The Brief But Heroic History of Taiwanese Fine Arts Needs Us to Carry It Forward: An Interview with Yen Chuan-Ying and Tsai Chia-Chiu, Executive Producers of TWO CENTURIES OF TAIWANESE FINE ARTS
By Wu Ying-Hui ∥ Translated by Ed Allen
Sep 22, 2022

Originally published at Openbook: https://www.openbook.org.tw/article/p-66110


Increasing the Value of Art Through Multiple Perspectives

Two Centuries of Taiwanese Fine Arts follows a core chronological progression with interstitial subject essays. Volume One, “The Modern Age”, commences with Qing traditions in painting and calligraphy and their immediate inheritors before moving into the discourse of Enlightenment during the Japanese Occupation and ending with the conclusion of World War II and the rise of a new government. Planned chapters on “Modern Art and Exhibitions”, “Urban Modernity”, “War and Martial Law”, and “Men and Women in a New Era” set out the threads of each period and provide introductions to the artwork.

Volume Two, “The Islands Call”, and its chapters on “The Call of the Mountains and Seas”, “A Return to Native Soil”, and “The Development of Subjectivity” follow movements in the fine arts amid the post-war political environment of enforced silence and through the great burst of noise and energy in the art world immediately after the lifting of martial law in 1987.

Two Centuries of Taiwanese Fine Arts requires that the reader “consider Taiwan from its artworks”, thus giving priority to “public property” collected in public museums, supplemented by work in private collections.

Tsai Chia-Chiu points out that works were chosen on the principle that they could “tell a good story”, yet the candid eyes of each contributor also stand out. “‘Narratability’ arises from the creative journey of the artist, the compositional depth of the work, and more importantly the links with Taiwan’s history and land.” Pursuing a popular appeal, the book eschews abstruse academic language, with each contributor enjoying carte blanche to write as they wish. As a result, chapters resonate with readers through the use of erudite but accessible techniques, for example, by drawing from individual experience or citing artistic confessions. Tsai, for example, translates and incorporates the entirety of Huang Tu-Shui’s “Taiwanese Art in Transition”, first published in the Japanese-language journal Shokumin in 1923, an essay in which the artist’s fervent desire to affect society with his art comes through strongly, the same way Huang inscribed his own life into his carvings, aspiring to immortality for his soul and his work.

As Yen Chuan-Ying argues, this same freedom allows for varied interpretation of the same piece among the essays. In the case of Chen Cheng-po’s My Family (1931), for example, some have fixated on the Japanese-language On Painting for the Proletariat upon the table, while Yen approaches the painting from the perspective of the “woman behind the artist”, drawing up her own portrait of Chang Chieh (Chen’s wife), the silent supporter of her husband’s engagement with modern art.

“We encourage anybody viewing these works to find their own reference point to construct a relationship with them. The work of art,” Yen believes, “no longer belongs to the artist once it has been exhibited. Fine arts cannot develop independently of society, while many opinions and ideas about a work will change with the times – this is how value accrues and builds up in art, and where its significance resides. Without recognition and confirmation from society, a work of art may be destined for the scrapheap.”


Time: An Unfinished Project for a History of Fine Arts

Taiwanese fine arts have until now been an appended chapter in the history of Chinese Fine Arts, such that scholars like Yen Chuan-Ying – who has dedicated herself to the subject for over three decades – seem to be blazing a treacherous trail. Yen recounts in detail her drift from the prestigious mainstream of research in Chinese fine frts to the overlooked realm of Taiwanese fine arts, starting with her enrollment at the Department of History at National Taiwan University in 1968. When she submitted a “Research Project in Taiwanese Fine Arts” to the National Science Council in 1988, her work was still deemed to be “of no academic value”, and was even ridiculed by Yen’s senior colleagues, who sneered: if we can research the history of Taiwanese Fine Arts, I suppose any rock off the street could be researched as well?

Tsai Chia-Chiu also recalls his own frustrated ambition while still a graduate student in art history. “The atmosphere made you doubt yourself. Perhaps Taiwanese fine arts just didn’t belong in the hallowed halls of the Chinese classics?”

“The fine arts are a core component of cultural memory; the construction of a history of Taiwanese art must originate from a popular self-identification with Taiwanese culture. We’ve never earnestly asked ourselves who we are,” says Yen, with profound force, “or who our parents are. Our understanding of our lives and environment is skin-deep. This is because we don’t wish to understand – or would rather forget.” Yen worries that if we still don’t want to learn, our opportunity may disappear, and “works of art will vanish without our being aware, and memory fade or be distorted in turn.”

Modern art still constitutes the mainstream of research in Taiwanese fine art, a situation enabled by the majority of artists remaining in good health and the relative ease of fieldwork. Academic work on art from the Japanese Occupation, meanwhile, requires not only proficiency in two foreign languages (English and Japanese) but also such burdensome challenges as processing historical documents from over a century ago and negotiating the complex web of relationships between artists, authenticity of artworks, the search for lost pieces, and fieldwork surveys. Yen Chuan-Ying cites the case of Huang Tu-Shui’s Water of Immortality, for which a profusion of legends survives, including from involved parties such as the Chang and Hsu families. “We simply have too many dubious tales. Depending on the artist’s memory or upon oral transmission leaves one open to positive or negative influence from the individual, which will transform or obfuscate the conclusion. If not clarified now, the situation will become even more complex, while leaving things ambiguous and writing any old story is equally pointless.”


Publication: Consolidating New Understandings and a Common Call to Action

For decades, Yen Chuan-Ying has worked assiduously on fine art from the Japanese Occupation, all while remaining anxious and unhappy with the fringe status of her discipline. The publication of this series, however, brought difficult questions and high degrees of pressure from government departments, artists and their families, and the holders of artworks.

The two volumes are entirely color-printed, with a generous number of foldouts and editing with special color details. Patience Chuang, Editor-in-Chief at SpringHill Publishing, chuckles: “All my colleagues have said this is a book that will ‘shake the nation to its roots’. Our ambition, though, is to keep re-printing and never stop, as long as there’s market demand. There are times when culture takes root in commerce.”

Chuang points to the extraordinary success of books about Taiwanese history in recent years. Whether those readers can be hooked on the history of fine arts remains to be seen. “Regardless, from the editor’s perspective, Two Centuries of Taiwanese Fine Arts does fill the existing gap for a volume in the Fine Arts category for Taiwanese history.”