and Qi Baishi (San Francisco: Far East Fine Arts, Inc., 1993): 209. In 1920 Lin Shu, for whose birthday this painting was created, saw and praised Qi’s new style and provided the affirmation Qi needed to move forward in his artistic career. Qi did not, however, entirely abandon more traditional methods. This painting in the Seattle collection is a fine example of the traditional ink plum style that Qi continued to employ.

In China, the plum, which blooms in the late winter chill, has long been associated with the virtues of the high-minded scholar, because it symbolizes moral fortitude. Qi Baishi’s selection of this theme, and his two inscriptions which elaborate on the theme, were created to honor the literary achievements of the painting’s recipient, Lin Shu. The blossoming plum theme also subtly refers to the native homes of both men, as the plum was identified with the culture of south China.Bickford, Bones of Jade, Soul of Ice: 26-28. In Qi Baishi’s purposeful use of ink plum, a traditional manner of plum painting, he demonstrates his gratitude and deep-felt respect for his literary friend, Lin Shu.

© 2013 by the Seattle Art Museum


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