Variations on the East-meets-West meme are certainly familiar in art history, but the details really do matter. Take the case of Los Angeles-born Isamu Noguchi, the son of an “East weds West” union.
Noguchi’s hugely influential career as a sculptor, landscape architect, and furniture designer is usually examined with reference to the inspiration he found in Japan during his initial sojourn there in 1931. But the exhibition Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930, which just opened at Seattle’s Frye Museum, brings us fascinating insights about the impact of a very different Asian source: the fruit of Noguchi’s six-month-long visit to Beijing (then known as Peking) from July 1930 to January 1931.
Having spent some time in Paris thanks to a Guggenheim grant — where he worked as Brâncuși’s assistant — Noguchi was already developing a reputation with his abstract sculptures (and celebrity portrait busts to bring in cash). After returning to Paris for a show, he headed East but decided to make a lengthy detour from his intended destination of Japan and stopped in Beijing.
It was during this period of intense personal introspection that Noguchi was introduced to the master ink painter Qi Baishi (1864–1957). As had been the case with Brâncuși, they shared no mutual language in the conventional sense — Noguchi spoke no Mandarin, Qi no English — yet the young artist, in search of a father figure, discovered a remarkable affinity for Qi’s work. (During his deferred trip to Japan, he hoped to make a connection with his estranged real father, the writer Yone Noguchi.) They became friends, and Qi mentored Noguchi in the medium of brush ink paintings.
The result was more than 100 ink paintings known as the Peking Drawings. This exhibit, curated by Natsu Oyobe, is the first time a substantial number of these have been displayed alongside the work of Qi Baishi. “I did figure drawings, because that was what I knew how to do,” wrote Noguchi. “How ashamed I was of my limitations when I visited the painter Qi Baishi, whom I adopted as a teacher.” A selection of drawings created just before this life-changing trip is also on view, allowing us to assess the impact of Qi and other Chinese artists.
Especially striking is the difference in subject matter Noguchi chose, in contrast to the traditional themes of nature in Qi’s exquisite paintings: the human body, frequently nude, and mothers nursing or cradling babies in particular. In terms of scale, with their elongated dimensions, we can already see Noguchi’s later aesthetic foreshadowed.
In an essay in the fine accompanying catalogue, Lang Shaojun observes that “the basis of Noguchi’s painting remained essentially Western… His sketches are free and uninhibited, not subject to the constraints of a plastic realism associated with fine lines. Heavy ink sketching is superimposed on precise, delicate, realistic images. A layer of abstraction deconstructs and destroys the original sketch. The conscious intertwining of these two different methods creates a form-like body and its shadow, a shapeless non-shadow, an isomorph of a tangled national identity.”
Museum director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker pointed out during the press preview that Chinese scholars and art historians are keenly interested in this topic at present — and in the similar cultural cross-connections explored in the Frye’s adjoining new exhibit, Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai (to be discussed in a separate post).
“When you come upon your own culture mirrored in art through these sorts of connections, from another culture, it makes you see things you didn’t realize were there,” she remarked. Because of the disruptions of history and political developments over the last century, “what we are learning about these relationships now is on the cutting edge of scholarship.”
Birnie Danzker’s own essay in the catalogue, “Grabbism: 1930s,” underlines the larger implications of the young Noguchi’s confident borrowings and the productive line of questioning these open up:
The debate about the true nature of Noguchi’s drawings and sculpture from the 1930s and whether his work is closer in spirit to that of his teacher Qi Baishi or to that of the Chinese modernist Lin Fengmian is a fascinating study in how, after a century of cultural exchange between modern China and the West, the phenomenon of mutual “misreadings” of Western and Western art…now constitutes an integral part of the history of art.