On Friday, February 21, The Frye opened its latest exhibition—Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930. Curated in collaboration with The Noguchi Museum, this beautiful collection of ink paintings, calligraphic works and sculptures marks the first time these two artists have been displayed together. Though the elder Qi’s influence on Noguchi appears quite profound, the relationship between Noguchi (Japanese American) and Qi (Chinese) is generally unknown or overlooked. The Frye’s exhibition allows viewers to see the connection established during Noguchi’s six-month stay in Peking (now Beijing), where he studied calligraphy with Qi, who was already an established master of in painting and calligraphy at the time. The historical context of Noguchi and Qi’s relationship is enlightening, but the beautiful simplicity of line steals the show.
The exhibition displays the distinctively different styles of Qi and Noguchi—primarily each artist’s respective use of line. Noguchi’s figures are defined by a simplified sense of line and form. In Mother and Child, Noguchi generates a sense of form through expressive, thicker brushstrokes that define parts of the woman, but also—with a sweeping curve that intersects on the woman’s chest—makes one more tangibly aware of the woman’s nurturing embrace. Noguchi’s calligraphic style transforms the figure into a visual language—a rich ideograph of its own.
The correlation to calligraphy is even more evident in Peking Drawing (Man Sitting), where heavier lines dominate the form. In Man Sitting (seen above) the underlying contour is almost completely obscured. Noguchi’s thicker lines expose the interior structure of the figure, simultaneously creating a sense of movement in a still, pensive character. The “movement” in Noguchi’s Man Sitting is primarily due to the flow of lines, as they are rarely broken. Noguchi’s works combine calligraphy and ink painting, retaining the simplicity of both mediums.
The twenty-five works on display by Qi Baishi, “one of the greatest exponents of the medium [ink painting],” are more pictorial than Noguchi’s. Qi’s brushwork is detailed and varied, creating instantly recognizable creatures with an almost mystical economy of movement. In the piece Lotus and Dragonfly, Qi depicts a serene scene typical of ink painting. This medium traditionally has an inherent flatness, but Qi creates a perception of space through fading wave-like patterns that extend into the distance. The thick form of lotus leaves divides the painting at the horizon, allowing the upper portion to be filled with solitary color. Though the composition is more complex, one can see the source of Noguchi’s simplicity. Qi’s dragonfly, for example, is constructed from quick, delicate lines, capturing the essence of the organism without delving into a detailed depiction.
Noguchi’s works on display at The Frye ride this same balance of detail and essence. In Qi’s Plum Blossoms and Bird, the branch cascades down the vertical scroll. The filled, substantial figure of the bird is juxtaposed against the lighter, fine lines of the plum blossoms. These quick lines provide the skeleton for the more intricate features of the blossoms. Again, Qi appears to focus on the essence of the scene, engaging with a sense of flatness.
The Frye’s exhibition of Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi’s speaks to collaboration between artists and institutions and across national boundaries in displaying these beautiful works together. It shines a light on Qi’s work—little known in the states—and on early works of one of the most recognizable sculptors of the last century, which in turn shows the connection between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional. It’s an engaging, boundary-blurring show executed with grace and simplicity, like the works themselves.
Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930 is on display at The Frye through May 25.