ISAMU NOGUCHISeated Female Nude:  Scroll (Kakemono), 1930, hanging scroll, ink on paper, 297.2 × 129.5 cm. Courtesy The Noguchi Museum, New York.

QI BAISHICrabs, c. 1930, album leaf, ink on paper, 56.1 × 45.9 cm. Courtesy University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor.

Beijing 1930

Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi

The Noguchi Museum
USA Japan China

“Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930,” at The Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, New York, presents the Japanese-American artist’s large-scale ink paintings in conversation with the brushwork of eminent Chinese literati painter, Qi Baishi, in the story of the chance encounter between the two in China in the 1930s. 

Though brief, Noguchi’s sixth-month stay in Beijing would leave a lasting impression on his work. It was during this time that he met Qi whom he adopted as his mentor, producing more than 100 large ink-and-brush figure drawings under his guidance. Eight years later, in response to the Japanese invasion of China, Noguchi would annotate one of his “Peking Drawings” (1930–1), of a mother nursing her baby, “I am a follower of great China and I have learned from its great art,” in homage to the country’s strong creative influence.

This exhibition, which is on view through the end of January, is dependent upon several assumptions about the conceptual and aesthetic linkages between two artists. Indeed, upon entering the space, resonances between Noguchi and Qi’s work are highlighted. The first pairing, Noguchi’s Female Nude: Scroll (Kakemono) (1930), a seated woman blowing into an instrument held between her hands, and Qi’s Crabs (c. 1930), featuring a couple of crabs engaged in a fight, share overlapping qualities. Noguchi articulates the former with a series of whimsical lines while Qi uses strong brushstrokes to flesh out volumes of space. Despite its humble size, Crab demonstrates Qi’s handle of composition while Noguchi’s much larger Female Nude has an oddly foreshortened leg and the entire top of the paper cut off making it feel more like an impromptu sketch than a finished work. In addition to lacking the basic elements of literati painting—for instance, the calligraphic inscription and seal—the latter is a rather unconventional subject matter for the genre.

While Qi, as evidenced by the seal carving and paintings he gifted to Noguchi including Daffodils (c. 1930) and Cabbage (c. 1930), considered Noguchi a friend, he did not deem the younger artist an important enough pupil to mention in his memoirs. In the first place, Noguchi was probably not a formal apprentice. He did not copy directly from the master, which indicates a divergence from the typical master-apprentice relationship. In fact, thematically there is little resemblance between Noguchi’s figural sketches and Qi’s landscapes and nature drawings. Moreover, Noguchi spent at most two months observing Qi in his studio—which would have allowed him only enough time to master the basic techniques of ink-and-brush painting. It appears that before meeting Qi, Noguchi had difficulty controlling the brush. Seated Male Figure: Scroll (Kakemono) and Peking Drawing (Robed Monk) (both 1930), for example, are overworked and intimate the labored contours of crayon that he was familiar using in Paris. By contrast, his later works are effortless.

Throughout his “Peking Drawings,” Noguchi relies on a limited range of brush strokes. Thin contour lines are sometimes combined with heavy gestural ones. Compared to Qi, he appears at the mercy of the medium. Even in Qi’s relatively simple Pine and Bamboo (c. 1930), he is able to modulate the width and opacity of the brushstrokes to differentiate the herbage of the bamboo from the pine tree, and also to indicate depth of field. What Noguchi lacked in technique, he made up for in the elocution of weight, movement and tension. During this time he was able to learn from Qi’s concise brushstrokes.

A prime example for its strong emotive qualities, Peking Drawing (Man Sitting) (1930) depicts a model sitting with hunched shoulders weeping tadpole-sized tears into his arms. Contoured lines are reinforced with thicker brushstrokes that wrap around his legs, forearms and the curve of his back, weighing down the figure. Their misalignment also seems to intimate some internal conflict. Perhaps most interesting among Noguchi’s paintings are those which include two or more figures. Mother and Child, Peking Drawing (Nude Man and Boy), Peking Drawing (Three figures, One Behind the Next) (all 1930) all use thick gestural strokes to highlight the intimacy and interdependency between family members.

For a versatile artist such as Noguchi, who utilized autochthonous materials wherever he traveled, the medium was less important than how it entered his artistic vocabulary. While Noguchi would never again produce finished ink-and-brush paintings of this scale, these first forays may have influenced his later sculptures. The limestone Birth (1934), for example, shows only the head and shoulders of a woman in labor, expressions of agony conveyed by simple indents in the stone. While there is no direct correlation between these drawings and his later work, “Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930” marks an important transition in Noguchi’s work.

Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930 is on view at The Noguchi Museum through January 26, 2014.

Kathy Zhang was ArtAsiaPacific’s assistant editor and is now based in New York City.