A new exhibition explores how a chance encounter with Qi Baishi in Beijing allowed Isamu Noguchi to step out of Brancusi’s shadow and find his own language of abstraction
In an elegant and gestural ink-on-paper drawing by Isamu Noguchi, a statuesque, standing nude holds her baby in her arms. The two are interlocked so intimately that the child looks as though it’s a part of the mother, joined to her the way a blossom is affixed to a tree branch. Titled Mother and Child, the piece is one of more than 100 drawings and scrolls the artist created while on a 1930 visit to Beijing.During that six-month trip, the Japanese-born artist was introduced to famed Chinese poet, seal carver, and ink painter Qi Baishi. Noguchi, then only 26 years old, observed the older master in his studio and became inspired by his heavy brushstrokes and use of simplified, biomorphic forms. Noguchi merged Qi’s ink-wash techniques with his own skills as a figure painter. The resulting collection of drawings is known as the “Peking Scrolls.”For many years, the series was thought of as a peculiarity in the artist’s output. But an exhibition at the Noguchi Museum in Queens, New York, sheds new light on the drawings and their significance on Noguchi’s later abstract sculptures. Titled “Isamu Noguchi / Qi Baishi / Beijing 1930,” the show presents, for the first time, a collection of “Peking Scrolls” alongside works by Qi Baishi, as well as several drawings, sculptures, and photographs. Together, these objects demonstrate the evolution of Noguchi’s artistic style.The exhibition begins with an assortment of figure drawings that Noguchi created just before meeting Qi. These works were Noguchi’s attempt at distancing himself from Constantin Brancusi, with whom Noguchi studied in the mid-1920s. Though a major departure from the abstract sculptures he constructed with Brancusi, these drawings very much echo the style of other Western artists. The simple, gently sketched Crouching Nude and Seated Nude, with Hand over Face (both ca. 1929–30), for example, bear a resemblance to Matisse’s work.
The show continues with a selection of “Peking Scrolls” juxtaposed with works by Qi. The influence that Qi had on the young artist is evident in many of the pairings, including the matchup of his 1927 Frog with Noguchi’s depiction of a monk, Peking Scroll Drawing: “Ye Kau Jong” (robed man, sitting cross legged, resting on fist). Here, Noguchi attempts to recreate Qi’s asymmetrical composition and his use of blank space. The corner of Noguchi’s scroll bears a red stamp—an imprint of the seal given to him by Qi.
Another set, Qi’s Autumn Landscape with Cormorants and Noguchi’s Peking Scroll Drawing (standing female), demonstrates how Noguchi experimented with color pigments after seeing Qi incorporate them into his work. Color was uncommon in Chinese scroll painting and Qi was a pioneer of its use. His Autumn Landscape—which features red blossoms ranging in intensity and blue mountains in the distance—asserts the artist’s confidence with these different pigments. Noguchi’s figure is not quite as adventurous, but no less ambitious. Likely inspired by cabaret dancers in Beijing, it presents an awkwardly posed female figure standing with her hand on her hip. The outlines of her body are gray and black, and color only appears in the form of a blue streak in her hair and an application of red on her lips.One final pairing—Noguchi’s Peking Drawing (man sitting) and Qi’s Pine and Bamboo—shows how Noguchi was not only imitating Qi’s techniques, but reappropriating them as well. Noguchi’s piece employs Qi’s practice of using both narrow and wide brushstrokes. But rather than including many lines of small Chinese characters in the lower right corner of the piece the way that Qi did, Noguchi depicted one large, simplified character directly on top of the figure, further abstracting the image.The most powerful work in the show is Noguchi’s travertine sculpture Birth, which was created four years after the artist’s return to New York from Beijing. The piece depicts a child being born. Amorphous and lacking any real, decipherable facial features, it is a testament to Noguchi’s special brand of abstraction, which he began honing in Beijing. As Dakin Hart, senior curator of the Noguchi Museum, says, the piece “shows what all of this was about for Noguchi—breaking free of Brancusi and getting back to sculpture.”“Isamu Noguchi / Qi Baishi / Beijing 1930” was organized by the University of Michigan Museum of Art.Click through the slideshow below for more images of drawings and scrolls by Noguchi and Qi: