Matthew 4:18,21 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother… As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John…
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Calling Disciples, mixed media, 2001, He Qi (b. 20th Century)
During the latter part of the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution with its engineering and technological marvels was becoming part of life and there was a sense the world had entered a modern age. Being “modern” became a self-congratulatory state of mind that continued well beyond the first half of the twentieth century. Around 1970, it was proclaimed the term “modern” no longer applied to how we perceived ourselves. We were in the “Post Modern” age. Today, “Modernism” is a designated time period that started in the mid 1930s and continued to the mid 1960s. The architecture and furniture of the 1950s in particular are celebrated now in exhibits called, “mid-century modern.”
In the early part of the twentieth century, it was recognized that a painting in reality is simply an object. It is created from a canvas stretched over a frame and covered with pigments. Just as a composer of symphonic music may be more interested in a work’s orchestration than in its melody, some painters downplay the importance of creating illusions (painting the subject matter to look “realistic”), instead they give attention to matters of form. All painters, regardless of their style, orchestrate their work by combining and arranging shapes, lines, colors, textures and spaces. These visual elements may be arranged in any way a person pleases. With them, an artist may paint a still-life, a portrait, or a scene and make it look “real.” If they choose they may use the elements also to abstract a subject or to not refer to a subject at all.
He Qi’s “Calling Disciples” announces its modernity with its style. His figures, boats and sails remain recognizable yet they are not described literally. As in a cloisonné, shapes are defined by thin dark lines and the colors within them are mostly flat. Jesus is on shore in the center foreground and is flanked by disciples; three of them are looking skyward inexplicably. The disciple on the far right has turned and is waving to a lone fisherman on a boat (the white beard suggests it is Peter – Andrew is not shown). The exchange of greetings between the fisherman and the disciple interjects a light storybook quality and the entire subject is treated as a formal study.
At a time when illiteracy was commonplace, art was an important means of communication. Unlike the Middle Ages, today we are able to read Matthew’s account of the calling of the disciples and an illustration of it may not contribute anything more than what is learned from the written word. Instead of providing insights into the biblical story, He Qi’s gives us harmonious color patterns and the absence of objectionable content; his painting is likely to be satisfying particularly to people attracted to “modernism.” “Calling Disciples,” is a painting that would fit nicely with “mid-century modern” décor.
Hovak Najarian © 2014