Every summer, once Christmas decorations are packed away, the culinary tradition of fruit preserving begins in earnest and, in Hawke's Bay, many of those delectable jars are filled with locally grown apricots.
And isn't it beautiful right now, in spring, with those apricot trees in bloom. It's this special time of year that artist Qi Baishi (1864–1957) celebrates in his work, Apricot blossoms (1952).
In this work, Qi seems to communicate a sense of new beginnings. A delightful work that expresses all the lightness and fragility of blossom in its fluid painterly style. You can almost feel that bright spring sunlight shining through the petals and reflecting off the branches. Qi's lightness of touch and animated brushwork is in keeping with the painting style, xieyi, which he preferred over the more formal gongi style he trained in.
Qi was renowned for his commitment to artistic traditions, even in revolutionary China at a time when traditional art forms were little valued. Chinese art has a rich tradition in depictions of nature and, in most cases, flowers, plants, or fruit depicted will have some meaning, determined by traditional symbolism attached to it.
For the apricot, which is said to originate in China, Confucius is reputed to have taught his students in a scene surrounded by apricot trees and the tree's association with scholarly enterprise stems from this ancient story. In China, every part of the tree and fruit is used for its curative properties and the term, "expert of the apricot grove", is still used today as a poetic reference to physicians.
It's interesting to know that although this work started life as a watercolour painting by Qi, it's been meticulously reproduced as a woodblock print by the printmakers at Rong Bao Zhai. Rong Bao Zhai is a 300-year-old printmaking store in Beijing which specialises in a technique that has the delicacy required to mimic something as fugitive as watercolour.
The inscription on Apricot Blossom reads: "They saw that it is the tree peony that connotes wealth and honour: Who was to know that without wealth I may nonetheless admire the flowering apricot tree."
I'm sure that the politic of this inscription would have appealed to the man who brought the work all the way to Hawke's Bay from Beijing, China. His name was Harold William Youren and his family gifted this work to the Hawke's Bay Museum's Trust collection in 2012.
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Youren was a Risslington farmer and a World Peace Council delegate. He travelled to China three times – the first time in 1952, the year this work was made. At this time, Youren's commitment to Democratic Socialism was well known and, along with another New Zealand national Rewi Alley, he promoted diplomatic recognition of China in Aotearoa, earning him criticism for operating as an apologist for the Republic of China.
As Youren became disillusioned with Mao Zedong's reforms in the 1960s, his attention turned to the arts of this extraordinary, ancient culture.
Guided by Alley, on his trips to China, Youren acquired many fabulous artworks including a number by Qi. In their book Vision of Peace, James Beattie and Richard Bullen write "Youren enthused over such productions of a remarkable, diverse and sophisticated civilisation ... his vision for peace reflected his deeply held belief that art could help challenge unfavourable stereotypes of other countries, peoples and political systems."
How interesting that someone so progressive in thought should collect the work of an artist so steeped in tradition. Yet both artist and collector from opposite sides of the globe shared this generosity in their humanitarian outlook. Each in their own way used art as a vehicle to create deeper understanding of the unique and vibrant culture of the People's Republic of China.
You can view Apricot blossoms in MTG's online collection where you can also see other works by Qi Baishi.
Toni MacKinnon is Art Curator at MTG.