Heavenly Bodies in the South: Qin Qi

Whether highlighting the great power in nature and the heroism in human civilization or representing the endless potential of a story in painting, history painting transcends all ordinary reality. Compared to the vast majority of painters, Qin Qi is distinctive and ambitious for his explorations of history painting.

Qin’s work from recent years embraces the majestic contours of history painting, blending the impressive traditions of Romanticism and Classicism. The grand stories, styles, realities, histories, and ideals that past artists pursued appear repeatedly in his creations. These elements have informed the unique charm of his work; the infinite freedom of subject matter and the rich diversity of artistic styles, as well as still-lifes, figures, folk histories, and natural landscapes, are woven across series that are both similar and different, that freely interlock and intersect.

This exhibition shows works from Qin Qi’s history painting series, but the main space presents his new work from 2020, which takes its narrative material from the historic events associated with the Stars Exhibition and depicts his vision of the beginning of Chinese contemporary art. The protagonists, environment, and setting of the story, as well as the colors, forms, and compositions, constantly change across the four works. There is a pack of camels under a blue sky with white clouds, a sorcerer in a cave at night, and a young poet in a desert in early morning. These strange stories and natural rhythms create an unprecedented visual richness and infinite imaginative space for us.

Next, Qin’s interpretations of historical events lead to classic animals in exotic lands. Camels, tigers, eagles, and hunting dogs are woven into new stories, and within interlocking forests, lakes, mountains, and rivers, his broad and energetic narrative language takes on the pursuit of the sublime and a new aesthetic undertone.

In the next set of works, the shift from landscapes to oceans resembles the push to discover the New World during the Age of Exploration. Seafaring culture has had an influence on modern art, with its passionate, bold, and unrestrained brushwork akin to turbulent waves. In the paintings, Qin travels long distances, redoubling his efforts in difficult times, like an ambitious helmsman.

In Qin’s important Ho Chi Minh series, the same protagonist is given a different form and backdrop, with the magic of an exotic land. Decorative flora and fauna shape the joyful or depressing atmosphere in the pieces. He combines two-dimensionality and narrative in an interesting way; concepts and memories liberate us from familiar faces, and everything develops around stories and styles, moving from the realist to the two-dimensional, to the decorative, to the narrative.

In the next series, Qin Qi depicts colonial nightlife. At a lively banquet, piles of tropical fruit are set off by gorgeous wreaths. The melancholy evening breezes and shadows give this exotic scene an additional magnificence and mystery. After the banquet, at the end of the exhibition, two stories that Qin adapts from the world around him drag us back to reality. In these works, the story of art is always being performed, recording lesser-known histories and concealing an individual’s desire to make trouble. At the end of the exhibition, the contrast of a setting sun seems a bit harsh, transformed into distant memories of west winds on ancient roads and past heroism.

In his constant and lengthy explorations, Qin Qi creates a new definition for history painting. He transforms the dynasties, wars, and other major historical events depicted in the history paintings of the past into personal stories and exotic scenes local to China—they are all around us. In the stories we have seen and heard, we see the villas in the Provence style outside of Beijing, the London accent to the Western-style houses in Shanghai, the export paintings from the Thirteen Factories in Guangzhou, or closer to home, there are the Pyramids in Shenzhen’s Window of the World.

Qin Qi is also a post-modernist. He disregards all boundaries and rules, and he employs all schools and styles. Clumsy modeling and strange compositions eliminate the sweetness and vulgarity of Western history painting. The past and present generally mix like oil and water, but they are easily melded in Qin’s work; every painting looks like one of Delacroix’s vast dramas acted out with modern people.

Here, history is activated, and grand traditions are returned to the contemporary moment. In the end, these painting styles and artistic concepts fuse different voices to become a unique influence in Qin Qi’s style. The painting creates the story, which is permeated with the romance of heavenly bodies and the fragrance of the distant south.