Saturday, February 27, 2010

Qi who? But art lovers go mad over him

Picasso was scared of him with good reason - now Qi Baishi is only just behind him in art sales ranki
SIMPLE MAGIC: Qi Baishi's Peaches and Fire Crackers was 
painted in 1952. In the new material age, the work was sold in 2007 for 
about �850000
SIMPLE MAGIC: Qi Baishi's Peaches and Fire Crackers was painted in 1952. In the new material age, the work was sold in 2007 for about �850000 
Qi Baishi is not a name that many Western aficionados of art can recognise, let alone pronounce.
This son of Chinese peasants, who received no formal artistic training, has just become the third bestselling artist in the world at auction. Figures out next month from Art Price, the art-market data organisation, will show that Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol raked in more than $220-million in sales between them in 2009, heading the rankings as they do almost every year.
The appearance of Qi immediately below them, with more than $70-million in sales, says much about the changing shape of the international art market and China's economic boom. Qi (1863-1957) owes his place on the list to his work being original, striking and instantly recognisable - and to his being prolific, ensuring a steady supply of pieces to the market.
In China, he is a household name, best known for his reflective late pictures of mice, birds and particularly shrimps.
The Art Price figures are compiled from 6000 auction houses around the globe, but before 2009, the highest appearance by a non-Western artist was achieved by Zhang Xiaogang, a contemporary Chinese artist who reached 22nd place in 2007.
In 2009 the traditional auction powerhouses of New York and London suffered their worst year in a generation - at the same time as the Chinese art market, and Qi in particular, had a surge in value fuelled by local new money. The number of dollar billionaires in China reached 130 last year and the country is now the third-most important art market in the world after London and New York.
Qi is the natural beneficiary. Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby's Asia, said that 20 years ago Qi was much sought after by US buyers who had worked in China, but that was no longer the case. They can no longer compete. Qi features in "every important Chinese collection".
His work has grown in value over the past two decades but last year he sold 73% more works than in 2008, substantially helped by a sale in November in which a series of his drawings entitled Flowers and Insects sold for a record equivalent to £8.1-million.
The record acknowledged price for one of his works was set at Sotheby's in Hong Kong in 2007 when his Peaches and Fire Crackers (1952) sold for about £850000, although Chinese auction houses have claimed much higher figures.
Shelagh Vainker, curator of Chinese art at the Ashmolean, in Oxford, which has the largest collection of 20th-century Chinese paintings in Britain, said that Qi had a broad following based on "the instant visual appeal" of pictures that are often painted in a "light, slightly uplifting way".
Not that he is a lightweight. The pictures "reward deeper contemplation", Vainker said. "The brushwork is very good and I know some extremely well-educated people in China who would regard him as the No 1 Chinese artist of the 20th century."
Picasso called Qi "the greatest oriental painter" and said that he did not dare visit China for fear of meeting him.
Qi was born in Hunan province, central China, and as a child he loved to copy from a famous Qing Dynasty painting manual, The Mustard Seed Garden. At 14 he became an apprentice woodcarver, and he went on to master poetry, calligraphy, painting and seal carving.
In middle age he travelled widely through China, and it was after he moved to Beijing in the '20s that his mature style emerged.

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