FEATURE/Artworks during Japanese rule laid foundation for Taiwanese identity

10/31/2021 09:18 AM
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Festival on South Street hangs in the center of the gallery. Photo courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum
Festival on South Street hangs in the center of the gallery. Photo courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum

By Ken Wang, CNA staff writer

Walking down the streets of Dadaocheng (大稻埕), one of the first international commercial districts in Taipei, one sees streams of joyous shoppers, vibrant merchandise and colorful signboards and can easily imagine the hustle and bustle of the area in the early 20th century.

Dadaocheng embraced international trade very early and instantly became a hub for commercial activities, attracting the trendiest shops and products, as well as intellectuals who embraced progressive thinking.

This image is well captured in Kuo Hsueh-hu's (郭雪湖) 1930 iconic work, "Festival on South Street," (南街殷賑) which is one of the most celebrated pieces from Taiwan and the pièce de résistance of the ongoing exhibition, "Worldward: The Transformative Force of Arts in Taiwan's New Cultural Movement" at Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM).

"Kuo vividly reproduced Dadaocheng's prosperity and diversity," said Sharleen Yu (余思穎), chief of the Exhibition Department at TFAM and curator of the exhibition.

Dadaocheng was known as a place where progressive intellectuals gathered. A painting of this area "is not only a reflection but also an anticipation of Taiwan's progress at the time," she said.

Photo courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum
Photo courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum

A golden age of Taiwanese art

Although Japan took control of Taiwan from Qing Dynasty China through the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki, social and cultural progress became bywords for Taiwanese intellectuals during Japanese rule.

In 1921, the Taiwan Cultural Association (TCA) was founded in Taipei by a group of Taiwanese intellectuals, who advocated for the participation of Taiwanese in the political process from which they were largely excluded, and introduced the New Cultural Movement.

The movement gave rise to the first generation of Taiwanese artists to create art with strong Taiwanese characteristics and won art competitions. "They proved their superior ability over their ruling-class counterparts, a way to fight for recognition and equality," Yu said.

The TFAM exhibition, with more than 100 pieces of artwork by 37 artists from the 1920s to the 1940s, is dedicated to commemorating the centenary of the movement, which ushered in a golden age of Taiwanese art, the impact of which has reverberated throughout the century.

The exhibition is divided into five themes, "Japanese Painters/Educators in Taiwan," "Art Competitions and Taiwanese artists," "Modernity and Local Color," "Images of the Modern Woman" and "The Rise of Photography," spread through seven galleries, each with its own surprises.

Rarely displayed masterpiece

Kuo's exuberant and attention-grabbing "Festival on South Street," which is 1.88 meters in length and hung in the center of the gallery, brought to life a busy and crowded scene in front of Xia Hai City God Temple in Taipei during the Ghost Festival.

Festival on South Street. Photo courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum
Festival on South Street. Photo courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum

The painting, which won an award at the fourth Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition (Taiten) in 1930 and catapulted Kuo to fame, accurately depicted the diversity of Taiwanese culture, as exemplified in its colorful signboards written in Chinese and Japanese characters and painted with Indigenous patterns, as well as goods from Taiwan, China and Japan, which can be seen in the lower part.

What makes the painting so spellbinding is that it includes people from different walks of life, ensuring everyone can easily identify with this work, Yu said.

This is also the first time in six years the painting has been shown in public.

"The painting of gouache on a silk scroll is fragile and has to be kept at a certain temperature and humidity, which prevents it from being exhibited too often," Yu explained.

Taiwan's local color and unspoken words

In the "Modernity and Local Color" section, one feature work is Chen Chih-chi's (陳植棋) Chen-Jen Temple (真人廟), which won a special award at the 4th Taiten. It portrays an ordinary and slightly dilapidated temple of the same name, overshadowing a white Western-style building next to it.

Chen-Jen Temple. CNA file photo
Chen-Jen Temple. CNA file photo

The painter specified the temple's name for a reason. The painting was completed in 1930, the year the Taiwanese People's Party (台灣民眾黨), nominally Taiwan's first political party, relocated its headquarters next to the temple, which therefore became a symbol of the Taiwanese people, according to the museum. The party was banned in 1931.

Involved with the TCA, which disbanded in 1927, and the subsequently founded party, Chen, who died at the age of 25, expressed his concerns and passion for politics by implicitly incorporating objects that contained hidden messages, as was commonly seen at a time of political oppression, Yu said.

While saturated with political undertones, the painting is also rich in color and its depiction of light and shade. The sky above the temple is shimmering indigo, contrasting with the brick-red roof which is carpeted with a layer of golden color.

"Taiwan's local color is reflected by the strong sunlight, rendering it bold and bright, with conspicuous contrast," Yu said, alluding to Matsubayashi Keigetsu, a Japanese juror at the second Taiten, who once spoke of his expectations for Taiwanese painting -- creating an art with distinctive Taiwanese color and energy.

Courtyard with Banana Trees. Photo courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum
Courtyard with Banana Trees. Photo courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum

This delicate depiction of sunlight and shade can also be seen in Liao Chi-chun's (廖繼春) 1928 work, Courtyard with Banana Trees (有香蕉樹的院子), which is included in the exhibition. The difference in brightness between the front and back of the leaves, as well as the shadow they cast over the ground, charms viewers.

"I want to do justice to the local features of Southern Taiwan," Liao once said.

New images of liberated women

The last section of the exhibition is dedicated to the image of modern women, in which Chen Chin's (陳進) portrayal of women greets viewers with exquisite lines and warm colors, presenting a new image of women's liberation.

Photo courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum
Photo courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum

Women's liberation was one of the goals of the New Cultural movement.

"With more education for women and the abolition of foot binding, women's body shape and fashion changed from having more exercise and activities," Yu said.

Following the changing times, Chen Chin, the first Taiwanese female artist to study in Japan, focused on elegant upper-class ladies in newly designed garments engaging in high-brow or outdoor recreational activities.

Out in the Fields. CNA file photo
Out in the Fields. CNA file photo

Her 1934 work, Out in the Fields (野邊), depicts a woman in traditional Taiwanese-style shirt and Japanese geta hanging out with her children. The woman's complexion is serene and sophisticated, surrounded with blossoming flowers and emerald-colored bushes, all of which are painted with exquisite lines and soft colors, exuding a refreshing quality.

As the first Taiwanese female painter to be nominated at the Japanese Imperial Art Exhibition, the most prestigious art event in that country at the time, Chen once said, "I'm Taiwanese. I want to paint good works in a Taiwanese style. The important thing is to be better than the Japanese."

Searching Taiwan's self-identity

It is unlikely people in this period ever believed that a movement which called for political participation and equality, would eventually catalyze and accelerate the modernization of Taiwanese art. These artists not only proved their worth as world-class artists, but also launched a belle epoque that still impacts the current art scene.

"These artists had a strong sense of mission," Yu said. "Their works remind us how much they paved the way to search for and establish Taiwanese identity."

"We are not only stunned by their skill, but also provoked to think about what they tried to leave us with 100 years ago, and carry it on into the future," Yu said.

CNA file photo
CNA file photo

"Worldward: The Transformative Force of Arts in Taiwan's New Cultural Movement" will be shown at Taipei Fine Arts Museum from Oct. 2 to Nov. 28.

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