The National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung is hosting an exhibition of works by artist Li Chun-shan (李仲生) and his students through Sunday.
Born in 1912, Li studied with Japanese-French painter Tsuguharu Foujita, a member of the Paris School, in Japan.
Foujita encouraged students by deciphering the essence and style of their works from their worst paintings. He strongly opposed works that were uncreative and mere imitations of earlier works.
Photo: Ho Tsung-han, Taipei Times
His teaching influenced Li’s own experimental teaching, which was free, open, bold and anti-academic.
In 1951, Li opened a studio on Andong Street in Taipei and took on Oyan Wen-yuen (歐陽文苑), Ho Kan (霍剛), Hsiao Chin (蕭勤), Li Yuan-chia (李元佳), Tommy Chen (陳道明), Wu Hao (吳昊), Hsia Yan (夏陽) and Hsiao Ming-hsien (蕭明賢) as students.
These eight students would in 1956 go on to create the East Painting Association (東方畫會), one of the earliest avant-garde art groups in Taiwan.
Although Li never participated in the group’s planning and exhibitions, he was seen as its spiritual leader.
Artist Chung Chun-hsiung (鍾俊雄), who quit school as a second-year student at Taichung First Senior High School to study with Li and joined the association in 1964, said Li would ask his students to turn in 100 sketches a week.
Li did not want his students to draw what they saw, but rather the subjects as seen through their hearts, with emotion, Chung said.
Half a year went by and he still did not understand Li’s instructions, so one day, he and his classmates snuck into Li’s dorm to steal a few of his sketches, Chung said.
They took about 20 sketches from the thousands underneath his bed and only later discovered that each was worth NT$120,000, he said, adding that when they returned for more, they were gone.
Li did not want his students to see his paintings, because if they did, they would imitate his work, he said.
Li forced all of his students to find themselves, and when they hit a wall and could not do so, eight out of 10 students would quit, Chung said.
In the remaining class time, Li would talk about art history, he said, adding that Li wanted them to be open-minded and have foresight.
Chung said that only in the end, when Li’s students finally discovered themselves did they realize how great a teacher Li was.
Back then, the gathering of two people was enough to make the Taiwan Garrison Command suspicious of communist ties, he said.
China-born woodcut artist Huang Rongcan (黃榮燦), who belonged to the same art group as Li and was his former roommate, was executed during the White Terror era, Chung said.
Subsequently, when his students were planning to form the East Painting Association in 1956, Li packed his bags and hid in Changhua County’s Yuanlin Township (員林), he said.
However, the museum said Li moved to Changhua in 1955 due to his rheumatism.
His students found him teaching in Changhua a year later, Chung said.
Thankfully, then-secret police chief Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) had heard that abstract art was trending worldwide and allowed the East Painting Association to be established.
Chung said he suspects that the incident might be a reason why Li seems to have post-traumatic stress disorder.
Li would often spend long periods of time washing his hands in the hallway, and half an hour washing his paint brushes, he said.
He was also afraid to eat the mooncakes his students gave him for Mid-Autumn Festival, leaving them around until mold grew on them, he said.
When Li passed away in 1984, 69 students were on his funeral committee.
Although Li only held two exhibitions in his lifetime, in his 34 years of teaching, he gave rise to many important artists of the post-World War II modern art period.
The exhibition “Pioneers of the Avant-Garde Movement in Taiwan: From Li Chun-Shan to His Disciples” is divided into three themes: works from the Andong Street studio, works from Li’s time in Changhua and works by Li’s students.
Li’s art incorporates concepts of the Freudian unconscious, surrealism, automatism and abstract art to transfer his inner emotions onto the canvas, exhibition curator Tao Wen-yueh (陶文岳) said.
He taught one-on-one, adjusted his teaching based on the qualities of each individual student and was a pioneer of modern art in Taiwan, Tao added.
This story has been updated since it was first published to correct the English name of the East Painting Association.
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