Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Studying Art in Colonial Libraries

On October 28, 1927, the first Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition opened in Taipei. It attracted a large crowd of 28,119 visitors in only ten days. Taiwan sōtokufu bunkyōkyoku shakaika, ed. Taiwan shakai kyōiku gayō (Taipei: Seibunsha, 1934), 74. This juried salon for contemporary painting catered to interests of the Japanese colonial government and settler-artists. It projected an image of Japan as a benevolent colonizer, captured the attention of local audiences, functioned as part of the cultural assimilation policy, and provided Japanese artists in Taiwan with a highly publicized opportunity to promote their art. In addition, the salon attracted some Taiwanese Chinese artists. The young, largely self-taught painter Guo Xuehu (1908-2012) was one of them. (For a database with reproductions of all the Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition works click here).

In fact, Guo Xuehu became one of only three Taiwanese Chinese whose works were accepted to the tōyōga divison at the first Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition. By 1932, he had established his position as a successful emerging artist in Taipei's art circles. In an essay penned in response to a Taiwan-wide competition for library users' stories, he looked back at his artistic debut and singled out the library as his "unparalleled teacher." The essay received the second prize and was published in the Japanese language newspaper Taiwan nichinichi shinpō, turning him into a role model for other artists in Taiwan, who were not able to afford studying with an instructor or enroll in an art school in Japan. Compare: Yen Chuanying, “The Demise of Oriental-Style Painting in Taiwan,” in Refracted Modernity: Visual Culture and Identity in Colonial Taiwan, ed. Kikuchi Yūko (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007), 103. See also: Liao Chinyuan, “Taiwan kindai gadan no ‘rōkarukarā’: Taiwan Bijutsu Tenrankai no tōyōgabu o chūshin ni,” in Geijutsu/kattō no genba: kindai Nihon geijutsu shisō no kontekusuto, ed. Iwaki Kenʼichi (Kyoto: Kōyō shobō, 2002), 216-217. For an English translation of the essay click here.

This module explores artistic infrastructures and the circulation of artistic knowledge in the Japanese empire by focusing on Guo Xuehu's essay. By the early 1930s, artists in Japan were becoming aware of Taiwan's art scene and many painters traveled to the island in pursuit of subject matter. Similarly, Japanese art world began to loom large in the imagination of young aspiring painters in Taiwan, which included Japanese settlers and Taiwanese Chinese. Some of these aspiring artists would leave Taiwan for Japan in pursuit of an artistic education and career.

Today, Guo Xuehu is considered to be a master of twentieth century painting in Taiwan. However, he is largely absent from the narratives of Japanese modern art. The national approach to Japanese modern art history obscures the involvement of Japanese artists in the imperial expansion as well as the presence of Korean and Taiwanese artists within the purview of the empire. By highlighting the intimacy between the Taiwanese and Japanese art worlds, this project helps us envision the Japanese art world in the 1930s on new terms. In this way, it is part of a larger body of scholarship that is committed to reshaping our understanding of space and boundaries of Japan as a multi-ethnic nation and a multi-national state in the interwar period. See for example: Oguma Eiji, A Genealogy of 'Japanese' Self-Images (Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, 2002). Morris-Suzuki Tessa, Re-Inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1998). McDonald Kate, Placing Empire Travel and the Social Imagination in Imperial Japan (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017).

I argue that in the interwar period Japan's was an imperial art world (teikoku bijutsukai), intimately intertwined with the art worlds of Korea and Taiwan. The spaces of art exhibitions, ateliers, art schools, personal networks, and newspaper pages constituted this imperial art world. Circulation of information, goods, and people within the Japanese empire stimulated its emergence. It expanded as a spatial entity and a powerful idea. Artists, be it Japanese painters, settler-artists, or colonial subjects, came to understand and negotiate their own place within it. As producers of representations, they also shaped its image. An approach to Japanese modern art history that omits the empire is simply untenable.

This module consists of three interlocking pathways that coalesce around Guo Xuehu's prize-winning essay. Each pathway explores the intimacy between Japan's and Taiwan's art worlds through a different scale and infrastructure:

  1. the practice and discourse of art education (information/knowledge);
  2. the institution of the library and books (built environment, vehicles);
  3. and, the career of an individual artist (figure).

Each pathway introduces relevant primary sources and questions as a material for discussion and research projects in a university classroom.

This page is tagged by: Flows, Built Environment, Vehicle, Information / Knowledge, Figure

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