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Monday, August 15, 2016

A Memorial to Qi Baishi (with no thanks to TripAdvisor!)

There are times when web sites such as TripAdvisor I find invaluable… but equally there are times when they drive me mad! The lack of any scrutiny as to what is correct information is a nuisance at best and a right P-i-t-A at worst.

Take TripAdvisor’s entry for the Memorial Hall of Qi Baishi as an example. Having described it in a few short sentences, the instructions on how to get there refer to another of Qi Baishi’s former residences.

So for the record, and to help sort out the confusion, this house – at 13 Kuachehutong, in the Xicheng area – is where Qi lived from 1919. The hutong in which it stood has been completely demolished now; and the painter’s house is all that remains, firmly locked shut with just a couple of plaques on the wall to remind the curious as to why it is still standing. Surrounding it are banks, banks and more banks.

This house, near Nanluogo Xiang, is where Qi spent the last two years of his life, and is where the Memorial Hall – or museum – is actually located.

OK, let’s step back a moment. Who on earth is Qi Baishi, you may well be wondering (if you're not Chinese!). If so, don’t worry. You’re in good company. In 2010, Britain’s Daily Telegraph wrote of him: Obscure Chinese painter Qi Baishi, who is little-known to Western art lovers, has become the world's third best-selling artist.

The Times picked up the story…The only artists to earn more were Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, whose works raised more than $220 million (£143 million) in sales between them.

While still relatively unknown outside China, Qi is a household name in his home country. He is best known for his pictures of mice, birds and shrimps; and over the past 20 years his paintings have attracted higher and higher prices.

Qi Baishi (齐白石) was born in 1864 to a peasant family from Xiangtan, Hunan. He became a carpenter at 14, and learned to paint by himself. It was only after he turned 40 that he started travelling, visiting various scenic spots in China. In 1917 he settled in Beijing. Some of Qi's major influences include the early Qing dynasty painter Bada Shanren (Zhu Da) and the Ming dynasty artist Xu Wei. In 1953 he was elected president of the China Artists Association. He died in Beijing in 1957.

Anyway, this Memorial Hall is based in a classic Chinese 'courtyard' – or siheyuan – house. Qi Baishi moved (or was moved, depending on whose account you believe) here in 1955 when he was 90 years old, two years before his death. The Museum opened in 2012.

As is often the case with many Chinese museums, a long list of information and things you cannot do is presented outside. "Drinker, not properly dressed, incompetence people and limited behavioral competence people without guardian can not entre the museum,"(sic) we are warned. There is also a constraint to "Prevent the public facilities" (I am still working that one out); and at first I am pleased to see that "Old people aged over 60 can visit free".

But what, I wonder, if you are over 60 and not old? Hmmm now there’s a conundrum.

I decide to pay the 5 kuai entrance fee and keep quiet about my age.

Inside the courtyard, one is met by a statue of the grand old master…

… while inside there's a photograph of our hero taken in his later years.

Around the courtyard are little galleries, showing off a few of his paintings…

I am always at a loss as to why Chinese art galleries in the main continue to use ordinary glass when mounting their paintings. In Europe it is now commonplace for galleries to use non-reflective glass, so you don’t get reflections of the windows and other light objects interfering with your view of the art.

With these two frames (containing 'Bamboo shoots and Mushrooms' and 'Cockscomb') it is all but impossible to see what is on show because of the strong reflections from the windows behind.

Likewise this 'Pine and Eagle', which is a pity because Qi was known for the amount of detail he put into his paintings.

As you would expect, there are plenty of memorabilia to purchase, if you have a mind to.

A rather nice bed is on display in the artist’s living quarters …

… as well as a fetching table and chairs;

and what presumably he used as a dining table, when he wasn’t using it to create another of his many paintings.

Around one room there are numerous posters detailing the life and times of the man;

as well as photocopies of various certificates such as this one for the 'World Peace Commission 1955'.

On 7th January 1953 Premier Zhou Enlai attended Qi’s 88th birthday celebration. The accompanying notice tells us that “During the banquet they talk friendly”. Well, I should jolly well hope so!

In 1953 Qi Baishi was elected to the presidency of the Association of Chinese Artists.

On September 16th, 1957, Qi passed away in Beijing Hospital (near Dongdan), just months after being made honorary president of the Beijing Academy of Chinese Painting, which was founded in May, 1957.