The Essence of Chinese Painting (II)
1 Chinese cabbage and peppers
This article analyzes a simple picture of one of the most important artists of the last century, Qi Baishi 齐白石. Since Qi Baishi, the Chinese cabbage has gained a high status in painting. Cabbage is a healthy vegetable, and Qi Baishi especially loved it. There are many anecdotes about Qi Baishi’s exchange of cabbage pictures for real cabbage.
Western observers may not at first glance appreciate the beauty of a picture that shows nothing more than a Chinese cabbage and two chilies. Classical Chinese painting is full of symbolism: bamboo stands for sincere character, lily for innocent beauty, and so on. These are all noble plants with deep meaning, and we can find them many times in literature too. But cabbage?
In one of his colophons for a friend on a picture with a cabbage, he wrote: “It will show its famed every day, but it will never forget its taste.” In another picture, he writes: “It’s not just that the roots are tasty, but that they are always farmers.”
Up until the first half of the last century, with a few exceptions (Zen, Yangzhou ba guai), it was unthinkable to depict “ignoble” plants. By choosing something as mundane as Chinese cabbage and chilies as the content of the picture, Qi Baishi does the following: he bows to the few predecessors who broke this taboo and, above all, he includes something in his canon that the poorest class of the population considered “noble” applies, especially since it is edible.
We have to keep in mind that in his day meat was very rarely on the table because it was expensive. And, especially in the winter months, there were hardly any vegetables apart from Chinese cabbage, which was easy to store. Even among Chinese cabbage lovers, not everyone shares this enthusiasm. To make the dish tastier, you add a few chilies. In painting, if a part of the picture has become boring, a painter uses “a red point” that adds “spice”.
He underlined it with the colophon on the right: “When the peony is the queen of flowers. Lizhi (Lichee 荔枝) stands in front of the fruit, one can probably call the Chinese cabbage the king of vegetables”.
Qi Baishi chooses a structure of the image through which he can arrange the objects around the void (nothing) similar to the Enso. The leaves of the Chinese cabbage, fresh and juicy, strive upwards, and the peppers point downwards, creating a tension field. The picture is compositionally well-balanced and powerful. Since he paints the Chinese cabbage round and gently on the inside but toothed on the outside, the viewer’s eye will not take the shortest route. The top of the cabbage looks almost the same as steps or like a mountain, and once the eye has climbed the highest step, it is driven downwards as if on a waterfall – pressed through between the lower part of the Chinese cabbage and the character “ye” 也 (and).
The eye of the beholder continues (especially by the sign xian 先 (first) to the pepper pods. The lower, larger pod guides the direction of force out of the picture (through its shape), but the smaller one leads the viewer back up to the leaves, where a prong of the leaf creates a connection with the style of the upper chili pepper. With this trick of leading the viewer first out of the picture but at the same time back in, the field of tension extends beyond the actual picture surface, and the picture appears full and powerful.
The connection to the Enso (an eternal circle) mentioned above should by no means be a coincidence. In this picture, too, the eye of the experienced observer describes this eternal cycle.
Similarly, he symbolizes the wheel of life when he depicts tadpoles and frogs in a circle in another painting.
1.4 Painting technique
Chinese cabbage is a popular subject for xieyi painting. In the painting discussed here, Qi Baishi initially uses light ink for the body of the cabbage. With the rightmost boundary line being drawn from top to bottom. The other two from bottom to top, create a field of forces. The cabbage leaves are structured with light Indian ink and accentuated with a darker ink before he sets the veins of the leaves in the drying areas with even darker ink. In this way, the leaves are rich in “color” and separated from each other in layers. He accentuates parts of the stalk of the cabbage by using light ink. And the roots of the cabbage appear with a few simple lines, indicating its “origin”.
The presentation of the peppers, as simple as it seems at first glance, is very well thought out. Qi Baishi uses several brushstrokes per pod, according to calligraphic criteria, so that they also convey a dynamic. The calligraphy also shows itself very well in the styles of the pepper pods.
This brief analysis of the picture, which may seem simple at first glance, only touches on the most important aspects but shows quite clearly what Qi Baishi’s pictures are about.
I studied Chinese art at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing (CAVA) when I lived in China for 5 years, and wrote my dissertation on Chinese free-hand style painting.
article published in German in 2021 by oe-g.cf.
@ Friedrich Zettl. All rights reserved.