Born in 1908, Guo Xuehu belongs to the first generation of artists in Taiwan who grew up under the Japanese colonial rule and who achieved professional recognition at the annual Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition (est. 1927). He traveled for the first time to Japan in 1931, visiting museums, temples, and artists in Kyoto and Tokyo. He returned to Japan in the 1950s and then moved there permanently in 1964. In 1978 he settled in Richmond, California. He passed away in 2012 (Taipei Fine Arts Museum 1989, 25; National Museum of History 2008).
The word "artist" doesn't have apparent spatial connotations like the word "migrant." Yet, artists often travel or resettle in search of art education, subject matter, or art markets. More importantly, artists shape and mediate our understanding of place by representing landscapes and people in their art. Art historians evoke place when referring to an artist's country of origin, nationality, or ethnicity. They (we!) often unselfconsciously reinforce these spatial categories when working within an established canon.
Furthermore, art historians divide artworks into location-derived categories. For example, painting in Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century has been divided into two categories: nihonga and seiyōga. Both of these categories evoke spatial entities, "Japan" and "the West" respectively. Artists and bureaucrats in Japan established these two categories in response to West's cultural imperialism. Institutions such as exhibitions, art associations, and art schools, upheld this division of painting into nihonga and seiyōga. However, the spatial associations of these two terms work to obscure rather than illuminate the actual artistic practice. Nihonga and seiyōga paintings share many stylistic and thematic similarities and the boundaries between them were often fluid. Artists in Japan debated the meanings of each category and many artists engaged in both media. Both categories reflect a Japan-centric view of global art in the time of empire.
This pathway examines Guo Xuehu's early career to illuminate how the artistic infrastructures of the Japanese empire influenced his early development as an artist and how, in turn, his work shaped the boundaries of nihonga. Guo Xuehu submitted his paintings to the tōyōga division of the Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition. The term tōyōga evokes the spatial category of "the East" or "the Orient." However, paintings displayed in this category in Taiwan excluded literati painting. Instead, they centered nihonga works as the present and future of East Asian art and a worthy counterpart to oil painting. Ultimately, by promoting nihonga in the colony, Japanese artists lost their putative monopoly on nihonga and it became a creative medium for some Taiwanese-Chinese artists.
Moreover, this pathway demonstrates what it took to become an artist in the Japanese empire in the 1920s and 1930s. Guo Xuehu did not follow a typical path to artistic success because he was largely self-taught. Yet, as a an artist with an excellent exhibition record, he became successful in Taiwan's art establishment.
Questions for the classroom:
- What are the points of convergence and the respective silences in the histories of modern Taiwanese and Japanese art?
- How would Japanese modern art history look like if it featured Guo Xuehu as one of its protagonists?
- Why would art historians of Japan include him in their history? Or shouldn't they (we)?
- At what point has nihonga stopped being an artistic medium particular to Japan and Japanese artists? How can we conceptually describe this process?