As an art historian specialized in Taiwanese art history, I appreciate the Taipei Times’ feature, “Taiwan in Time: Private parts not allowed” (July 12, page 8) for showcasing a story about Taiwanese art. Such stories have been ignored in Taiwan for a long time, as the discourses were dominated by Chinese and Western art history. The article proves that Taiwanese art history is fascinating, which my own academic experience can also vouch for.
It reminded me of my research on the topic of “art and pornography” two decades ago, so I would like to share some of my knowledge.
First, the debate around “art or pornography?” is a general phenomenon of the modernization process in Asia, not to mention globally. China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan, etc. have all had such controversies. The most famous case is the one of Liu Haisu (劉海粟), a Chinese artist and former dean of an art college. Liu was accused of “damaging social customs” when he launched a nude painting course at the Shanghai Art School in the 1920s.
Pan Yuliang (潘玉良) was also accused of blasphemy because she had worked in a brothel.
Second, Lee Shih-chiao (李石樵) was not the only person involved in the controversy of art and pornography in colonial Taiwan. At the first edition of the Taiwan Fine Art Exhibition (台展) in 1927, Japanese artist Shiotsuki Toho was forced to cover a reclining nude’s private parts in his painting Summer (夏). In 1930, at the fourth Taiwan Fine Art Exhibition, Ren Rui-yao (任瑞堯) was forced to withdraw his painting Waterside (水邊) because the work depicted a child urinating.
Although the standards of censorship were not consistent, the incidents cannot be described as political conflicts, because Japanese artists were banned as well: Ethnic discrimination did not play a role.
Moreover, opinions on the issue at the time were diverse, and articles supporting the new trend of nude painting gradually started to appear.
In a nutshell, introducing Western nude painting to conservative societies always brings about uncertainty among the public and officials, and therefore the genre inevitably sees a period of compromise.
Third, the article concluded that Lee Shih-chiao did not have any “trouble” concerning this issue afterward.
Actually, he was involved in an even bigger scandal, known as “the matches incident.” In 1978, Lee’s painting Three Graces (三美圖) was investigated by police, as the work was suspected to be pornographic because it had been printed on matchboxes, a product used by the public. Thus, it was deemed to not be purely artistic, such as works displayed in a gallery, and was instead seen as a consumer product.
In 1975, Xie Xiao-de’s (謝孝德) painting Gift (禮品) depicted the lower part of a nude with a red ribbon around the ankle, symbolizing the reification of the female body. The artwork was also accused of being pornographic.
These two incidents are thought to be the peak of the controversy of art and pornography in Taiwan. Seminars were held about the issue. In 1961 and 1965, the first Taiwanese nude model, Lin Si-duan (林絲緞), was the subject of debates, due to her high exposure and widely known name.
In 1982, a controversial nude exhibition was held in Tainan, and nude sports sculptures were shown in Taoyuan.
From 1982 to 1986, the National Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei strictly refused any exhibition proposals that included nude paintings or performances with exposed body parts.
In 1991, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum initiated a rating system for art exhibitions. If there is any nude painting in an exhibition, a “not suitable for children” warning is placed at the entrance to the room.
In 1994, performing troupe Bony Labyrinth was accused of obscenity, causing a public kerfuffle.
The issue of art and pornography is complicated in any society, at any time. In Taiwan, it is implicated in the so-called “colonial modernization” and in social taboos.
Whether or not covering “private parts” in nude paintings is just the tip of the iceberg, there are other key points to be “covered” regarding art and pornography in Taiwan.
Liao Hsin-tien is a professor at the National Taiwan University of Arts in New Taipei City.
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