Wed, Feb 11, 2009 - Page 15 News List

Looking into the past

TFAM’s thought-provoking Jewels of 25 Years Museum Collection illustrates how the public exhibition system under the Japanese colonial and martial law-era KMT governments strongly influenced what art was produced and consumed

By Noah Buchan  /  STAFF REPORTER

VIEW THIS PAGE Chen Cheng-po’s (陳澄波) artistic career ended at the beginning of the White Terror period. Chen, who was born in Chiayi just before Japan’s annexation of Taiwan in 1895, favored tranquil pastoral scenes in his impressionistic canvases. His painting Street of Chiayi (嘉義街外) was the first work by a Taiwanese artist to be exhibited at Japan’s Empire Art Exhibition, in 1926, and back home he wielded considerable influence over Taiwan’s burgeoning art scene. A few weeks after the 228 Incident, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) troops seized and executed him in front of a train station.

The Taipei Fine Arts Museum’s (TFAM) recently opened exhibit Jewels of 25 Years Museum Collection (25年典藏精粹) includes two of Chen’s pre-World War II paintings, Soochow (蘇州) and Street Scene on a Summer Day (夏日街景). By placing both works immediately at the beginning of the exhibit, which spaces 31 paintings and three sculptures throughout seven rooms on its second floor, TFAM directs the viewer’s attention to how art and politics interacted during Taiwan’s colorful past. Organized for the most part chronologically, from the middle of the Japanese colonial period to the 1990s, the pieces on display were chosen from among the 4,000 works in the museum’s possession because, according to the exhibit’s literature, they “illustrate the development of Taiwan’s art history.”

This show does just that. But in the process it also reveals how two occupying powers, through a policy of acculturation, imposed their aesthetic views on Taiwanese artists, resulting in a repetition of styles and lack of innovation — especially when compared to the artistic movements flourishing in European painting that found their center in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s, in American painting centered around New York after the 1950s and up to the 1970s, and in Taiwanese painting just before and after the lifting of martial law in 1987.

The early works on display were a product of or were influenced by the Taiwan Art Exhibition, or Taiten, a public exhibition that was held annually starting in 1927. The exhibition, which was later renamed the Taiwan Governor-General’s Art Exhibition, or Futen, was aimed at promoting the cultural superiority of Japanese art, and Chinese calligraphy and ink painting were conspicuously absent because the colonial government wanted its Taiwanese subjects to follow the methods of Japanese painting, then a combination of traditional Japanese styles and Western realism known as nihonga.

These Japanese-derived methods are clearly discernable in Chen Chin’s (陳進) Leisurely (悠閒) and Lin Chih-chu’s (林之助) Recess (小閒). Adhering to the bijinga (美人畫, “painting of beautiful women”) technique of representing women popular in Japan, Chen Chin’s light brushstrokes and alluring colors show a woman reclining in a drawing room. The three waitresses in Lin’s canvas are dressed in dark-toned navy uniforms and idle around a stove in a coffee shop, evoking the uncomplicated composition so loved by Japanese art critics of the time.

Although Taiwanese artists under imperial rule were expected to strictly conform to a Japanese aesthetic, their work is notable for its focus on Taiwan’s scenery. Lin Yu-shan’s (林玉山) detailed portrayal of a farmer with water buffalo in On the Way Home (歸途), Kuo Hsueh-hu’s (郭雪湖) colorful depiction of Taipei’s famous Dihua Street (迪化街) during the Lunar New Year in Festival on South Street (南街殷賑) and Huang Tu-shui’s (黃土水) combination of traditional folk art with modern sculptural elements in Sakya all employ the Japanese attention to detail and vibrant color while showing a concern for Taiwan’s folk culture and landscapes. All trained in Japan or by Japanese artists, Lin, Kuo and Huang won top honors at the Taiten several times.

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